What it’s like to travel during the pandemic

Due to popular demand, I’ve decided to take the time put together a post about my experience traveling during the pandemic — more specifically about my time in Mexico, after I recently spent five weeks with our neighbors to the south.

I had originally planned to fly relatively under the radar regarding my first international travel during the pandemic, but I’ve received a ton of questions from people who are curious, anxious, or interested in what it’s like to travel right now. These are questions that I too had prior to my trip, so at the risk of taking flak from those who think it’s irresponsible, I gathered my thoughts and experience gained from my time in Mexico to share with others.

Mexicans buy offerings for day of the dead in Guanajuato.
Vendors sell products for Day of the Dead, with a sign that reads “For your health and mine, wear your mask.”

First things first: Risk analysis

I’d like to preface the following paragraphs with my logic on the risk of traveling during coronavirus.

Traveling was not a decision I took lightly. I myself went back and forth plenty of times on if it was the right thing to do.

At the end of the day, it came down to an analysis of the risks involved and how said risks can be mitigated.

Here’s how I see it: During the pandemic, anytime you leave your house, you run a risk of contracting the coronavirus — however big or small it may be. Actions that you take while outside of the house, like avoiding crowds, keeping social distance, wearing a mask, and washing your hands, all mitigate that risk.

When deciding to travel, there is objectively more risk involved, but maybe not as much as one might think. Getting on an airplane is the main risk that you would not otherwise experience going about your day to day life at home.

Once you are at your destination, if you play your cards right, in theory it’s really no more risky than life as you were living it, depending on how you travel and where you go, I suppose.

So, after much analysis of risk, I decided that the added risk that I would run by traveling to Mexico would be reasonably low enough to make the trip worth it. Madison, my girlfriend, and I got tested before and after the trip, wore N95 masks while on the plane and indoors, and constantly sanitized our hands after touching anything. Essentially the only added risk that we ran was the flight and a few times that we got in cars with friends.

However, as we moved around to different spots in Mexico, I realized that mitigating risk would take on a whole new meaning depending on the circumstances of each location.

A waiter takes the temperature of a guest in Guanajuato.
In Guanajuato, temperature checks were standard before entering formal establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, museums, etc.

What virus measures were in place? How did it affect day to day life?

Similar to the United States, where measures implemented to combat the virus vary wildly between states, counties, and cities, Mexico is no different. Of the three places that I visited, it was an entirely new scenario each time.

Let’s start with the flight.

The flight

During the pandemic, I’ve flown a couple times within the US. From San Diego to San Jose and San Diego to Dallas.

To get to Mexico, we crossed the CBX airport bridge and flew from Tijuana to Puerto Vallarta. The airport was packed, making social distancing difficult, but the virus ‘security’ was much more strict compared to the airports I had been to in the US.

Each passenger was forced to sanitize their hands before arriving at the check in counter, each passenger had to fill out a form if they posed a risk of having the virus, and each passenger had their temperature checked.

In comparison, the US airports I’ve been to had essentially no protocol in place other than masks, and the amount of people properly wearing their masks was fairly laughable.

There is an alcohol and food loophole in the US, which I did not experience in Mexico.

In the San Diego airport, there is a bar that serves beer. The airport allows you to remove your mask if drinking or eating , hence easily 50% of the people waiting in the terminal had purchased beer and food and were all mask-less in an enclosed area. I found it rather ironic that despite all the effort to avoid getting coronavirus, drinking beer before a flight took priority in so many people’s minds.

On the ground

Once on the ground in Mexico, as I said, attention to the virus varied greatly in each region.

I visited Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, and Guanajuato. I would summarize the measures taken against the virus in each city as follows:

Puerto Vallarta: Similar to, if not more strict than the US.

Sayulita: What’s the Coronavirus?

Guanajuato: Open almost everything up, but carefully.

In Puerto Vallarta, life was fairly similar to what is going on in San Diego. Masks were widely worn and enforced upon entering closed spaces. Taking it a step further than San Diego, temperature checks and hand sanitizing were also required and enforced to enter enclosed spaces, which in my experience were a cell phone store and a mall.

Staying safe on public transportation relied on the honor code and the smaller, more informal restaurants didn’t exactly follow the protocol as closely as the bigger, more formal ones.

In Sayulita, a small village about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, life had mostly returned to normal as if there was no pandemic at all.

Before judgement is cast, this is a small surf/fishing village whose economy is almost 100% reliant on tourism. At the start of the pandemic, the two entrances into town were blocked off and entering and exiting was strictly enforced for only essential purposes.

That said, the town was hurting for tourist dollars, and by the time I arrived in September, all such restrictions had been lifted.

