I’ve been especially cautious during the pandemic. I’ve ventured out, sure, and even took two international trips, but I’ve always worn an N95 mask when indoors outside my home — with the exception of my trip in a fully enclosed Emirates suite, where I “downgraded” to a surgical mask.
After a bit of travel last year, I decided to stay close to home for the first few months of 2021, knowing that a vaccine would soon be within reach. My plan had always been to begin flying again after getting vaccinated — on New Year’s Day, I shared “The 4 flights I can’t wait to book this year after a vaccine.”
While I’m not any closer to any of the flights on that list, now that I’m fully vaccinated, I feel comfortable traveling again — I’m even optimistic enough to begin locking in a few select international trips.
Got the second dose 🙌 First was in the Philly burbs after a bunch of cancellations on a snowy weekend. From there, tons of open slots for #2 in NYC. Please don’t hesitate if you have an opportunity! pic.twitter.com/eIBo3r62Nu
— Zach Honig (@ZachHonig) March 14, 2021
First, I want to be clear — my behavior won’t change overnight, but given the incredibly positive vaccine results, I personally feel comfortable making some adjustments. For example, I’d be willing to fly next to a stranger (while wearing an N95 mask), visit my vaccinated parents indoors without masks, and let down my guard (a bit) with outdoor dining.
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Once my roommates are also vaccinated, I’ll be comfortable doing things like downgrading to a cloth mask, riding on public transportation, joining group tours, working out in a busier hotel gym and — for the first time in over a year — eating inside a restaurant.
These are personal decisions — I certainly don’t want to encourage you to do anything you aren’t comfortable with after you’re fully vaccinated, but with a broad rollout of incredibly effective vaccines, “normal” life is beginning to feel within reach.
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Of course, given that travel is my job, I’m especially eager to get back out on the road. Here’s what I’m planning for the rest of the year.
While my travel has dropped significantly over the past year, most of the trips I did make were in the U.S., largely due to the logistical challenges of flying abroad. “Vaccine passports” and other tools will eventually help make this process easier for vaccinated travelers, but I’m expecting plenty of headwinds throughout the year.
That’s the biggest reason I’m prioritizing domestic trips, but there are plenty of other reasons to limit intercontinental travel, too. For one, shorter flights are generally less expensive, leaving more money to spend on hotel stays, restaurant meals and activities at my destination. I don’t see myself doing a weeks-long round-the-world journey anytime soon.
I’ve already booked a domestic trip for the end of March, and one for early April, too, plus a big West Coast adventure in early summer.
I can say with 100% certainty that this trip is “a go.” After a long, snowy winter in New York City, I’m eager for a beach escape, and now that we’re vaccinated, my girlfriend and I will be heading down to San Juan for six days and five nights on the beach.
We’ll need a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival to avoid an otherwise-mandatory quarantine, but there’s no test required for our flight back to the mainland since it’s a domestic trip.
Best yet, United Airlines is currently flying a 777-200ER with its latest Polaris business class on nonstop flights between Newark (EWR) and San Juan (SJU), making it easy to distance onboard. I ended up paying about $700 for round-trip lie-flat seats — not the cheapest domestic trip, but I didn’t want to risk missing out on an upgrade and getting stuck in 3-4-3 coach.
Booked as two one-way flights, the trip also qualifies for the airline’s Mile Play promo, earning me 20,000 bonus points worth $260 based on TPG’s valuations. As a Premier 1K member, I’ll also earn about 7,300 miles, worth another $95, plus double Premier-Qualifying Points (PQPs) as part of the airline’s Q1 promo, bringing me $1,326 to requalifying for elite status.
As far as hotels, stays are a bit pricey at the moment, given the sudden surge in demand for domestic travel. Rather than dropping $400+ per night on mid-tier chain options, I’m eyeing redemptions with Hilton Honors and Marriott — either 200,000 points for a five-night stay at the Caribe Hilton or 140,000 points for five nights at the Courtyard Isla Verde Beach Resort.
I always try to take at least one big ski trip each year, but with travel limited during the pandemic, I haven’t made it on the slopes this season. All hope is not lost, though — Montana’s ski season runs through April, and I was able to book an incredibly low-cost United flight from New York (LGA) to Bozeman (BZN) for just $114 round-trip.
