Is it really safe to travel now?

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

We asked travel industry insiders, recent travelers, and a medical expert about their tips on traveling during a pandemic. Photo by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life, August 10) — At the onset of 2022, a survey carried out by AirAsia showed that seven out of 10 Filipinos were planning to travel within the year.

Among the respondents, 49% cited their confidence in their local government unit’s control of COVID-19 as a major factor in their decision to push through with their travels. In parallel to rising COVID-19 vaccination rates — approximately 65.8% of the total population in the Philippines (72.1 million Filipinos) are fully vaccinated — consumer confidence in international and domestic travel has increased.

Just as people’s reasons for traveling vary, from the need to be with families and friends to the desire for a vacation, their sense of security and safety do too.

“Depending on your appetite for travel, you will find reasons to justify whether you’re ready or not. After two and a half years into the pandemic, though, the world has changed and learned ways to adapt — travel is no exception here,” said Catherine Mabini, president of the travel agency Airscape Travels Inc, who traveled to South Korea in July.

Additional steps and requirements have been added to flying: testing, insurance, mandatory quarantine, showing proof of vaccination, with some even incurring additional costs. These are, of course, measures put in place to keep travelers safe amid the remaining threat of COVID.

For those who remain wary of their own safety, exploring locally may be a way to ease themselves back into traveling. Candice Iyog, VP for Marketing and Customer Experience at Cebu Pacific recommends Filipinos to rediscover the Philippines through destinations like Cebu, Bohol, Dumaguete, Siargao, Boracay, and Palawan.

But for those who feel more prepared to travel farther distances, several international cities have been identified by Iyog to have reduced restrictions, namely: Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi in Vietnam, Bali and Jakarta in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Bangkok in Thailand, and Singapore.

While both local and international restrictions have eased, traveling does not remain completely risk-free. Physician-scientist and World Health Organization digital health expert Melvin Sanicas explains that the safety of traveling nowadays remains personal and relative. He advises travelers to find the balance between fear and being careful, which lies in one’s personal risk assessment and risk tolerance. “People have different immunization statuses, different medical conditions and different destinations so it will always depend.”

Like many others, Sanicas remains alert and cautious, admitting that he still winces when someone nearby sneezes. But he also explained that the risk of dying from COVID-19 today compared to 2020 is severely different, owing to the vaccines, treatments and antiviral drugs designed to treat the infectious disease.

He said, “If you’re vaccinated and boosted, your chances of getting infected in the first place is lower. And if you get infected, your chances of getting sick are also lower. And if you get infected and your case becomes severe, you have the medication for it.”

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have also taken on additional safety and health measures, equipping their planes with hospital-grade air filters that thoroughly disinfect cabin air from any bacteria or viruses including COVID-19 and ensuring all pilots and crew are fully vaccinated.

“Traveling is a shared responsibility,” said Cielo Villaluna, Philippine Airlines spokesperson, adding: “Passengers and airlines have their respective roles to play. Inter-Agency coordination is needed to enable industry stakeholders to have a voice in mapping out and adjusting protocols, in line with the health situation of our country and the countries we fly to.”

We asked recent travelers about their experience flying within and outside the country, and their tips for traveling in a pandemic.

Get boosted and wear your mask at all times

Sanicas explained that both vaccinations and mask-wearing have been proven to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. For Jocelyn, a 65-year-old retiree, traveling locally was not as stressful as she had  expected. “Having been vaccinated and boosted at that time gave me a sense of security,” she said. “In my experience, people at the airport were wearing masks diligently but I still refrained from eating in the stalls. I also kept my mask on the whole time during the flight even when snacks and drinks were being distributed by the flight attendants.”

Do your research on the health protocols and mask mandates at your destination

With restrictions continuously changing, it’s crucial to keep tabs on your destination’s travel requirements nearing your date of travel. Some countries may still require negative RT-PCR results 24-48 hours before entry while some destinations may need you to fill up their own local vaccination declaration form online. Another thing that Filipino citizens should take note of when returning to the Philippines is the DOH One Health Pass.

“When I flew back to Manila from Arizona, I didn’t know that [the One Health Pass] was a requirement for entry so I was held for long at the check-in counter and almost missed my flight because I had to fill up the online form right then and there,” said Cyril, a 26-year-old PhD Student.

Be up-to-date with your other medical requirements

Non-COVID viruses and illnesses such as the flu and pneumonia remain a threat when traveling. “Before traveling, it’s important to make sure we have our other vaccinations in order, especially for senior citizens and babies,” said Angela*, a 45-year-old creative director. When she flew to Singapore with her mother (aged 68) who was vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, Angela observed that her mother started showing COVID-like symptoms. But when her test results kept coming back negative for COVID-19, they visited a doctor and was advised it was the flu.

Sanicas also added that different travelers have different medical histories and conditions and therefore must look into their own individual pre and post–flight requirements that will keep them protected.

Keep your itinerary flexible

Try to focus on one destination or a smaller list of activities to reduce the risk of catching viruses. Prioritizing rest and leisure during a trip helps keep your immune system strong. “Our immune systems are not used to travel so best to give yourself time to adjust to traveling so have more relaxed schedules to give space for rest and ample exploring time,” said Ross, a 26-year-old illustrator who has traveled from Manila to Pangasinan, Cebu, Zambales and La Union.

When possible, plan activities in advance and give your itinerary some room for flexibility. Martha*, a 26-year-old law student, explained that traveling to Boracay left her feeling anxious owing to the large amounts of people flying out by the hour. Making restaurant reservations and having back-up options for eating, drinking, and other activities allowed her to be more safe and prepared.

Avoid going out one to two weeks before traveling

Minimize risk of exposure by staying at home or steering clear of crowded places in the days leading up to your flight. “I tested positive days before I was supposed to fly out so I had to cancel everything. I only received a 40% refund from my accommodation and had to pay extra for changing my flight,” shared Jennifer*, a 27-year-old sales and account manager.

Keep away from crowded places and stay conscious of who you’re meeting

“Avoid crowded places like large public gatherings. Don’t let being outdoors or in open air give you a false sense of security,” said Ana*, a 35-year-old marketing team lead, who contracted COVID-19 while working in Europe.

When it comes to traveling to popular tourist destinations, it becomes more challenging to escape being in contact with groups of people. Danica, 27, shared that while the resort they stayed at in Boracay followed strict COVID-19 protocols and was located in a secluded island away from other tourists, it was still difficult to escape the anxiety surrounding traveling. “It’s important to prepare yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally before traveling — especially now that the pandemic is still around,” she said.

Marketing manager Niki, 27, also advises to stay vigilant when using dating apps while traveling. “Find out your match’s vaccination status — Bumble has a feature that lets you know if the person you are talking to has been vaccinated and boosted. Don’t take chances with anti-vaxxers! You can even go the extra mile and get antigen tests before meeting up.”