How to Plan a Trip Again, According to Experts

The lowdown on safety protocols, under-the-radar car rental alternatives, and tricks for getting the best flight deals.

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This story is a part of a Thrillist series helping our readers navigate and slowly return to the world. Be sure to always follow CDC guidelines and, most importantly, don't leave the house if you're experiencing fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19.

You’re vaxxed, you’re snaxxed, you’ve got your essential apps, and now you’re itchin’ to break out of town. And you’re not the only one: Air travel is officially up, with the TSA screening 1.85 million travelers on Sunday, May 16 at US airports, the highest number since March 2020.

Travelers are scrambling to make up for a year of missed adventures: Airbnbs and campsite reservations are filling up months in advance, rental cars are the new unicorns, and airfares aren't as cheap as you'd think.

Over 70% of American travelers say they are excited and open to trips in the near-term, according to the most recent data by Destination Analysts. 46.3% of American travelers say they’re planning low key close-to-home escapes, while 40.7% plan to get more ambitious with the vacation plans. 1-in-10 are going all in and booking that bucket list trip.

So, um, how do you plan a trip again? We’ve been housebound for over a year so it’s understandable that some of the details have fallen out of your brain. In the past year some new important details have sprung up—like safety protocols, under-the-radar car rental alternatives, and tricks for getting the best deals. We’re here to guide you through all of it. Buckle up. 

Don't say things you don't mean, pool at Surfjack Hotel. | Photo Courtesy of Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club

Take extra care to be respectful of your destination

Just because your community feels somewhat back to "normal," keep in mind that may not be the case at your destination. Some communities may still be experiencing high rates of Covid-19; others may be in emotional recovery mode. And with dangerous new variants and the virus’s continued impact around the world, even vaccinated travelers need to remain vigilant and extra conscientious. Do a little research, contact your hotel, or check with local authorities to get a feel for what you're walking into. 

Kylie Shmida, Director of Experience at The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Honolulu, recommends travelers check the Hawaii Tourism Authority website for regular updates. “Keeping the harmony that is part of Hawaii’s charm is important to us,” she says. “We greatly appreciate travelers of Oahu who are respectful of current guidelines and have made it a priority to stay up to date on the island’s current regulations.”

No matter where you're traveling, practice kindness, patience, and empathy. Some workers in the tourism sector have been working non-stop throughout the pandemic, often with reduced wages. There are new systems in place that everyone is still getting used to. So mask up when asked, respect boundaries, maintain your distance, and be safe out there. 

One day you, too, can look forlornly out of an airplane window. | Thanakorn.P/Shutterstock

Book flights now, but know you have flexibility

At the start of the pandemic, domestic flight prices plummeted and last-minute fares were a steal. But alas, all good things must come to an end—or, in this case, revert back to the relatively cheap fares we had pre-pandemic.

“Business travel has been slowly inching back up, whereas vacation travel has rebounded much more quickly,” says Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Summer travel, especially at this point, will likely start to get pretty expensive, because summer flights always get more expensive."

Planes are also, once again, packed. Airlines are no longer blocking out middle seats for social distancingDelta was the last holdoutdespite findings from the CDC that spacing on airplanes was beneficial to reducing the spread of Covid-19. If your comfort level hinges on space, pay extra for a seat with more room or look for a less popular flight. For their part, airlines are still enforcing mandatory mask wearing. 

Here's one silver lining to come out of the pandemic: Flexible cancellation and flight change policies have now become the norm. "US airlines—all the big ones: Delta, United, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Alaska—they all joined Southwest in permanently getting rid of change fees,” says Keyes. (The one exception is that it doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets.)

One of Keyes’s favorite tips for finding cheap flights in his new book Take More Vacations: How to Search Better, Book Cheaper, and Travel the World is that if you see an exceptionally low fare to an awesome destination—even one you weren’t necessarily looking to go tobook it, and figure out logistics later. That’s even easier now that you're free to reschedule or cancel your flight should the situation change.

ABCP: Always Be Covid Prepared

We’ll come up with a better acronym later. That means packing a few masks for hotels, transportation, attractions, amusement parks, or just emergencies (KN95s are your best bet for protection). The abundantly cautious among us may want a travel thermometer, but everyone should have hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to sanitize surfaces on your plane and at your destination.

Bring a pen in your carry-on to fill out customs and immigration forms ahead of time to avoid waiting hours in a line once you land (plus it’s good for crossword puzzles). Snacks are back on some airlines like Delta, but you may want to pack your own just in case. Squirrel away a straw for sipping beverages under your mask. A metal option might give you some trouble at TSA (we’re speaking from experience) so bamboo might be your best bet. Or for a fun snack after, a Twizzler.  

One seat for you, one for your bag. | Shutter z/Shutterstock

Know your testing and mask requirements 

The CDC recommends delaying any trip until you're fully inoculated. If you’re not fully vaccinated and must travel, follow their recommendations for unvaccinated people: get tested three days before you travel and stay six feet apart from other people. Honestly, that’s good advice for everyone: many countries open to US travelers require proof of a negative Covid test taken within a few days before traveling, even if you’re vaccinated. Check the requirements of your destination before jumping on a plane.

Though there’s not yet proof of vaccination required to board a flight domesticallyor even proof of a negative Covid test beyond the honor systemthat will probably change soon. Have some documentation on hand, even if it’s just a photo of your vaccination card on your phone.

“I bought just a plastic sleeve—you can get them at any office supply store,” says Keyes. “I didn’t want to spill and damage or lose this card because it’s going to be really important for international travel, and second I put it in a sleeve rather than laminating it just in case we need to have booster shots in the fall; you want to be able to add that to your card. And it’ll be a lot more difficult if it’s been laminated.”

For traveling back into the US from an international destination, per the CDC website you need to get tested no more than 72 hours before you fly back, and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight. This does not apply to US territories. 

One ticket to anywhere, please. | Travelpixs/Shutterstock

Be efficient in the airport

If you’re the type to beeline to the airport bar for your traditional pre-flight beer because hey, you’re on airport time and anything goes, these days you may have to adjust your carefree airport expectations. “It’s less a fun and joyous and relaxed place to be and more of an ‘alright I’m here to take this flight,’ mentality,” says Keyes. “But everybody just kind of understands, ‘okay let’s all get through this.’”

Airports these days are streamlined to function as efficiently and safely as possible. Which means some stores and restaurants are still closed, and the ones that are open have long lines. Seating in the airport terminals may also be at a premium, with some seats removed to promote social distancing, plus an uptick in travelers. If you can, get a day pass to an airport lounge, which mostly still invokes capacity limits.

Many airports are going touchless, with more check-in kiosks, self-serve baggage drops, utilization of the mobile food ordering app Grab, and hands-free sinks and soap dispensers in bathrooms (some go into the future: Dubai International Airport has adopted widespread facial recognition and Singapore's Changi Airport has cleaning robots!). Be ready for temperature checks maybe fancy ones like the thermal scanning at Hawaii’s five large airports and by federal mandate, face masks are still required. And good news: TSA now allows liquid hand sanitizer up to 12 oz in your carry-on, up from the regular 3.4 oz for other liquids. That’s the size of a can of Coke!

Maybe just ball out with a private jet

Got loads of cash for a private jet? Good for you! Figure it out yourself. 

Jk, jk, with membership programs you don’t actually need a ton of cash to fly private these days. Private jet users unsurprisingly skyrocketed for their obvious safety benefits: less touch points (about 20 points vs 700 on a commercial flight), more room, and with access to 5,000 airports versus the 500 that serve commercial flights, dropping you closer to your destination. Companies like XO, Blade, FlyJet and Air Charter Service allow you to purchase a membership and share a plane with other passengers, with flights sometimes working out cheaper than if you book traditionally.

Weigh your rental car options

When travel slowed down last year, rental car companies compensated for losses by selling off large portions of their fleet—we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cars. Which now means that there are less cars in rotation. So even if there is a rental car available for you, the price will definitely be significantly higher than it was pre-pandemic.

If you think you’re going to want a rental car, book as early as possible. And don’t rely on search engines: this is where tenacity and charm will be your best friend. Pick up the phone to call about inventory, or, better yet, visit the rental company. And make note of who you spoke with, just in case somehow your reservation gets “lost.”

If traditional car rental places fail, try alternatives like Zipcar or the car sharing app Turo, which is like Airbnb for rental cars. Browse by location or make (we spotted a Maserati on there) and cancel for free up to 24 hours before your trip. And if that doesn’t work, why not consider the RV? Apps like RVShare and Outdoorsy connect you with owners of camper vans, Class As, and everything in between, and it’s a way to travel the country in a style you may not thought possible before.

The bottom line? Be flexible. You may not score what you think is your ideal car, but it might turn out to be something even better. And if it’s an RV, watch out: your friends may crash your new sweet ride.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Find her trying to sneak into an airport lounge (or don't. Don't blow up her spot).