Travelers Seeking Lockdown-Free Vacations Head to the Beach

Sun, sand, margaritas—and no quarantine.

That, plus a $300 round-trip airfare, convinced Jon Heinz to book a four-day getaway to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in November. He is monitoring the level of Covid-19 cases there, reading studies on the rate of virus transmission aboard planes and checking online reports from other travelers.

“We decided there isn’t any more risk than staying in Iowa,” says the 37-year-old chief information officer in Mason City, Iowa—a state where Covid hospitalizations are currently soaring. He and his wife are renting a condo with another couple and plan to find uncrowded beaches and only eat outside. In January, they are booked to take their two daughters on vacation to Aruba.

As Covid rates escalate in the U.S., more Americans are booking fall and winter travel to warm, beach-infused places outside the country. Many of these destinations have relaxed quarantine restrictions for U.S. travelers in recent weeks, hoping to boost tourism in what has been a financially devastating year for the travel industry.

While the majority of Americans still say they aren’t planning to travel over the holidays amid fears of getting coronavirus and worries about the safety of others, in October there was an uptick in the percentage of Americans who feel confident that they can travel safely in the current environment, according to market-research firm Destination Analysts.

The confidence is reflected in higher daily screenings at U.S. airports, which passed the million mark in October for the first time since the pandemic, according to the Transportation Security Administration. International air bookings by Americans for the week ended Oct. 24 were 61% lower year-on-year compared with 84% lower two weeks earlier, according to travel-data consortium Adara. Global travel technology company Amadeus reports domestic bookings by Americans for travel are just 18% higher than international bookings for December, a significant shift from 50% higher in November.

“There’s definitely a fearless cohort that’s going,” says Amir Eylon, president and CEO of travel-data company Longwoods International, which found that two-thirds of American travelers see themselves taking trips in the next six months and 13% said they have no fear of traveling now.

Mexico tops the list of international destinations that Americans have booked for the fourth quarter, according to online travel company Travelocity, which says there’s growing demand for packages and hotels in Cancún, Los Cabos, Riviera Maya and Puerto Vallarta.

According to Airlines Reporting Corp., airports in Mexico make up seven of the top 10 international destinations for air bookings by Americans over the holidays.

Mexico “is a place we’re embraced for showing up,” says Charlie Midgley, 66, a retired telecommunications executive from Las Vegas who is in Cabo San Lucas for three weeks this month. Mr. Midgley was also in Mexico in August and September, and says it was so empty it reminded him of travel there 25 years ago.

The one area that was crowded was the airport, says Mr. Midgley, but he kept his mask on until he was through the long immigration line and outside. He is happy to be getting away from the U.S., where, if he went to see his sister for the holidays in New Jersey, he would have to quarantine. “Mexico will get me away from the election and the constant talk about coronavirus,” he says. “I’m looking forward to just relaxing, enjoying the scenery and having cocktails.”

London, Paris and Tokyo also show up on the top 10 list of international air tickets booked by Americans for the holiday season, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp. While those cities either aren’t currently open to American travelers or require a quarantine (and England is set to go on lockdown Nov. 5), entry is possible for certain individuals, such as business travelers in essential industries or citizens of countries returning home from the U.S. Officials aim to open travel between New York City and London soon.

Private jet charter companies are also seeing a shift in holiday travel bookings to Mexico and Hawaii this year, away from last holiday season’s top destinations of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas, says Jason Middleton, chief executive of Silver Air Private Jets, of Santa Barbara, Calif. Mr. Middleton says his company’s volume of business is the same as last year, at around 1,000 legs a month, but he’s noticed people are traveling in larger groups and are traveling with family to destinations instead of traveling to visit family at their homes.

Travelers say relaxed quarantine rules are a big factor in their decision to book for the holidays. For that reason, Puerto Rico, Aruba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands are also on the list of the most-booked destinations for the holidays, according to Adara. These same destinations, along with the Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas, are where Americans are buying travel insurance for the holiday period, according to insurance company Squaremouth.

Ann Taylor wasn’t willing to spend two weeks in a hotel room, but when she heard Hawaii would waive that requirement starting in October for travelers with proof of a negative Covid test, she bought tickets to Kauai for November. Since Hawaii will accept test results from a limited number of companies, none of which operate near Ms. Taylor’s home in Fredericksburg, Texas, she and her husband had to send away for test kits for $125 apiece.

The 10-day trip will be Ms. Taylor’s only holiday travel, since she thinks spending their usual Thanksgiving in San Antonio with relatives is too risky this year. Hawaii’s test requirements make her feel safe. “We like the idea that 95% of the people getting on the plane will have tested negative,” she says. She assumes some people will choose to quarantine for two weeks instead of taking a test or might not have heard their results before boarding.

Requiring Covid-19 tests 72 hours before flying doesn’t necessarily make travel safer, since a person could get infected after they test and before they fly, says Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unequivocally states that travel increases your chance of getting and spreading Covid and that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.

However, Dr. Gonsenhauser says it is possible to lower travel-related risks if you remain diligent, including avoiding crowds and researching the level of risk and precautions in place. “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” he says. The CDC says most viruses and other germs don’t spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, but since social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, it could increase risk for exposure. Major airlines require passengers to wear masks, but not every flier complies. While some airlines are keeping middle seats empty, many aren’t.

“We are so well trained at this point, there’s no way a stranger will come within 6 feet of us,” says Shani Peretz, who chose Costa Rica for Thanksgiving vacation for her family in part because she believes she can travel safely there. “Everything to do there is outside. That’s a huge advantage right now,” says the high school biology teacher from Cranbury, N.J.
Costa Rica jumped to the top of her list when the country opened to all Americans in November. Americans also no longer need to show proof of negative Covid-19 tests—they just have to buy approved travel insurance, which Ms. Peretz says cost about $300 total for her family of five. Even if Costa Rica closes up and their trip is canceled, she doesn’t think all the planning has been a waste of time, as they will go next Thanksgiving instead. “It’s been really fun for me to explore the options—a vacation for my brain,” she says.

Travel experts say this need for a mental break is driving up searches for holiday travel, but where people are searching isn’t necessarily where they’re going. According to Kayak, the search list is topped by the Maldives, with a 147% increase in search share year over year, followed by Bora Bora, French Polynesia (up 121%), Skopje, North Macedonia (up 100%), Saint Thomas (up 75%), Saint Barts, (up 72%), and Saint Croix (up 68%).

Jennifer Giordano, a psychiatrist in Livonia, Mich., is researching travel to the Maldives. Her boyfriend lives in India, and the Maldives is one of the few countries where they can both go without quarantining. She will have to have proof of a negative Covid test, and faces at least 30 hours in transit, but the more she looks at the images of open-air villas over crystal clear turquoise water, the more her worries dissipate. “It seems safe there,” she says.

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