You could spend your stuck-at-home time watching the U.S. map change color with the rise of coronavirus cases and checking your news feed on Europe’s reopening plans. Or you could use this lull for more productive and mentally healthy pursuits: Preparing for when the gates of travel finally swing open. Many tasks can be performed without a trip on the books, such as applying for TSA PreCheck, renewing your passport, restocking your car’s emergency kit and waterproofing your camping gear. Others, such as procuring malaria pills and an International Driver’s Permit, require a departure date. Stick these tasks on your to-do list, which will be significantly shorter once you activate your readiness plan.
Miles and awards programs
The travel-centric credit cards you used before the pandemic might not make as much sense in this current state of immobility. If you have a large cache of airline miles, or are wary of traveling anytime soon, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, suggests credit cards that offer 2 percent cash back. “I wouldn’t recommend banking airline miles,” he said. “Cash is king.” Our spending habits have also changed. Kelly recommends reviewing your expenses and switching to a card that will reward you for, say, bingeing on Netflix and cooking at home. American Express’s Blue Cash Preferred, for example, offers 6 percent back on select streaming subscriptions and at U.S. supermarkets. With its Gold card, members earn quadruple points for grocery shopping.
If you apply for a new card or cancel an old one, remember to redeem or transfer your miles and points. Many travelers sign up for new cards to reap a generous one-time bonus. Kelly said tantalizing offers are slim at the moment, and banks are requiring a higher credit rating than before the pandemic.
If you are itching to spend your miles, Kelly said it is safe to book future travel. If you must cancel your flight, the airline will restore your miles, plus taxes and fees, without penalty. “It’s like a refundable ticket,” he said, “and you will get the miles back quicker than a refund.” He does not recommend redeeming them for merchandise: “You will squander the value.”
To organize your rewards programs, Kelly recommends the AwardWallet app. The Points Guy plans to release a similar product in early fall.
If your TSA PreCheck status is expiring or you plan to hit the domestic skies with greater regularity, use this downtime to renew or apply for the Trusted Traveler program. Only new customers must visit an enrollment center; the agency accepts renewals online.
Some enrollment facilities have closed or altered their hours, but most are open. For locations, check the Find an Enrollment Center feature on TSA’s home page. The agency has scheduled a pop-up at Philadelphia International Airport on Thursday and Friday and Eppley Airfield in Omaha (Aug. 3-7). Make an appointment and the agency will notify you in the event of a cancellation. You can rebook for another time or site. The cost is $85 for five years.
TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the pandemic has not affected the processing time. Travelers should receive their Known Traveler Number within two weeks. “Due to the pandemic, it’s helpful to be enrolled in TSA PreCheck because passengers can leave more items in their carry-on bags,” she said. “All of that means fewer belongings have to be put in bins for screening, thus fewer touch points and fewer opportunities for cross-contamination.”
After reducing passport services in March, the State Department is tackling the pile of applications that accumulated over the idle period. The agency has 17 passport agencies and centers operating in Phase 1 or 2 of its reopening plan. With the exception of 72-hour emergency requests, the department cannot provide processing times and warns of delays. “We will not offer normal processing times until phase three of our reopening plan,” it notes on its website. If you check your status online or by phone, you might receive a “not found” or “in process” reply. Don’t be alarmed by the “not found” message. It just means that your application is en route to a center where it will advance to the “in process” stage. The department is working from the oldest or “first-in” applications to the newest. The website posts its figures every Thursday. For the week starting July 9, it received 124,000 applications, issued 274,000 and has 1.31 million pending.
Passport holders can renew by mail for up to five years after their book has expired. First-timers must appear at an acceptance facility and can use the agency’s search tool to find an open location. The department has suspended expedited service.
Customs and Border Protection is accepting and processing Global Entry applications but is not scheduling interviews at its enrollment centers until at least Sept. 8. However, the agency’s Enrollment on Arrival program is still available at select airports; “conditionally approved” applicants do not need an appointment. The agency is processing about 60 percent of applications within 15 days. The ones requiring additional scrutiny may take more than 150 days.
The agency is giving travelers some wiggle room. Approved applicants have 545 days to complete the enrollment process, and Global Entry members who submit a renewal before the expiration date will continue to receive program benefits for up to 18 months.
