International Travel in a Pandemic

A hummingbird flying, approaching a purple flower.
More than 50 species of hummingbird can be seen in Costa Rica.

Story and photos by Dan Clements

As the number of people who are vaccinated climbs and international travel begins to open up, we thought it might be instructive to talk about our recent trip to Costa Rica. What is international travel like? What documents do you need? What restrictions do you face? What is a “COVID passport” and do I need one?

To add a bit of perspective, my wife Karen and I live north of Seattle, approximately twelve miles from where the initial COVID-19 case in the United States was identified. We lost two friends to the disease early in the pandemic, plus we have a family member who has become a “long-haul” case, with severe symptoms still present more than a year after her infection. We have taken COVID very seriously.

That said, we decided to make plans for traveling outside the US after receiving our COVID vaccinations. After a year without international travel, cancelled trips to China, Mongolia, and the Sinai Peninsula, we were looking forward to visiting other areas and photographing the wildlife. We received our second shots of the Moderna vaccine on February 21, so the stage was set for us to take off.

In late March we flew from Paine Field, north of Seattle, to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, via Los Angeles. This article will discuss why we chose Costa Rica, what it is like traveling during the pandemic, cover COVID vaccine certificates and passports, and how to avoid being another ugly American.

Photo of two monkeys in the limb f a large tree. White-faced capuchins are one of four species of monkey found in Costa Rica.
White-faced capuchins are one of four species of monkey found in Costa Rica.

Where to travel

For us, selecting where to travel was comparatively easy. Even though we were both several weeks past our second immunization dose, we still wanted to travel to a country taking COVID precautions very seriously, yet not requiring US visitors to quarantine upon arrival.

These requirements ruled out most of the globe. Turkey, Armenia, Albania, Costa Rica, and a handful of other countries welcomed US visitors without restrictions. We selected Costa Rica because of its easy access from the Western US. Plus, from what we had read, the country has taken the pandemic very seriously and has a relatively low per capita incidence of the disease. For example, as I write, Costa Rica has 42,261 cases per million population, as compared with 94,401 in the US and 63,962 in the UK.

After selecting Costa Rica as our target country, Iceland and Belize opened up for vaccinated tourists. From my perspective, this will become more and more common. Those who can either prove they have been vaccinated, or recently recovered from the disease, will be welcome. Others will be denied entry.

While Costa Rica does not require a negative COVID test prior to entering the country, they do require special health insurance that covers any possible COVID-related medical expenses one might incur. Insurance policies, health-related information, passport number, airline and seat number, and Costa Rican address are filled out on-line 48 hours prior to the flight into Costa Rica. Travelers are then issued a QR code which is scanned upon entering the country. This is what an edited Costa Rican QR code looks like.

Edited example of the QR code issued prior to arrival in Costa Rica.
Edited example of the QR code issued prior to arrival in Costa Rica.

Also remember that the US requires a negative COVID test within 72 hours of your return flight back to the States. There is a 24 hour turn-around on test results, so we added an additional day on our return leg home. This added and additional $150 to our San Jose hotel bill. COVID tests were about $100 each, so the US testing requirements added $350 in costs to our trip.

If you do test positive while in the country, Costa Rica requires a 14 day quarantine period. The required insurance policy guarantees these expenses can be covered. And remember, vaccines are not 100% effective against COVID. Estimates are 90%-95% for the Moderna and Pfeizer vaccines, so 5% to 10% of travelers may still test positive. The policy for Karen and I cost approximately $400.

On the ground during the pandemic

So what is it actually like travelling on the ground during the pandemic? For most countries mass vaccinations are many weeks, if not months, away. In a country like Costa Rica, they are extremely worried about their health care system being overwhelmed by COVID cases.

As a result, there are widespread mask and social distancing requirements. Masks are to be worn in pubic at all times. We over did it on mask packing. We each had ten of the disposable blue surgical masks, and two cloth masks. I found the blue surgical masks were more comfortable and used two of them during our two-week trip. Wearing masks was OK, but a bit uncomfortable while trapsing through the jungle where the temperature was 90 degrees with 85% humidity. Removing your mask while photographing outside and when out by yourself was considered acceptable.

Our temperatures were taken prior to inter-country flights, and frequently before entering restaurants. We found wide acceptance of these rules, and very little push back, even among tourists from Europe, Mexico, and Guatemala. In fact, the only individuals we saw flouting mask and social distancing requirements were Americans: a couple from Texas, and a family from San Diego. The Texans viewed it as some type of political statement, while the Californians had been vaccinated and felt they would not spread the disease.

In some respects, it was a shame that neither coupe spoke Spanish. They couldn’t explain their behavior and, as a result, were looked down upon for their lack of respect for the health of Costa Ricans. In quiet conversations among themselves, the locals we overheard described these tourists in terms much more derogatory: that “Ugly American.”