I’m still working to get the details together, but the trip will likely include a night or two near Bozeman and three nights near Big Sky Resort. Marriott has a Residence Inn nearby, with rates starting at $274 or 30,000 Bonvoy points per night. And, since it’s late in the season, lift tickets start at just $79 — a steal for last-minute passes out west.
United is returning to New York-JFK later this month, and the carrier’s new Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) flights are quite a steal. Regular economy tickets start at $109 each way, and confirmed upgrade space is widely available, too — I locked in round-trip transcon flights in United’s latest business-class seat for just over $200 plus 40 PlusPoints per person.
Once we’re on the ground at SFO, we’ll be making our way south. I’ve been dying to see more of the Northern California coast, and I’ve been especially eager to burn some World of Hyatt points at Ventana Big Sur. For 30,000 points per night, you can score an all-inclusive stay that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars — I locked in three nights when awards were wide open late last year.
From there, it’s a journey up the coast to The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, booked for 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night, followed by three nights at Hyatt’s other Northern California stunner, Alila Napa Valley, which I locked in for 30,000 points.
The rest of the trip is a bit up in the air — we’ll either fly back to the East Coast, continue north through Oregon or catch a flight to Hawaii.
I haven’t made a decision just yet, but as of now, I’m booked on a nonstop United flight from SFO to Kauai (LIH) for $148, which I was able to instantly confirm in first class for 20 PlusPoints — a heck of a deal for a six-hour lie-flat flight to Hawaii.
I booked five nights at Koloa Landing Resort, a Marriott Autograph Collection property in Poipu, for a total of 270,000 Bonvoy points, plus a $35 nightly resort fee.
From there, I’ll either head on to the Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort, where I locked in a six-night stay for 180,000 points, or the new AC Hotel in Maui, with a five-night stay for 200,000 points.
As of now, I have a 40,000-mile United first-class award booked from Kauai to Newark via Denver (DEN), with two lie-flat flights, but I may move to United’s new nonstop from Maui (OGG) to Newark, on the airline’s “swankiest jet,” the 767-300ER.
This is where things get tricky. While the vaccine rollout has really picked up steam in the United States, most other countries are lagging far behind, including the entire continent of Europe. Border restrictions will likely remain in place for quite some time, although many countries are once again warming up to the idea of having vaccinated Americans visit.
Personally, I’m ruling out 2021 travel to the countries that have taken the most aggressive measures when it comes to fighting COVID-19 — especially Australia and New Zealand. Many wealthy countries may limit entry to visitors from areas that have COVID-19 under control, while those that are especially dependent on tourism will be more likely to open their doors.
As much as I’d love to begin knocking more destinations off the “bucket list,” 2021 does not feel like the year to go far out and explore, so I’m limiting myself to countries I’m already familiar with. If I encounter any challenges during my trip, I’m reasonably certain that I’ll be able to quickly make alternative arrangements, thanks to plenty of hotel options and flight availability, and I know I’ll be able to easily communicate with the locals.
So far, I’ve used points and miles to book award trips to French Polynesia, Israel, Japan and Peru. I booked a paid ticket on United’s inaugural flight to Johannesburg (JNB) in June, but it’s fully refundable, so that’ll be easy to cancel if I’m unable to go. Below I’ll explain how I booked each of these trips and what I’m hoping to do on the ground.
Tel Aviv, here I come? My cousin’s getting married in Israel, and as much as I’d love to attend, the wedding’s scheduled for the end of May. Israel is far ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to vaccinations, but I’m not convinced the country will be ready to welcome foreigners just two months from now.
Our flights are locked in, though — round-trip in United’s 787-10 Dreamliner Polaris business class for 150,000 miles per person, worth $1,950, based on TPG’s valuations. Given that paid flights can be booked for less than $900, and United’s offering confirmed upgrade availability, I may cancel our awards and rebook with cash if we’re able to go.
