My sister-in-law got the phone call at dinnertime the night before we were to drive to a Wyoming guest ranch for a five-day, three-generation family vacation. There was a coronavirus outbreak among the ranch’s staff; in two days, the numbers had climbed from three to 18 infections. The staff members with the coronavirus and any others who had been in close contact with them were quarantined. The ranch’s chief operating officer said we were still welcome to come but warned that the service would not be at the ranch’s usual level. My brother and sister-in-law, who had booked and planned the vacation, opted to take the full refund the ranch offered, not because of how the outbreak would affect the service, but for safety.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that American travelers returning to the United States need a negative PCR test; some antigen tests are also accepted. It also said that travel agency owner Catherine Hagle rebooked a Greek honeymoon for a couple and sent them to Kauai. It was travel agency owner Denise Ambrusko-Maida who made those arrangements. The article has been corrected.
The nine of us, ranging in age from 7 to 83, had gathered in Jackson, where my fiance, Derek, and I live, for the half-day drive to the ranch. We were crushed, but we didn’t doubt that canceling was the right decision. After briefly mourning the loss of our intended vacation, we jumped into action to create a Plan B.
Although I consider myself a seasoned traveler, the necessity of having a backup plan hadn’t crossed my mind once in the lead-up to the trip. If we were going to get together as a family for the first time since the start of the pandemic, where could be safer than a 30,000-acre ranch in the least-populated state in the country?
“With covid, travel is a whole new world,” said Catherine Hagle, president of D.C.-based Connoisseur Travel. “You need to be thinking of a Plan B while you’re making Plan A.”
Although creating Plan B only after Plan A has fallen through isn’t ideal, it’s still possible. “If you have the right mind-set, changing a trip because of covid can even be an opportunity,” said Anna Harrison, owner and travel adviser at Travel Observations in Pittsburgh.
My family and I were fortunate to be “stuck” in Jackson Hole, itself a summer vacation spot; not everyone is lucky enough to be able to pivot to a Plan B without driving or getting on a plane. But even if you do have to travel, it’s not impossible. Here’s some advice from travel experts, backed up by my own experience.
Identify the purpose of your trip, and consider whether you want Plan B to replicate it. “A vacation with a purpose is always a better vacation,” said Guido Adelfio, president of Bethesda Travel Center. “Relaxing by a pool can be a purpose, or being together as a family, or sampling how pasta sauce differs across Italy. A purpose makes for a satisfying trip.”
For the adults in my family, the ranch was about being together for the first time since the pandemic started. For my 7- and 9-year-old nieces, recently introduced to Lord of the Rings (and particular fans of Legolas), archery was a purpose.
Harrison sees a canceled Plan A as a chance to check in, which is why she asks whether her clients want to replicate its purpose or do something else. “Sometimes, after the stress of a canceled trip, they might want something different,” she said. One set of her clients canceled their Kenyan safari because they were uncomfortable traveling internationally with the delta variant but wanted a Plan B with the same purpose: wildlife watching. Harrison sent them to Alaska.
My family wanted to keep archery and together time but used the cancellation to tweak the specifics of the latter. Instead of the horseback riding or ATVing we would have done at the ranch, we spent time together at a park on the banks of the Snake River, hiking the Wildflower Trail to the top of the Bridger Gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and swimming and picnicking at String Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Driving home from our day at String Lake, my mom declared: “That was better than anything the ranch could have done.”
Be adaptable. “If you’re going to travel, being adaptable is always part of the terms of engagement, and this is even more true during covid,” Adelfio said. With only two days’ notice, Denise Ambrusko-Maida, the owner of Travel Brilliant in Buffalo, created a Plan B honeymoon for a couple who had originally planned to go to Greece. “They were fine with anywhere, so long as it was luxurious and felt exotic,” Ambrusko-Maida said. (She booked them into an ocean-view room on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.)
Decide how much inconvenience or risk you’re willing to deal with. “If you’re not willing to wear a mask for hours when you’re in an airport and on a plane, that automatically filters out a lot of places,” Adelfio said. At the time of this writing, to reenter the United States from another country requires a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of arrival. Are you willing and able to do that? Are you comfortable staying at a property that doesn’t require employees to be vaccinated? How do you feel about crowds? Are you okay with having to show a vaccination card to eat inside a restaurant? “Asking and answering these questions will easily point you toward some destinations and away from others,” Harrison said.
Turn to a travel adviser (even if they didn’t book your original trip). “It is exhausting to keep up with country requirements, even intrastate regulations,” Harrison said. “Add trying to plan something last-minute on top of this, and the relationships and expertise of a travel adviser are even more important.” In April, Hagle’s Connoisseur Travel pivoted a new client to the Bahamas instead of Anguilla after the latter announced it was closing its borders immediately because of a spike in coronavirus cases on the island. “We didn’t book the trip to Anguilla — the couple enjoyed booking their own vacations — but they didn’t know what to do when the island closed.”
