Aug 16, 2021

Without warning, Covid can scuttle even the best-laid travel plans


Iceland's Blue Lagoon

Most of us have learned we can no longer plan travel too far in advance.

Taking the uncertainty of Covid into account, I broke that rule just a little when I planned a trip from Seattle to Iceland in June for travel later this month.  

Praised for its coronavirus response and high vaccination rates, the tiny island nation recorded few Covid cases. Residents led nearly normal lives while other European cities filled their hospitals.

"The situation here is among the best in the world," Prime Minster Katrin Jakobsdottir said at the end of June when Iceland lifted mask requirements, distancing, limits on gatherings and testing for vaccinated travelers.

Then...literally overnight, things changed.

I woke up two weeks ago to a news report that said Iceland's cases were suddenly skyrocketing. Its hospitals and medical staff were overwhelmed. and even vaccinated travelers would now be required to present a negative test to enter the country.

Epidemiologist Kamilla Jósefsdóttir reported that Iceland’s medical infrastructure was being pushed to its limits. Contact tracing will become impossible if the rate of Delta’s spread continues to grow, she warned. And this would trigger yet another spike in the infection rate.

"I think we're going to have to cancel," I told my husband as I scrolled through the report. 

There was nothing stopping us from going. We're both vaccinated. Lots of Americans are there now. But I write frequently about responsible travel, and going to Iceland no longer felt like the responsible thing to do.

This was confirmed a few days later when the European Union added Iceland to a list of "red" countries to which it "highly discourages" travel. The CDC then added Iceland to a roster of destinations rated Level 4, "very high risk," that it recommends avoiding. 

"Because of the current situation in Iceland, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants," the CDC reported.

 What happened for things to change so suddenly?

The country's health officials linked most of the cases to nightclubs and residents who traveled to London to attend the Euro 2020 soccer match. The actual numbers are relatively small, but the country recorded 421 infections per 100,000 people as of August 12 compared to 1.6 around the time I made our plans in June.

Because so many people in Iceland are vaccinated (71 percent are fully- immunized) vaccinated people are getting the virus, but generally are recovering without serious illness. Some say this makes the country a good case study for how an effective vaccine rollout perhaps doesn’t guarantee herd immunity but prevents hospitalizations and deaths.

Downtown Reykjavik

This may be true, but the U.S. still requires returning travelers to show a negative test taken no more than three days before departure, and I was not about to risk the possibility of one of us having to go into quarantine, let alone adding to the country's already over-stressed health care system. As of August 20, Iceland health officials reported that 15% of patients being monitored by its COVID-19 ward were foreign tourists, with 25-40% of patients in the ICU in this group. 

What this experience showed me is that we still are in a pandemic, and all bets are off when it comes to traveling internationally during Covid, vaccinated or not.

Luckily, everything I had booked was cancelable and refundable, including an Airbnb, two excursions, and my Iceland Air tickets for which we received a credit good for three years.

Looking back on a blog post I wrote last November when vaccines were on the horizon. I made some predictions about how travel would unfold in the coming months.

I predicted my husband and I would continue through early winter with the short getaways we had been taking by car around the Northwest. 

Looking ahead to spring of 2021, I envisioned catching up on out-of-town family visits, then in summer, hosting houseguests who had planned to come to Seattle the year before.

 By this fall, I wrote that "I think it's realistic to think about getting back to international travel, picking destinations according to what makes sense post-COVID, rather than automatically falling back on cancelled plans." 

My predictions for spring and summer turned out to be mostly right. We did family visits to Las Vegas and Cincinnati in May and July, and we have houseguests coming in September and October.

International travel was and still is the wild card.

I'm not about to discard the notion of travel all together, but I see no need to press ahead when things seem uncertain, or necessary restrictions get in the way of connecting with others, using public transport, and in general, traveling, eating and drinking hassle-free.

The Iceland trip was to be a birthday celebration. Instead, we'll go to dinner with friends at a favorite Italian restaurant that reminds me of a sitting in a garden in Tuscany.

 I had hoped to join friends in Paris in mid-October. I haven't totally given up on that yet, but  back-up plans are in the works including a few days in San Diego or San Francisco or both.

 And I think this year, I'll hold off on predictions for 2022.


  1. Carol, this is a very helpful post (even though we all wish the news were different!). As a writer who goes to a lot of concerts, I am betting that music and theater and other performing-arts organizations may not be able to present the planned live events in the way they had earlier decided, before the Delta variant has caused so much havoc. And we have to wonder how long these arts groups can continue to exist without the full houses that are necessary to their survival. It's a big worry.

  2. Yep, the only thing you can plan for now is to make last-minute plans. I was lucky to get to Iceland in May when there was virtually no covid there. I have a few ideas for this fall (Quebec, Slovenia, Egypt) but won't make plans yet.