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Need to Fly Long-Haul? How to Choose a Safe, Smart Flight During Covid

by Brook Wilkinson | October 10, 2020

Travel isn’t just my job; it’s my favorite hobby too. After Covid forced me to cancel three trips this spring and summer, I wondered when I’d get to leave the U.S. again. One of those cancelled trips was a tenth-anniversary getaway to the Maldives, the collection of white-sand atolls dotting crystal-clear turquoise waters in the Arabian Sea. The Maldives reopened to travelers in July.  I knew it’d be easy to socially distance at our private bungalow on the water’s edge. What worried me more were the long flights to get there: about 17 hours from New York, with a layover required somewhere. I recently rescheduled my trip to visit next week; here are the strategies I used that made me comfortable doing so:

Choose a flight where everybody boarding has just had a negative Covid test.

Many destinations that have reopened require travelers to be tested prior to arrival; some won’t even allow passengers to board an incoming flight until they have uploaded their test results or presented them at the airport. When the Maldives first reopened on July 15, they didn’t require pre-trip testing. It was only last month, after the government changed its policy and started requiring visitors to show recent test results on arrival, that I decided I was comfortable enough to go. I chose to fly via Dubai because the United Arab Emirates also requires a pre-travel test—as do most of the other destinations that are currently served by Emirates, are open to U.S. travelers, and don’t have more direct flights from New York. This same strategy is what made reader Jeff Goble comfortable traveling to French Polynesia (which also requires a pre-trip test, as well as a second test four days after arrival).

Choose an aircraft where you can avoid sitting next to a stranger.

My husband and I wanted as much personal space as we could get, but we couldn’t afford to fly business class. Most long-haul jets seat three or more passengers together in economy; while some U.S. airlines are blocking middle seats, foreign carriers haven’t followed suit. Happily, the 777s that Emirates flies on the routes we’ll be taking have a tapered design, so the last few rows have two seats side-by-side. Emirates charges for seat assignments, so I spent $550 to ensure that we wouldn’t be seated beside a stranger—even though I think it’s likely that the flights will be pretty empty. (On the other hand, I might be saving a bit of money by flying Emirates: Through October, they’re giving all passengers free coverage for Covid-related medical bills and quarantine stays.) Read Wendy’s additional tips about where to sit on a plane.

If you can’t fly nonstop, make your layover long enough to have some mask-free time.

I’d have flown nonstop to the Maldives if I could. But since I had to change planes somewhere, I wanted the opportunity to take my mask off after wearing it throughout a 13-hour flight. So that I can do just that, I’ve booked a three-hour stay at a hotel inside the Dubai terminal on the way to the Maldives, and two nights at a desert lodge near Dubai on the way back.

Keep in mind that combining countries on the same trip can make testing requirements even more rigid: In order to comply with the rules of both the Maldives and the United Arab Emirates, I had to find an in-person test with results returned in less than 72 hours. Were I headed just to Dubai, I’d only need an in-person test in a 96-hour window (which is much easier to arrange); if my only destination were the Maldives, I could have used a mail-in Covid test kit that returned results in 72 hours. After several hours of research, and hoping to get tested near where I’d be staying before the trip in upstate New York, I instead found a doctor’s office in Manhattan that returns results in 24 to 48 hours. So I’ll drive an hour into New York City to be tested on a Wednesday morning, receive results by Friday morning, and head to the airport that afternoon for my 11 p.m. flight. (Postscript: Just over a week before my flight, Emirates changed its policy and stopped requiring tests from some passengers transiting through Dubai; unfortunately, it’s too late for us to order a mail-in kit and receive results in time for our flight—and given the changing regulations, I’m still happy to be following the stricter protocols.)

We’re here to help

Right now is a remarkable opportunity for global travelers who are vaccinated. When your friends say that travel is problematic as a result of the pandemic—rental cars aren’t available, service even at 5-star hotels is shoddy—the problem is they’re not planning their trips right! Travel can be spectacular now if you choose the right destination, know the savviest local fixers, and approach them the optimal way. Check out these recent trip reviews to see the difference that Wendy’s WOW approach to trip planning makes. And if you’re looking for a similarly carefree travel experience, contact us at Ask Wendy.

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