Start Planning Your Bucket List Vacation Now
Retirees Liz Miller and Lou Hoyos, of Long Branch, N.J., had planned to spend two weeks vacationing in Spain last April: Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo and Malaga. But like millions of others, the couple's plans got postponed, and then canceled, as the pandemic spread across the globe. But Miller isn't giving up on the dream.
"I had done everything and created this amazing trip for two weeks," she says. "But now I'm thinking, 'Nope, we're going to stay for a month, and I have twelve more places I want to go.'"
Miller has spent her pandemic researching additional destinations and expanding their original trip to include Rioja and Altamira, in northern Spain, and Portugal, too. Miller is hoping she and her husband can go this fall, but is waiting to book the trip until they've received their COVID-19 vaccinations.
One reason Miller and Hoyos think they'll be able to stay longer than originally planned is that they've increased savings over the past year by eliminating travel and eating nearly all meals at home. They're not alone.
Half of Americans said that they spent less in 2020 than in 2019, according to a survey by Travis Credit Union.
And nearly a third of Americans say they're planning to splurge on travel or dining out after they get vaccinated, according to the personal finance site Lending Tree. Almost four in ten told the American Hotel & Lodging Association they plan to travel more in 2021 than in 2020 and 56% of those surveyed say they're likely to travel for leisure or vacation in 2021.
An added bonus: The process of thinking about, and planning for, a big trip — even one that's months away — can make you happier now than spending your money on tangible things.
"Planning experiences in advance increases the amount of time that you can spend savoring or positively looking forward to future consumption," says Amit Kumar, a happiness researcher with the University of Texas at Austin. "It gives you more time to imagine what you might do and increases the amount of time you can spend positively looking forward to your future consumption."
You may want to consider using this time to start planning a trip you've been longing to take when the time is right. The deals can be pretty great. For instance, there are American Airlines flights from New York City to San Francisco this summer for $331 round-trip.
Since COVID-19 is still spreading throughout the United States and many parts of the world, however, travel experts still recommend avoiding non-essential trips in the near-term.
Ready to begin planning your bucket list vacation? Consider the following four tips:
1. Think about where, when and how you could travel safely. While no one knows when COVID-19 infection rates will fall precipitously or when more governments will begin lifting travel restrictions, experts offer a few tips and precautions.
Michael Barnish, an infectious disease specialist with the Jefferson Health New Jersey care network, suggests travelers consider domestic trips, not international ones, this summer.
Warmer weather will let you spend more vacation time outdoors, which is safer from the coronavirus than indoors.
And domestic travel avoids potential obstacles in other countries. Barnish says overseas travel may be more difficult in the near-term, as many countries still require pre-arrival COVID-19 tests (regardless of whether you've been vaccinated) and may have other restrictions on travelers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, currently requires that all travelers coming into the United States (including residents returning home) show proof of being negative in a COVID-19 test taken three days before flying home and quarantine for a week after; it's unclear how long that policy and others like it will remain in effect.
In addition, Barnish says, the type of vacation can impact its level of risk.
"If you plan on taking a hiking trip out West or going to the National Parks, the risk is very small," he says. He thinks owners of hotels and lodges there are likely to take proper precautions for their guests.
Traveling on your own or with a group of less than 10 vaccinated people is also safer than vacationing with a tour group, says Manisha Juthani, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist and an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine.
"I would not recommend cruising as your first vacation at this point," she says. "Once the pandemic is under control, cruising could be safe again."
Some airlines are helping travelers schedule coronavirus tests or upload test results before heading to the airport.
If you will be traveling internationally, you might look for what's known as an "immunity passport." That's something offered by airlines like United, JetBlue and Lufthansa, through the Common Pass app that lets them verify your COVID-19 test results and whether you've been vaccinated.
2. Dream big. With travel at historic lows, many hotels, tour operators and airlines are offering huge discounts and more generous refund policies than usual. That means you may have a unique opportunity to take a longer, or more luxurious trip, than you otherwise could.
Since you have the luxury of time, use it. Take some time researching potential places to go and thinking about how you'd spend your time in various destinations.
Pauline Frommer, co-president of the Frommer Media travel publisher, suggests immersing yourself in learning about a place once you homed in on it. That could include watching films and reading books set there, learning about the history and even picking up some language fundamentals if it's a foreign destination.
3. Book early, but prioritize flexibility. Frommer says that although there are many attractive deals now, airlines, hotels and tour operators will raise prices soon after travel restrictions lift. So, the sooner you can book, the better.
But allow yourself flexibility for your trip, too. Fully refundable offers generally beat those that have "no change fees," since the former means you'll get your money back and won't be required to rebook by using travel credits.
"You shouldn't have to pay outrageously more to get a refundable trip right now," Frommer says. "But it could be worth paying a little extra, just for peace of mind."
American, Delta, Jet Blue and United are offering fee-free cancellations for flights booked through March 31. The travel website, The Points Guy, updates airline refund policies on a regular basis.
4. Insure your trip. "Travel insurance can protect you from financial losses if you're unable to take the trip," says Carol Mueller, vice president of strategic growth and engagement with Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. That's particularly important if you have a high-cost trip and a long open window before you're going to depart."
Some countries currently require visitors have COVID-19 travel insurance covering medical and quarantine expenses.
Look for a policy that includes trip cancellation coverage as well as medical expense and medical evacuation coverage. That's especially important if you'll be traveling out of the United States.
Illness is the biggest reason people cancel trips and collect on travel insurance, but you can also get reimbursed if you lose your job and can't travel as a result.
You'll also want "financial default" coverage, which protects you if the company you booked with goes out of business — as long as you purchased the policy within 14 days of putting down your deposit.
Keep in mind that travel insurance will not cover you if you want to simply cancel a trip because rising COVID-19 infection numbers makes you nervous or because of government restrictions related to a pandemic.
Beth Braverman is a full-time freelance writer covering mostly personal finance, careers, and parenting. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including CNNMoney, CNBC.com and Consumer Reports. She's counting down the years until she qualifies for residency in a retirement community and can fill her days with yoga and Mah-jongg.