Vaccinations and medications
Whether you stick your arm out now or later depends on whether the vaccination lasts for a lifetime or loses its potency after a few years. Travelers who visit destinations with lower sanitation standards will need the hepatitis A vaccine only once per lifetime. They must take two doses, with the second dose administered at least six months after the initial shot. However, Julie Tapscott, a nurse practitioner at Farragut Medical and Travel Care in Washington, D.C., said the first dose provides near-total protection. “If more time passes” between doses, she said, “it’s okay.” Yellow fever is also a lifetime vaccination.
Several vaccinations have a shelf life, such as Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) and typhoid. The Tdap vaccination is good for 10 years. The typhoid injection lasts two years (same as the meningitis vaccine), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the dose at least two weeks before travel. The oral option lasts five years but involves several dosages. For all vaccinations, Tapscott recommends waiting one to two weeks before traveling so the shot can “reach peak efficacy.”
For antimalarial pills, the most common prescription is malarone. Travelers must take a daily pill while abroad, plus two days before their trip and a week’s worth after their return. Your infectious-diseases specialist will need to know the length of your trip to prescribe the correct number of pills.
Because of the pandemic, most travel clinics are not accepting walk-ins and are requiring a phone consultation before the appointment.
Servicing your car, outdoor gear and luggage
If your car has been riding out the pandemic in the garage, you will need to give it a thorough once-over before a road trip. Bruce Jenkins, manager of the AAA Club Fleet Depot, said to start with the tires. Check the air pressure and tread. For the latter, push a quarter between the ridges. If you can see the top of George Washington’s head, you might need a new set of wheels. If your brakes squeak, you could be hearing rust. If the noise persists, schedule an appointment with your mechanic. Batteries last three to five years; many service stations offer free battery checks. Inspect your windshield wiper blades to make sure they have not turned into spaghetti strands or melted. Look for cracks, bubbles or fraying in the belts and hoses. And finally, make sure your car windows are clean. Sun glare on a dirty window can feel like an interrogation under a blinding light.
Every car should carry an emergency kit containing a flashlight with extra batteries; a first aid kit (check the expiration dates of the topical creams and ointments); water and snacks; rain ponchos; jumper cables; paper towels; hand sanitizer; masks; and gloves for pumping gas. You won’t need to wear a mask while driving. The CDC recommends face coverings in public spaces; your vehicle is a private enclosure.
To prep your outdoor gear for a future adventure, Jessie Curry, a sustainable business manager with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), suggests performing a dry run on your equipment. For example, pitch your tent, unroll your sleeping bag and trot out your hiking boots. “A lot of things will just need some TLC,” she said. For example, to fluff a flattened down sleeping bag, launder the item with an extra rinse and two dry cycles. Waterproof coating degrades over time but can be easily restored with a spray like Nikwax. To keep ticks away, saturate your clothing with Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray, which lasts up to six washings or six weeks.
If you notice any rips, tears or pulls, try your hand at DIY repairs. Check with the manufacturer or a major outdoor retailer such as REI, which may offer tutorials, or peruse videos by iFixit. If the project exceeds your skill set, the OIA has a list of specialized repair shops organized by state. The roundup is from 2018, so call to make sure the business is still open.
If you must replace your old items, consider renting through REI’s rental program or buying used. Check the obvious portals such as Craigslist, eBay, etc., as well as some unexpected ones, such as thredUp, RealReal and The Renewal Workshop. For retailers and outfitters committed to environmental causes, the OIA counts more than 60 members in its Climate Action Corps.
Follow a similar course of action for your luggage. Clean with a damp cloth and remove the lining for a closer scrub. If you have broken bits like a wheel or retractable handle, contact the company about the warranty or repair policy. Stephanie Goldman, senior director of communications at Samsonite, said most of the company’s products have a 10-year warranty. She added that repairs can take up to two weeks, depending on the severity of the damage, but the average turnaround is less than five days.
Foreign driver's permits and currencies
Not all countries require an International Driver’s Permit, but Debra Morelli, retail manager for the AAA Retail Store in Alexandria, Va., recommends travelers carry one, in case a car rental agent or police officer asks to see it. If you are planning to drive around Latin America, consider the inter-American Driving Permit; Brazil, for one, will only accept this type of permit. The IDP covers more than 150 countries, costs $20 and is valid for a year, so time your start date accordingly. You must acquire the permit stateside. AAA and the American Automobile Touring Alliance are the only dealers authorized by the State Department to issue it. You can submit the application via mail or stop by a local AAA branch.
There is no need to rush to a currency exchange office, bank or AAA office. Unless you are carrying a significant amount of money, the small rate fluctuations won’t significantly affect the amount in your wallet. AAA previously offered next-day service but travelers must now allow a week for their foreign funds to be delivered at a AAA location.