Everyone thought by the beginning of 2021 we would have a grip on what the best practices are for people who want to travel again. Well good luck with that. The rules for flying and crossing borders changes quicker than Twitter's news feed. But we're learning how to function within the new travel framework. If I had to choose one word to describe how people should approach travel in 2021, I would go with "versatility." Plan your trips in advance, taking advantage of generaous refund policies and low rates, but be prepared to cancel or reschedule at the last minute.

 After months of working to reschedule our groups from 2020, and returning from Peru in January, I have some insights about traveling to South America in 2021:

  • 2021 is the year to focus on travel to one country. I don't recommend hopping from Machu Picchu to Galapagos Islands on the same trip. Choose one primary destination in one country this year. Then travel to the other in another country next year.
  • 2021 is the year to fall in love with an insurance company. But not just any old company. Find a good travel insurance provider that you can use repeatedly. Dig deep into their terms and policies to find out where the loop holes are. Talk to their agents. If we learned anything about refunds for travel expenses in 2020, hopefully we all grasped that the right insurance policy is the only thing that matters if you ever have to file a claim.
  • this is the year to be flexible with your itineraries. Getting to Machu Picchu is fairly certain, but if you have your heart set on a particular hotel or activity, leave yourself some wiggle room. Once you're in the region of your primary destination, there could be changes to tours and activities you originally wanted. I found that substitutions are often better than my original plan!
  • find reliable resources for accurate information. How can you make sensible decisions without good intel? Honesty and transparency are two hallmarks of a reputable resources in my opinion. I avoid using printed media articles. I try to go right to the original source. For instance, if the CDC has a ruling that affects travelers I want to read the original text, not a journalist's interpretation. If there is an executive order, I want to see the original document, not an excerpt in an article. 
  • accept the reality that any trip booked in advance is subject to last minute cancellation or rescheduling
  • don't expect to join small groups to share the cost of excursions. Tour operators are following guidelnes to make travel safer. One of those guidelines is to isolate groups from each other as much as possible. Your best option is to gather up a few close friends and family members to create your own travel pod. Or plan to pay more to travel solo.
  • Latam Airlines is the main carrier operating in South America. Delta Airlines and Latam just became code share buddies right before covid grounded everyone. We haven't had a fair chance to explore the benefits of that relationship but I figured out that by booking all my Latam flights in South America through the Delta portal, there may be added protections and benefits. With the constantly changing travel landscape, it's wise to get in the habit of confirming the cancellation and refund policies with every flight you book, no matter what airline it is.
  • it's more likely that regions and communities surrounding high profile destinations like Machu Picchu will reopen before other territories. We have seen sluggish progress in the resumption of tourism in the Amazon jungle and Lake Titicaca regions, as well as the desert south of Lima, and Colca Canyon. 
  • Is the idea of traveling in 2021 an obstacle or opportunity? For those free spirits with flexible schedules and open minds, traveling in 2021 is the perfect time to avoid crowds and explore off the cuff. Depending on your tolerance for 1 or 2 days of airport mask and distancing regulations, the rest of your trip is likely to be amazing. That's what happened to me in January. After I got away from the airiport and into Cusco, I hiked, explored and visited remote places. I took a break from the daily stream of news and actually felt refreshed.
  • Protocols for border crossings are only valid on the day you're searching. It's useless to try to predict what will happen 2-3 months or more from now. This is the new reality for travelers. Plan your trip, but be prepared to reschedule or cancel at the last minute. 
  • Organize all your activities to end with enough time and in a place where you can get a covid test before boarding your flight home. For instance, don't go to the Amazon jungle at the end of your trip in Peru.You can't get covid tests in the jungle. 

Whether you crave the convenience of mini-adventures around the corner or epic journeys across the globe, it's wise to have some idea of what your limitations are and stick to them. 
Here's a link to the info we posted about how US-bound travelers can get covid test in Cusco.

Here's my formula for booking travel in 2021 to reduce the risk of financial loss in case you need to cancel or reschedule at the last minute:

  • choose one high-profile destination and build an itinerary around it
  • organize a small group travel pod from your community of friends or family
  • choose your primary travel dates, then select secondary dates in a later season as your backup dates if you have to reschedule. 
  • make sure everyone's passports are valid for at least the next 2 years. Most countries require passports to be valid for at least 6 months after your travel dates
  • book flights that offer full refunds or penalty-free changes. There's no reason not to set up future trips if you are certain you can change or cancel flights for full refunds.
  • choose a local operator who can bundle your hotels, ground transportation, guided tours and activities into one package. Cancellation and rescheduling can be done with one email.
  • ask for a risk-free cancellation deadline for your packaged trip. From 2-4 weeks prior to arrival is reasonable depending on your activities
  • book all your flights on Latam Airlines by calling Delta Airlines toll free. Always ask for the current cancellation and refund policy at the time you make your reservation
  • consider booking last minute trips to international destinations. One to two weeks in advance should be enough
  • buy comprehensive travel insurance that covers flights, all ground expenses, interruptions and unknown costs if needed. 

We are learning how to travel all over again.