How to plan for traveling more efficiently in COVID times

Travel is back and more complicated (and satisfying) than ever. With many otherworldly adventures returning to our fingertips, eager travelers are facing the bliss of getting away coupled with the complex web of regulations, paperwork, canceled flights, and the ebb and flow of COVID-19 variants.

Some are opting out of travel until it settles. Others are using tour companies to ease worries and soothe complications presenting themselves while planning. Rather than navigating the confusion on your own, these bespoke specialists are taking matters into their own hands.  

“It is more complicated than ever for us. We are monitoring things closely and notifying our clients when necessary, trying to take the burden away from our clients and onto ourselves,” says Aeneas O’Hara, founder of Scotland-based Away From the Ordinary (AFTO). His upbringings in the country and close relationships with hotels, restaurants, and tour guides help manage safe, streamlined itineraries. “We are absorbing as much of the logistics and organizational work as possible for people. Some of our clients lead very busy lives, so if they just turn up in Scotland with their passport and their suitcase with zero preparation, they will have an amazing time as we will take care of everything for them.”

When the pandemic hit, AFTO’s bookings seized completely, as did tours with Africa Adventure Consultants (AAC) whose 2020 safari expeditions were slated to have its best year since the company started two decades ago. Because of COVID-19, however, 90% of its booked clients postponed their trips and 10% canceled entirely.

Mitigating safety

As globetrotters begin to wander to far-off destinations again, the strain of COVID’s Delta variant is causing unpredictable planning, especially in high-risk regions such as South America and Africa, where vaccines are scarce and some borders remain closed. Tour companies work tediously with trusted vendors to ensure those traveling can still have a successful and safe experience.

Kent Redding, president and co-founder of AAC, says a large percentage of his company’s time is spent monitoring regulations from where clients are coming from and going. “We have a couple different tracking spreadsheets for each country and what the regulations are, which by the way, keep changing.” In addition to visas, which are standard when visiting many African destinations, documentation varies for each country, such as required health surveillance forms before arrival. Often, systems set up to process these forms are glitchy, so AAC directs guests through what has shown to be a frustrating process.

“There’s one park in Zimbabwe where you can’t get testing,” he shares as one example. “So, you have to either fly in a nurse, a great expense of $2,000 to $3,000, to get the swabs taken. Or you have to rearrange your itinerary to go to Victoria Falls for an extra night before leaving.” Knowing these policies and making amendments for yourself is tedious and can lead to mistakes, which can then lead to getting stuck somewhere or cancelling the trip. “If I hadn’t been doing this for 20 years, I don’t know how we could do it, how somebody else can do it, because it’s really confusing.”

A company like Quasar Expeditions, whose main destinations include Galapagos Islands and Patagonia, is constantly shifting its protocols. “Our sales staff tell us that on average, maybe a third of their day is spent answering COVID-related questions and easing people’s concerns,” says Fernando Diez, marketing manager of Quasar.

A high-risk area like Ecuador, the jumping-off point for Galapagos, closed borders from March to July 2020. Currently, to circumvent any issues in Ecuador, Quasar reroutes its clients to a more isolated airport and seeks out rural accommodations away from densely populated areas. In Galapagos, a private party donated 60,000 Pfizer vaccinations to the province’s approviment 30,000 residents and workers. Once travelers arrive to the islands, safety protocols are strictly met.

Quasar, along with AAC and AFTO, also only use vendors they know are adhering to measures that keep guests safe: consistently adapting to COVID testing for staff, cleaning procedures, social distancing, and mask wearing when needed.

“They’re following all the procedures that they should,” Redding says, who remains closely connected with AAC’s camps and lodges. “Once you get there, I feel very good about the safety of the people that are there, the visitors that are there, especially if you are vaccinated as the traveler.”

As far as travelers should prepare, O’Hara suggests being flexible because plans may change and some things may be closed. “Also, prepare to be welcomed and appreciated,” he says. “Foreign visitors will be welcomed back with even more verve and enthusiasm than before as we have been waiting for you to visit us for a while now.”

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