Most indoor business were open. Few people, if any, wore masks. The beach was packed, mainly with Mexican tourists, to the point where social distancing was virtually impossible. And interestingly enough, the locals relaxed view towards the virus seemed to permeate to the visiting tourists, who also were following their nonchalant lead.

In Guanajuato, a larger land-locked city that also heavily relies on tourism, they had taken a different approach.

Most everything was open, but strict risk mitigation efforts were implemented both at the personal and public level.

Aside from the people of the town mostly wearing masks and mask requirements for stores, museums, buildings, etc., the local government had made an apparent big push to do their part.

There was a big marketing campaign to raise awareness about the virus, with banners and signs posted around town about how to stay safe. Hand-washing stations had been installed around the city, an especially important measure in Mexico where free public bathrooms are all but nonexistent. Temperature checks were standard at larger stores. And my favorite, the city had created fenced bottlenecks in the more crowded historic center of town, where you had to pass through a choke point to get misted with sanitizer.

I am unaware of any studies that prove a light (sometimes heavy) misting of sanitizer really kills any potential coronavirus lingering on your body, but I suppose it’s better than nothing if there are no adverse health effects.

A sign explains how to safely go about living during Covid-19 in Guanajuato.
The Guanajuato local government had a city-wide campaign to inform the public about the virus. According to this sign, coronavirus can live on stainless steel for three days, cardboard for 24 hours, and copper for four hours.
Coronavirus restrictions in place in the historic center of Guanajuato.
Here is one of the aforementioned bottlenecks into the historic center of town. As you walk through the tent you are misted by sanitizer. There are also police stationed at the checkpoint, supposedly enforcing the sign that says you have to wear a mask, but I didn’t see them stop anyone that wasn’t.
Coronavirus restrictions in place in the historic center of Guanajuato.
Another bottleneck for a sanitizer mist. I was pretty sick of getting sprayed with this stuff, to be honest.
A hand washing station in Guanajuato Mexico.
Here is one of the free hand-washing stations.

My advice

I am not doctor, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

Traveling during the pandemic is definitely not for everyone, especially for those who have health risks and those who don’t have enough self-control to act responsibly.

At this time, traveling is a privilege and not a right. While traveling, don’t unnecessarily put others at risk for personal benefit. Plan and think it out well to create a scenario where you are being as safe as possible. Mitigate risk where you can.

From what I gathered, if you closely follow health protocols, the risk is fairly low, but definitely not zero. Ask yourself if you are ready to take that risk.

Another thing you need to ask yourself: Is it worth it?

If you are being responsible, your travel experience will undoubtedly be negatively altered to an extent by the pandemic. I mean this in the sense that you won’t get to closely interact with other people as much, many activities that you might usually do while on vacation are closed or just not a good idea, and you will certainly be spending more time inside than is ideal when on vacation.

Whether the monetary cost and associated risk is worth it is definitely something that should be considered.

Was this helpful?

My goal is not to persuade anyone to throw caution to the wind and be reckless. In fact, I am simply trying to create a useful resource that can help people who may find themselves in a similar situation to me so they can make a more educated decision.

As I stated, after I published a couple videos of my trip, I got many questions from people who were curious, anxious, or scared about the prospects of traveling, for both essential and nonessential reasons.

This is just one person’s experience from one country. It’s certainly not a one size fits all guide.

Under the right circumstances, I would say that there generally is a safe way to go about traveling. And even when the vaccine is released, things will not immediately change overnight, hence these questions will remain relevant for many months to come.

I hope this was helpful. If you have a good experience to share, please do post it in the comment section below.

One thought on “What it’s like to travel during the pandemic

  1. I, too, struggled with the decision to travel. I am in the older high risk group. I finally decided mitigating risk would be important for me. I work in an ER and I have grown to trust my PPE. I knew when I got to my Mexico destination I would be basically living outside and with my family.
    I had a pre-dawn departure with next to noone in the airport. I worn an N95 with cloth mask over it. The woman on my aisle also was double masked and handed me sanitizer. We cleaned our space. We were all given a ziplock bags with water, a cookie, and sanitizer inside. On the return I had to ask my rowmate to put his mask on properly to protect us. He did. Flight attendants were getting folks to put their masks on as well. The PV airport was a challenge with social distancing issues and people with masks under their noses or hanging from their ear.
    I avoided public transportation.
    Like you said, Seyulita is in denial about Covid. I wore a mask. I social distanced. I swam in the warm ocean, walked the beach and enjoyed my family. It was awesome. Just what I needed. I tested before I left and when I returned.
    Most important is masking, distancing and hand sanitizing. I follow ” girls love travel” and folks seem to be moving about. I, too, am interested in hearing others experiences.
    Thanks, Evan, for a thoughtful and informative look at traveling in the pandemic era and for hooking me up with an awesome place to stay. ♥️


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