In Tel Aviv, I’d love to stay at The Jaffa, a Luxury Collection hotel, though the property is currently only accepting reservations for August 2021 and beyond. Paid rates start at just under $600 per night, with awards pricing at 50,000 or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points, depending on the date. Otherwise, the Sheraton is another solid option, at around $350 or 50,000 points per night, or we may just end up booking an Airbnb.
One of my favorite things to do is join inaugural flights — when United first launched service from Newark to Cape Town (CPT), I was there on day one, and that’s my plan for the carrier’s Johannesburg (JNB) nonstop, too.
As of now, the airline’s planning to begin daily 787-9 Dreamliner service from Newark to JNB on June 3, and I booked a round-trip flight for $2,128, including business class on the outbound leg and economy (upgraded to business for 40 PlusPoints) on the return.
I’m really hoping I get to go, but given recent concerns around the South African COVID-19 variant, I’m not sure the flight will depart as scheduled — and, if it does, whether or not I’ll follow through.
If I do, I’d love to spend a day or two in Johannesburg before continuing on to Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP), the gateway to Kruger National Park. I’ll spend a few days there before continuing on to Cape Town, or perhaps making my way straight back to the U.S.
I’d love to see more of Peru, and Lima (LIM) is a United MileagePlus sweet spot — you can book lie-flat business-class awards for just 35,000 miles each way! That’s a heck of a deal for an eight-hour nonstop from Newark, at just $910 worth of points round-trip, especially considering that you’ll redeem roughly twice that figure for a transatlantic hop.
As with most of my international trips, I haven’t booked any hotels or activities, though I’d love to spend a few days in the capital of Lima before heading on to Cusco and, of course Machu Picchu.
Believe it or not, Tokyo is one of my favorite places to spend Halloween. Shinjuku is a total blast, and the locals go all out, with elaborate costumes at DisneySea. I’d love to visit parts of Japan I’ve never been to before, too, including the island of Hokkaido in the island nation’s north.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we can count on Japan opening to tourists this year. For now, I was able to lock in round-trip United Polaris flights from Newark to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND) for 70,000 miles each way, worth $910, based on TPG’s valuations, but I’m not planning to book any hotels or domestic flights just yet.
As much as I’d like to visit the other destinations on this list, this is the only one that feels like a sure thing. I visited Bora Bora in 2018 and had a phenomenal time, including a stay at the St. Regis (and the far less luxurious InterContinental Le Moana), so when award availability popped up for flights and hotels, I didn’t hesitate to book.
I was able to lock in two business-class award seats from Los Angeles to Papeete (PPT) on Air Tahiti Nui’s 787-9 Dreamliner for 80,000 American AAdvantage miles, worth $1,120, and return flights from PPT to Newark via San Francisco for 70,000 United MileagePlus miles, worth $910. Both airlines fly similar products on Tahiti routes, with a 2-2-2 lie-flat configuration, but there’s a good chance our plane will get a Polaris upgrade for the return.
On the ground, I locked in five nights at the St. Regis Bora Bora for 340,000 Bonvoy points, worth $2,720, based on TPG’s valuations — roughly the cost of one night when paying cash. We’ll also be staying at the Hilton Moorea, which I booked via a Travelzoo deal, with five nights in a garden bungalow with a private pool for about $1,900, including tax.
I’m also budgeting about $400 per person for Air Tahiti flights between the islands, from PPT to Bora Bora (BOB) and on to Moorea after the St. Regis stay (MOZ). Excluding meals, this trip will cost about $3,000 out of pocket, including round-trip business-class flights and 10 nights at two of the world’s most expensive hotels.
I have to say, as good as it feels to be fully vaccinated, having some flight and hotel bookings locked in for the rest of the year has given me even more hope. While I’m sure some of my plans will change, even the thought of being able to travel again has really boosted my outlook.
Many people have really suffered during the pandemic — financially, physically and emotionally. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the choice to stay home and avoid exposure to COVID-19. As you resume travel, it’s critical to be mindful of the challenges service providers and travel industry workers have faced over the last year, especially overseas.
While various support programs have eased some of the financial pain facing employees in the U.S., that isn’t the case in every country. Be kind, patient and generous, and prepare to tip even more than you did before the pandemic, especially if that’s something you can reasonably afford.
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy
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