White-nosed coatimundis are members of the raccoon family. Photo shows a coatimundi walking on a limb of a tree looking at the viewer.
White-nosed coatimundis are members of the raccoon family.

COVID vaccine cards & vaccine passports

As more and more people become vaccinated, it is apparent that there will be different entry requirements for vaccinated individuals. Since making our Costa Rica travel plans, Iceland and Belize have opened up travel for vaccinated tourists. In the EU, Spain, Italy, and Greece are pushing for similar rules. Here is a look at potential ways COVID vaccinations can be certified.

If you have been vaccinated, in the US, you will have received a CDC card with your name, the dates and lot numbers of your vaccines, and the organization that inoculated you. A couple of problems: 1.) There is no photo on the card; and 2.) There is no government ID, such as driver’s license or passport number listed. As a result, they are quite easy to forge. My guess is that, in the long run, the CDC cards will not be acceptable for international travel. What to do?

First off, while the CDC cards have their limitations, they are presently the main way of telling who has received vaccinations. So treat these cards well. We chose to have a laminated copy of the card that we carry in our passports. Head’s-up: It is recommended not laminating your original card. The heat treatment involved in lamination can cause problems with the lot and dosage stickers on the card. Outlets like Staples and Office Depot are copying cards and laminating them free of charge. Below is an edited CDC card. (See also this NY Times article: What You Need to Know About Your Vaccine Card.)

An edited example of the CDC vaccine card.
An edited example of the CDC vaccine card.

Second, in order to have your COVID vaccinations become an integral part of your medical records, consider having your primary care physician include them in your vaccination history, and added to your electronic medical record (EMR). Our immunizations are part of our physician’s MyChart EMR, and our COVID vaccines have been included. If we are ever in a situation where we have to provide documentation that we have received COVID vaccinations, it is a simple matter to pull up the MyChart vaccine information on the Internet. Immigration would see the following MyChart listing.

Example of My Chart electronic medical record for vaccinations.
Example of My Chart electronic medical record for vaccinations.

A third method of proving you have been vaccinated is to obtain a “Vaccine Passport.” This is a card or an app that has a QR code that can be scanned by immigration officials, or by security for events that require attendees to be vaccinated for entry.  The State of New York recently rolled out its Excelsior Pass, which provides proof that an individual has either been vaccinated, or recently tested negative.

The International Air Travelers Association (IATA) has been developing a system for many months, and is currently in the testing mode with Singapore Airlines and other carriers. The plan is to have it linked to your passport, much like a trusted traveler or NEXUS card.

There are several other proof of vaccination initiatives currently taking place, with at least one up and running. CastleBranch, a South Carolina company specializing in background investigations, rolled out their Vaccination ID card a number of weeks ago. The cost is about $20, and I received my card in early March and have been carrying it in my wallet since.

My Vaccination ID card from CastleBranch.
My Vaccination ID card from CastleBranch.

As mentioned earlier, from my perspective, as an individual who travels a great deal internationally, the handwriting is on the wall. In a short period of time proof of COVID vaccination will be required for non-quarantine entry into many countries.

A red-eyed frog, green with a white belly, sits on a branch. A dazzling array of frogs call Costa Rica home.
A dazzling array of frogs call Costa Rica home.

Our experience, summed up

Karen and I had a most enjoyable trip to Costa Rica. Lots of wildlife and fun photography. The locals went out of their way to be helpful. All they asked in return was to respect their concerns about COVID, and follow the same rules they are following. The only mildly stressful time on our entire trip was waiting for our COVID test results for the flight home to the United States. Came through negative, so no problem.

The cost of complying with Costa Rica’s COVID requirements added about $750 to our trip’s cost ($400 insurance policy, $150 hotel extra night, $200 for US required COVID test). After a year without international travel, the extra costs were worth it. Our photos speak for themselves.

We look forward to visiting more countries in the coming months as the world continues to open up. If you have received COVID vaccinations, and are willing to accept other countries’ efforts to combat the pandemic, consider resuming international travel to countries where COVID is present at low levels.

Everything about the coronavirus pandemic is subject to change, sometimes overnight. Travel restrictions are frequently modified. If you’re planning a trip overseas, check the US State Department’s COVID-19 and Travel Advisories pages, as well as the airlines you’ll be flying and the individual countries you’ll be visiting. And check regularly, in case something changes before departure.

Photo of Donna BrokDan Clements is an adventurer who has a deep appreciation and respect for the world’s natural wonders and life in its many varied forms. He has climbed, skied, sailed, SCUBA dived, and traveled throughout the world: visiting over 75 countries. After a successful 30 year career in public finance, he is working to help develop a greater appreciation of our natural environments through photography, publishing, and travel.

When he is not photographing he enjoys back country skiing, distance running, mountain biking, and opera. Everett, Washington is his base, and where he and his wife raised two sons.

See more of his work at his website or on Instagram.