In the spring of 2021, one of my dearest friends organized a girls’ trip to Turks and Caicos to celebrate a milestone birthday. This was the first time I traveled internationally since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and I had no idea what to expect. Here is an overview of how it went, with a few tips to make your next international trip run smoothly.
Research, Research, Research!
The first step is to research your destination country’s requirements for travel. Each country has different requirements as far as testing, documentation, and more. Start with the country’s official government page and pay close attention to these requirements so you aren’t turned around at the border.
For my Turks and Caicos trip, I was required to obtain government approval for travel no more than five days before my arrival date. To do this, I had to fill out an official form on the government website, upload a copy of my negative COVID test and my health insurance. An important note about the COVID test: Turks and Caicos required a negative PCR test; they would not accept a rapid test. However, the U.S. does accept a rapid test for re-entry. These are important distinctions to be aware of when planning which test to take to travel.
Also, pay close attention to the timeframe in which they will accept your negative test. To get into Turks and Caicos, my test could be no more than five days prior to arrival, whereas to get back into the United States, my test couldn’t be more than three days prior to arrival. The resort we stayed at made getting this rapid test easy. They set up a station where they would administer the test for free, then print your results on official letterhead before your departure. In researching resorts, I found this to be a common theme -- most resorts in the Caribbean are offering these tests to travelers as a way to boost tourism.
Also, utilize your airline’s website for research. I flew United from the U.S. to Turks and Caicos. United has a tool called the Travel-Ready Center, which, to my surprise, was tailored to my specific itinerary. It has a direct link to the Turks and Caicos website, along with more information about what I needed to travel. My travel mates who flew Delta reported a similar tool on its website.
Print Out All Documents
The best way to stay organized is to print out every single document, including documents you aren’t sure you will need, and put them in a folder in your carry-on bag. I had to show my negative COVID test upon checking in at the airport, and again when boarding the plane, then to a Turks and Caicos health official before I even went through immigration, and again when I spoke with an immigration officer. It was easy to hand them a piece of paper rather than trying to locate it on my phone. As I was going through the immigration line, I noticed a couple standing with a health official struggling to get their results pulled up on their phones because the cell phone service was less than ideal inside the building.
Check Your Coverage
Checking your health and travel insurance is an important, and often overlooked, step in traveling internationally during COVID times. Since the United States requires a negative COVID test for re-entry, if you happen to contract COVID while you are away, you will need to stay in that country until you recover. This means you may need to see a doctor, get prescriptions, and secure a place to stay during your quarantine. To prepare for this, call your health insurance company to ask about what benefits you have while traveling and ask for a letter confirming your coverage. In some cases (as in the case with travel to Turks and Caicos), you may need to prove that you are covered internationally before you are allowed to enter the country.
The other coverage you may want to look at is travel insurance. I am not typically one to buy travel insurance, but in the case of traveling internationally during COVID, it may be worth the investment. If you are required to quarantine in a foreign country, you will be on the hook for your own hotel, food, and travel, which can add up pretty quickly. Having that extra insurance could help mitigate some of those costs. I booked my trip on my airline credit card that comes with travel insurance (double-check!), but others in my group purchased travel insurance coverage for less than $20.
As mentioned above, it’s best to print out all of this insurance information and have it handy in a folder in case you need it. This would include the letter stating you’re covered, a copy of your benefits, information about how to file a claim internationally, and travel insurance documents.
Pack Your Own Food And Drink (And A Pen)!
The food and drink selections on flights are slim. Domestic flights typically come with a snack and water. International flights come with a bit more, but not much. On my United flight to Turks and Caicos, I got a little goodie bag with a sanitizing wipe, small water bottle, crackers, and pretzels. If you think you will be hungry, then grab some food and drinks before boarding your flight.
I know this one sounds a little silly, but it’s important: Pack a pen! During any international flight, you must fill out customs and immigration forms prior to arrival. Flight attendants no longer have pens to pass out, so if you don’t have one, you’re out of luck. Or you’ll have to have the uncomfortable conversation with someone near you to ask to borrow their pen. Throwing a pen (or two!) into your bag will ensure you can fill out the forms in a timely, and safe, manner.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Since United utilizes middle seats, I decided to upgrade to first class. I had more room and I wasn’t crammed into a row with strangers. You can use miles to upgrade or pay for it, but the price varies, even day to day. Two weeks before my departure, it cost $600 to upgrade to first class from Newark to Turks and Caicos, but two days before my departure that price went down to $150, so I nabbed the upgrade!
I flew Delta on my return flight, which was still leaving middle seats empty. There was one exit row that only had two seats in it, instead of the standard three. I was lucky enough to snag one of those seats, guaranteeing no one would sit next to me. It’s worth checking out the seat map in advance to find the best seat!
Note: Last month, Delta announced it will start selling middle seats on May 1.
As with everything surrounding the coronavirus, there are many unknowns. The most important piece of advice is to continually stay in tune with the changing U.S. travel requirements, as well as any CDC guidelines regarding travel. Doing so will ensure the least amount of hassle and surprises during your travel.
Our own Greg Robertson recently gathered tips on traveling internationally from the State Department’s Future of Travel Safety webinar. His writeup provides some great resources.
And no matter when you travel internationally, these articles will prove helpful: