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Where to Go for the 2020 Holidays

by Brook Wilkinson | October 1, 2020

Many of you have been asking: Can I travel safely during the upcoming holiday season? The answer is that it’s possible to minimize your risk greatly—even when traveling to far-flung destinations—thanks to new, smarter entry requirements for certain states and countries, better Covid testing options, and new protocols that particular travel companies, hotel staff, and private drivers and guides have put in place. Very little that we do these days carries no risk; if travel is what feeds your soul, it may be where you want to spend whatever risk you are willing to take on (over, say, watching a movie in a theater or working out in your local gym).

The destinations that we’ve selected share three major characteristics: They are currently open to U.S. residents without a quarantine; they allow for social distancing, both during your daily activities and at your accommodations; and they are warm enough that you can eat many of your meals outdoors. Most require one or more negative Covid tests from all arriving travelers, providing some degree of reassurance that others on your flight or in your hotel will be coronavirus-free.

While some of you are not comfortable getting back on a plane yet, airlines’ increasingly strict mask requirements and hospital-grade air filters have gone a long way toward alleviating worry for many of you. They certainly have for me: I just bought tickets to fly to the Maldives and Dubai next month, choosing flights where every passenger needs a recent negative Covid test to board and seating configurations that won’t put me next to a stranger.

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Beach villas and other private accommodations make it easier to social distance in Mexico. Photo: Cabo Villas

From private beachfront villas to small boutique inns with open-air common areas to colonial haciendas that you can reserve for just your family, you’ll find an array of options in Mexico that allow for easy social distancing—as these travelers did in July. Many airlines are still operating between the U.S. and Mexico, with no Covid-testing requirements. For east coasters, a quick flight to Cancun gives you entrée to the Riviera Maya and Tulum; west coasters will find nonstops to Cabo San Lucas (where migrating whales and whale sharks pass by every winter) and Puerto Vallarta, the latter a gateway to the top-notch resorts and private villas on the Punta de Mita peninsula. Beyond the beach, the freestanding suites in the Mayan forest at Chablé Yucatán allow for complete privacy. Read Mexico trip reviews.

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A Caribbean island (such as St. Lucia or Antigua)

St Lucia beach with Pitons mountains in the background

St. Lucia has seen very few Covid cases. Photo: Shutterstock

One of the first Caribbean islands to welcome back U.S. travelers, St. Lucia has taken a cautious approach to its reopening and seen very few Covid cases as a result. Visitors must be tested in the week before their arrival (here are some options for getting your results quickly), and travelers must stay at their resort—or in the nearby crystalline waters—throughout their trip, so picking the right accommodations is crucial. The Viceroy Sugar Beach has mostly standalone villas and bungalows, and its beach staff is ensuring that social distancing is maintained. Antigua has also handled its reopening carefully; while the island allowed travelers to return in June (provided they’d tested negative in the previous seven days), top resorts such as Jumby Bay, Hermitage Bay, and Curtain Bluff are waiting until October or November to welcome guests once again, with thorough Covid protocols in place. If you’re nervous about getting sick outside the country, know that Medjet will fly you home from the islands if you are hospitalized with Covid.   Read Caribbean trip reviews.

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Hawaii - Kaneohe Bay, Oahu

Hawaii is set to relax its entry requirements on October 15. Photo: Shutterstock

The Hawaiian islands have been an impractical vacation spot during the pandemic because of the mandatory 14-day quarantine, but that’s set to change on October 15, when travelers will be able to skip the quarantine if they arrive with negative results from a Covid test performed no more than 72 hours prior (passengers headed to the Big Island will have to undergo a second, rapid test upon arrival). United, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines will help passengers headed to the other islands get a pre-flight test, for a fee. Once you’re in Hawaii, it’s all about enjoying the outdoors, from snorkeling to hiking to stand-up paddleboarding and ATV rides. Normally it’s rare to snag holiday-season hotel rooms or private villas in Hawaii this late in the year, but given the tumult of 2020, you can still have your choice of accommodations. And while many properties are imposing 5- to 10-night minimum stays, some are also giving guests the rare option to cancel up to 7 days prior to arrival and receive a full refund. Read Hawaii trip reviews.

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Southern California

Pelican Hill resort in California, an aerial photo of the resort with the ocean in the distance

The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach has individual bungalows. Courtesy: Pelican Hill

If you fancy a beach getaway for the holidays but want to stay in the continental U.S., consider Orange County or San Diego. The Resort at Pelican Hill and Terranea lend themselves to social distancing, as both have individual bungalows (some with as many as four bedrooms for a family gathering) that you can drive right up to. The region’s hiking, surfing, biking, and deep-sea fishing are excellent, and most nearby restaurants have space for both indoor and outdoor dining. If you’d like a mix of sun and snow, you can even add on a few days of skiing at Mammoth. Read California trip reviews.

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aerial shot of Belize ocean with sailboat

Charter your own boat in Belize for days of snorkeling, sunbathing, and plenty of distance from other travelers. Photo: Belize Sailing Vacations

Nonstop flights to Belize take off from several U.S. cities that are only about three hours away; travelers who arrive with a negative Covid test will be fast-tracked through the airport, while all others will be screened and may have to wait 30 minutes for results from a rapid test. Once you’re there you can explore world-class coral reefs, visit uncrowded Mayan ruins, learn to scuba dive (as Wendy’s son did), fish for 100-pound tarpon (which kept her husband busy), and laze beside sparkling Caribbean waters. Only accommodations that have earned the country’s new Gold Standard Certificate of Recognition are allowed to open; options range from beach resorts with separate bungalows to remote jungle tree houses—or you can charter your own private yacht as I did last December, enjoying fabulous snorkeling, sunbathing, kayaking, and plenty of distance from everyone except your captain and first mate (who have at least 14 days between charters, to avoid contact between groups of guests). Read Belize trip reviews.

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Skiing in the Rockies

Aspen Skiing, Rockie Mountains

Ski resorts will limit capacity this travel season. Photo: Parker Olsen.

The slopes will operate differently this year: Major resorts are limiting capacity to allow for social distancing on lift lines (snow conditions and run availability will determine specific numbers), and pass holders will receive priority on peak dates. At many resorts, day-of lift tickets won’t be available at the window, but you can buy a pass for as little as one day of skiing. It’s usually sunny enough to enjoy lunch outdoors on the patio; as for dinner, condos and private homes will be in high demand among those who want to dine without others around. A first-rate ski trip will be pricey this year, but the right ski specialist can make sure you’re at the head of the line when holiday-date reservations open up at many resorts on November 6, and can get you the ideal ski-in/ski-out hotel suite or private cabin.

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The U.S. Southwest

Arches National Park, Utah

Some of the southwest’s outdoor meccas, such as Arches National Park in Utah, make for fun winter adventures. Photo: NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank

Utah offers Moab, a year-round adventure mecca with 4×4 tours, canyoneering, and hiking in nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks, plus spectacular resorts with your own private, standalone accommodations, such as Amangiri and Camp Sarika. Now that Arizona has recovered from its summer surge of Covid cases, it too is back on the table—and its natural beauty and abundance of spread-out, five-star resorts appeal to many. Even the Andaz Scottsdale, just a short drive from the Phoenix airport, offers plenty of nearby opportunities for outdoor exploration, and the hotel’s contactless check-in lets you pull right up to your bungalow, with no stop in the lobby required. New Mexico had been requiring visitors to quarantine but is now exempting those who bring a negative Covid test from the previous 72 hours. The earlier restrictions mean that some attractions are still closed, but the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is allowing visitors with advance reservations, and the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe is welcoming guests again.

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The U.S. Southeast

screened in porch looking out over green grass and ocean at Palmetto Bluffs Resort South Carolina

The Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina, has cottages and multi-bedroom homes overlooking the waterfront. Photo: Montage Hotels

Northeasterners may not want to drive too far south, given the 14-day quarantine they will likely face upon returning home, but if you live in the Southeast, there are a lot of drive-able, even pet-friendly, resorts in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee that have standalone cabins or cottages spread across considerable acreage. Just a few examples: The Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina (near Hilton Head and Savannah), has cottages and multi-bedroom homes, along with a much-loved spa and miles of waterfront to explore. Blackberry Mountain in Walland, Tennessee, situates guests atop the Great Smoky Mountains, with adventure (bouldering, anyone?) awaiting you at the doorstep of your cabin. Greyfield Inn is the only place to stay on Georgia’s largely undeveloped Cumberland Island, and the inn’s naturalists lead socially distanced walks and kayaking trips for guests.

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Costa Rica

Rio Celeste Waterfall photographed in Costa Rica

The weather in Costa Rica during the holiday season is ideal. Photo: Shutterstock

Costa Rica has been slowly reopening to residents of U.S. states with low Covid counts. If you’re one of the lucky ones allowed to enter (you’ll need negative test results from the last 72 hours as well), you’ll have plenty of room to spread out at the country’s jungle lodges and beach resorts. The weather is ideal at this time of year too, with the skies clear but the landscape refreshed by recent rains in much of the country. Read Costa Rica trip reviews.

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Don’t let the warm temperatures fool you: Bermudans go all out for the holidays, with elaborate decorations on homes and businesses, the aroma of gingerbread in the air, and a Christmas Eve candlelight service at St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the western hemisphere. The humidity is low, the temperatures are warm enough to have dinner al fresco, the golf is great, the 2- or 4-person microcars available for rent make it easy to get around the island safely, and many of Bermuda’s colonial-style resorts have individual cottages with immediate access to the outdoors. You can also feel more comfortable knowing that travelers are screened rigorously, with Covid tests required in the week before a trip, again on arrival in Bermuda, and on days 4, 8, and 14. And if you can’t imagine going home, there’s always the “Work from Bermuda” program, which allows visitors to stay on the island for up to a year while working remotely.

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The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador

blue footed booby galapagos islands ecuador

The ratio of guides to guests is likely to be much lower than usual this year in the Galapagos Islands. Photo: peterstuartmill/Pixabay

You’d usually have to make plans more than a year in advance to celebrate the holidays in the Galapagos; this year brings a remarkable opportunity to get in at the last minute. December sees air temperatures in the 70s and 80s, seal pups in abundance, and mating green sea turtles on display. Prior to Covid, you’d often have to share a guide with 15 other guests; these days, with travel to the islands just beginning to ramp up again, that ratio will likely be much lower. All travelers and staff are tested prior to flying to the Galapagos. Some hotels on the islands are welcoming visitors again—or maybe your family group wants to have a small vessel all to yourself. If you’d like to extend your trip into the Amazon rainforest, consider Sacha Lodge, which is adjacent to one of the most biodiverse spots on earth; each group gets its own private guide, and the dining room is open-air. Read Galapagos trip reviews

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Tahiti, Bora Bora, and French Polynesia

overwater bungalows in French Polynesia at the Conrad Hilton Bora Bora

Picture yourself in an overwater bungalow in French Polynesia. Photo: Conrad Hilton Bora Bora

Where better to get away from it all than in the remote South Pacific, enjoying an endless horizon from the seclusion of your overwater bungalow and private plunge pool? The Tahitian islands were among the first tropical paradises to open to U.S. travelers this summer, and our readers took advantage of it! Visitors need to show a negative Covid test taken within three days of their flight, and to self-administer a second test on the fourth day of their trip. Whether you’re looking for an adults-only haven or a place where the kids can frolic, the right trip planner can guide you to the resort most suitable to your specific needs, help you obtain a Covid test that is on the country’s approved list, and watch over your entire trip—leaving you to relax and enjoy the view. Read trip reviews from Tahiti, Bora Bora and French Polynesia.

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The Maldives

Beach views from Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives

The Maldives recently added the requirement of a negative Covid test taken within three days of the first leg of a traveler’s flight. Photo: Gili Lankanfushi

These idyllic islands in the Indian Ocean, many of which are home to just one resort (the others are uninhabited), have been open since the summer but recently adjusted their guidelines so that all visitors must present a negative Covid test taken no more than 72 hours prior to the first leg of their flights to the Maldives; this new requirement is likely to give travelers more confidence to make the long trip. Once there, it’s a breeze to socially distance at a private-island resort, where secluded beach villas and overwater bungalows are the norm. Restaurants are already open-air, toes-in-the-sand kinds of places, and the closest interaction you might have is with a manta ray while snorkeling. You’ll also benefit from lower rates and more generous cancellation policies at many resorts this year. Read Maldives trip reviews.

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Galata Tower and the street in the Old Town of Istanbul, Turkey

Whether you’re going to Istanbul, Cappadocia, or to Turkey’s beaches, the country does not require any testing or quarantine. Photo: Shutterstock

Turkey has made it simple to enter the country, with no testing or quarantine required. Once you’re there, our recommended local trip planners and fixers have careful protocols in place, from Plexiglas dividers in vehicles to testing for guides; they can also arrange special access such as an after-hours tour of the Hagia Sophia. Many museums and cultural landmarks are open at limited capacity, so it’s important to have an expert booking your reservations and arranging your itinerary in the most efficient way possible. For plenty of social distancing, consider Cappadocia, where you can hike amid the remarkable lunar landscape, ride in a reduced-occupancy hot-air balloon, and end your day with dinner in a private room or wine cellar at your boutique hotel. Read Turkey trip reviews.

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An African Safari

zebras drinking from a stream in the great migration of animals in Kenya

Safari camps usually book up years in advance, but for the 2020 holidays, the camps and the safari drives will see fewer people. Photo: Shutterstock

Safaris had grown so popular within the past few years that you were likely to notch more sightings of other 4x4s than of lions or rhinos, and the best camps and lodges—which typically have only a handful of rooms or tents—would book up years in advance for the holidays. 2020, of course, is different. This year brings a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Africa’s wildlife in solitude, and at the driest time of year when the animals are gathering at waterholes and on riverbanks. Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all allow travelers in with a negative Covid test; Namibia and Rwanda require tests both before and after entering the country. We don’t recommend Tanzania, as authorities have been evasive about the scope of the virus in the country. A savvy safari-planning specialist can lead you to the lodges that are limiting occupancy in game-drive vehicles, are testing staff, and have open-air dining areas and in-room air conditioning (the latter a necessity in some parts of southern Africa come December). Read African safari trip reviews.

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Egypt’s pyramids and other famous sites reopened in September at lowered capacity. Photo: Shutterstock

If you’re feeling truly adventurous, consider Egypt. While Cairo’s bustling souks and narrow streets don’t lend themselves easily to social distancing, there are certainly ways to sightsee while staying in your bubble, and this is an unprecedented opportunity to see the country’s pyramids and other archaeological wonders without the crowds: These sites reopened in September, but with much lower capacity. (Or do as these travelers did and have an expert arrange for private, after-hours access.) Hotels are also operating at 50% occupancy. There are nonstop flights to Cairo from New York and Washington, D.C., with fares below $850 round-trip. Travelers must bring a negative Covid test from the 96 hours prior to their departure. Read Egypt trip reviews.

Start a Safe, Smart Trip to Egypt

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