Get vaccinated. “Being vaccinated is a passport to freedom,” said Monique Owen, the owner of Monique Owen Travel. “If you’ve got that, I can cast the widest net possible to see what we can make happen, especially at the last minute.” Adelfio, who mostly plans itineraries in Europe, also recommends clients be vaccinated. “If you’re vaccinated, that’s the first step toward being able to pivot to Europe,” he said. “There’s still paperwork that you’ll need to do, and being vaccinated won’t give you control over whether countries decide to close, but without being vaccinated, Europe isn’t a last-minute option at all.” The experts’ recommendation echoes that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says on its website: “Do not travel internationally until you are fully vaccinated.”
Another reason to be vaccinated: An increasing number of tour operators that might have last-minute openings on trips because already-booked clients have contracted the coronavirus now require guests who are replacing them to be vaccinated or tested. These include Backroads, an active-travel — think hiking, biking and kayaking, among other activities — company based in California, which offers more than 200 itineraries around the world, and Intrepid Travel, an Australia-based company that this month is offering 238 small-group escorted trips in 25 countries. Intrepid requires guests to be vaccinated; Backroads requires unvaccinated guests to be tested within 72 hours of departure. “We have had customers confirmed with covid who couldn’t travel,” said Matt Berna, Intrepid Travel’s managing director of North America. “These could be a last-minute opportunity for someone else, but only if they’re vaccinated.”
Don’t be afraid to check in with hotels and trips that look booked. During the peak of this summer’s season, Owen was able to book a family into the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, a 150-year-old luxury cliffside property on the French Riviera famous for its generations of renowned guests, such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Noël Coward, Elizabeth Taylor, John and Yoko, and Winston and Clementine Churchill, among others. “Usually between mid-June and Labor Day, it’s reserved by families that have been guests for generations; if that’s not you, you can’t get a reservation there for love or money. But travel isn’t yet back to 100 percent, and this summer, with two weeks’ notice, I was able to secure suites there for a family who had to pivot to the south of France after Switzerland didn’t open as early as we had hoped.”
“It never hurts to call to check on space availability since spots do open up,” Backroads’ founder and president, Tom Hale, said via email. My family was able to satisfy my nieces’ desire to try archery by sliding into a two-hour archery lesson with the Jackson Hole Shooting Experience, because another group canceled after a member had a breakthrough coronavirus case.
Ask about last-minute deals. “The beauty of last-minute travel is that the inventory might otherwise go unsold,” Owen said. “If it’s unsold 24 hours before, it could be possible to get a discount on the rack rate,” or the advertised price of the room. Harrison said travelers hoping for a last-minute deal should look to destinations that are just opening up. “If a destination has been open for a while, don’t expect a deal, but I’ve seen some amazing luxury properties in newly opened destinations with promotions like ‘pay for three nights and get four.’ ”
Think outside the box. Hagle said she was initially hesitant to send clients to the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore for their vacation — “so many of the activities at the Inner Harbor were closed,” she said — but now heartily recommends the property. “For travelers whose goal is to get away from the stress of daily life and relax, and who aren’t yet ready to fly, it’s perfect. It doesn’t matter if things in the Inner Harbor are open, because you don’t have to leave the hotel.”
Harrison advised considering destinations that are in their offseason. “If someone finds themselves looking for a last-minute trip in early December, a place like New Orleans is great. The Christmas lights aren’t up yet, but the weather is wonderful, and it won’t be crowded,” she said. Before Florida’s current virus surge, Ambrusko-Maida, recommended Disney’s Epcot for vaccinated adults. “Obviously, going to the France pavilion at Epcot is not the same as going to Paris, but if you have a sense of humor and have fun with it, you can eat your way around the world,” she said.
Don’t leave home at all. Remote tours started before the pandemic, but now a Google search for “virtual travel tours” yields more than 182 million results. These include activities such as being able to scroll-stroll the collections of more than 2,500 museums around the world via Google Arts & Culture (free, artsandculture.google.com) and Urban Adventures’ new live Zoom experiences (urbanadventures.com/online-experiences). The latter, which usually cost between $15 and $30, include a 75-minute experience in which you’ll create a mandala and practice meditation with a guide in Delhi, India; an hour-long class on making ceviche and pisco sours in the home of a guide in Lima, Peru; and an hour-long lesson in ice swimming and the sauna with a guide in Finland.
“When the pandemic first hit, we thought about how we could keep our local guides employed, and these live, online experiences are what we came up with,” said Intrepid Travel’s Berna. (Intrepid is Urban Adventures’ parent company.) “For travelers, these are not going to replace traveling in person, but they can satisfy their wanderlust.”
Mishev is a writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Her website is at dinamishev.com. Find her on Instagram: @myspiritanimalisatrex.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus