Answering Your Questions About Passport Renewal, Solo Travel, and More: Women Who Travel Podcast

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While travel may be the most open that it's been for Americans since the pandemic began, it comes with a lot of complications—from major passport renewal and Global Entry application delays to newly developed travel anxieties. To help you explore in the safest and most prepared way possible, we're answering your burning travel questions in this week's episode of Women Who Travel. Alongside Traveler’s senior editor for transportation and travel news, Jessica Puckett, and city guides editor, Shannon McMahon, we'll cover everything from travel insurance and underrated U.S. cities for solo travelers to how to talk to your family about prioritizing your own travels. 

Thanks to Jessica and Shannon for joining us and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday.

Read a full transcription below.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi, everyone. You're listening to Women Who Travel, a podcast by Condé Nast Traveler. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and with me, as always, is my co-host Meredith Carey.

Meredith Carey: Hello.

LA: While the world is far from reopened, yet, the return of travel is well underway, with many of us taking both domestic vacations and international trips for the first time in more than a year. Of course, with that return also comes a lot of questions, which is why it feels like the perfect time to record another one of our listener-driven FAQ episodes. Joining us today to help answer some of your biggest travel queries right now is Traveler’s senior editor for transportation and travel news, Jessica Puckett.

Jessica Puckett: Hi.

LA: And city guides editor, Shannon McMahon.

Shannon McMahon: Hey everyone.

LA: Thanks for joining us.

MC: So the first question feels like something that's especially relevant right now, and it's from the Women Who Travel Instagram, from a user named @meeshouu. And it's: What do you look for in travel insurance? When it comes to medical coverage, cancellation coverage, COVID coverage—what do you need to be looking for when getting travel insurance right now?

JP: So there are a few options now that we're a little more adjusted to living in traveling during COVID. Some policies that you can buy now offer what's called permanent pandemic coverage. So these are kind of newer policies, and they will cover cancellations or delays due to any illness or individually-ordered quarantines, denied boardings, or any other events or complications that are caused by COVID-19. And they're actually set up for any future outbreaks or epidemics or pandemics, so that is an option from a few insurance providers.

If you can't find that or that doesn't sound appealing, you can always go with your cancel for any reason insurance, which is actually a type of upgrade you can opt into when buying just a normal travel insurance policy. It does usually cost more, but those generally cover any cancellations due to COVID. Most other policies, you have to be cautious because they won't cover any cancellations or trip interruptions due to the pandemic, especially if you're going somewhere where there are government warnings against travel or the CDC says, “Don't go there.” That usually makes your insurance null and void, so just be really aware of that.

MC: Yeah. And I feel like another thing to keep in mind is right now, there are quite a few places—Aruba being one of them, I think The Bahamas might be another—that are requiring you to purchase country-specific travel insurance for your trip before you come, that'll cover things like a medical evac or quarantine or anything like that. So when you are looking into what is required to visit the places internationally that you want to go, make sure you're double checking to see if you need to pre-buy insurance for your trip from that country, because not only will it protect you in the long run, but it'll make sure you actually get into the place that you want to visit.

LA: Obviously COVID is very top of mind when we're thinking about things like travel insurance, but there are other events that can cancel your travel plans last-minute or disrupt them. One thing that's top of mind right now, given that we're in the throes of summer here in the States, are wildfires, for example. Do a lot of these insurance policies factor in those sorts of things, or is that something that you have to look for?

JP: Yeah. So cancel for any reason insurance is probably your best bet for a scenario like a wildfire. I will say that I have a little bit of experience canceling a trip to wine country in California due to a wildfire. But in that instance, I actually did not have any travel insurance and I was able to get a travel waiver for my airline because of the weather conditions there and get my money back. And also, I just worked with the hotel and explained to them that I was nervous being there during a wildfire, and they totally understood and refunded me. So I think now in the middle of COVID, you'll have more understanding on your side and more flexible policies from airlines and hotels. So I would say if you feel stuck in a situation like that really lean into the new flexibility in travel now.

MC: Yeah and I think the thing to note about cancel for any reason is you do have to buy it when you're booking your flight and when you’re booking your hotel and things like that. So it's not something that retroactively you can be like, “Oh, I need to cancel. Let me buy cancel for any reason travel insurance.” It's blanket insurance just to make sure that you can get out of it if you need to should anything happen at all.

JP: That's a really good point, just re-emphasizes that there is usually a window of time where you can do the upgrade to cancel for any reason. And if you miss it, then you miss it and you can't buy it.

LA: So we have another question from Marvel whose passport is expiring in April and wants to know when they should be applying for renewal. They said the official website is confusing. It says six weeks processing time under COVID, but 18 weeks under a different section. It all sounds a bit convoluted, and I've also heard stories of people with very long wait times. Shannon and Jess, what are your thoughts on having to renew a passport right now?

SM: Yeah, I actually am needing to go through this process myself soon, because right now is the time that we haven't traveled in a while, most of us internationally, so it's first good to know when your passport expires. So I took a look at mine recently and realized it's expiring next August, which is when I was supposed to be getting married and going on my honeymoon, hopefully. So I was like, “Thank God I know that now.” And I would say like with COVID, things have just been so crazy that I would definitely err on the longer side of what they're warning. I know that I've seen and heard from some people firsthand that 12-week period is actually for expedited [passports] now because everything is just so backed up, which is crazy. So really if you're trying to travel this fall, you're already kind of tight on that timeline. So I would say the 18-week timeframe, which I think includes processing and the mailing time because you need to account for actually sending your passport in, which to me is so scary to be giving up your passport and not have it on you before a trip. I think the 18 week timeframe is kind of the minimum now, when you're thinking about the possibility of not getting it back in time after you give it up.

MC: I feel like when we were doing our last FAQ episode, we were talking about how if you wanted to book an Airbnb or a rental for the summer, you were already too late. And I feel like that's kind of the same situation here. If you're needing to have a passport for fall, or even early winter trips, you needed to have sent it in yesterday. So I would just, Marvel, your passport expires in April, send it in now. There is no need to wait if you can send it in, have the peace of mind that you're going to have it in a couple of months, well ahead of your April expiration. That is going to be your best bet.

LA: Also, maybe I'm stating the obvious here, but I think it's probably worth flagging that you usually need six months on your passport to travel internationally anyway. So if you are traveling in the fall and your passport is about to expire, you really, really need to get a new passport.

MC: So this question from Maria in the Facebook group is a little less service-oriented and a little more needs a good friend's advice, and that is a question that I think a lot of people who are avid travelers are going to be grappling with as they are able to travel more. And so, Maria asked, how do I explain that I want to travel for me first and to see my extended family second? Lale, I feel like you might be able to offer some words of wisdom.

LA: I don't know if they are words of wisdom, but I can definitely offer my own personal opinion. I think it's very important to note that she specified extended family, so I'm assuming this is not talking about parents or siblings or anyone that you consider your immediate family. Obviously the past year has taught us that family does, if you're lucky enough to have family in your life with whom you have a good relationship with, they do come first. And when you can't see them, you really feel that—and I say that from personal experience. But that is not to say that also the past year hasn't at least highlighted for me the importance of being selfish and doing things on my own terms. I think we all really deserve to look after ourselves right now, and if travel is a form of self-care for you, then I think it is very important to prioritize that. And I think there is a way of meeting your extended family in the middle. Perhaps, I don't know where they're located, but you could tack on a trip, a personal trip, a solo trip, onto a trip to go see them if they're somewhere else in the country, or even somewhere further-flung, so that you kind of get to touch on your own personal travels as well as family travel.

I also think that one thing that I've learned is that I have done quite an impressive job of bigging up hard conversations in my head and thinking that people are going to be really upset when I say that I can't attend something. And for the most part, people have been incredibly accommodating and accepting and understanding that this is a strange time for everyone, and we're all just trying to find our feet again. So my advice would probably be, if you can't tack on a personal trip while going to see that extended family, actually just speak honestly with them and say that it's really important that you take this trip first and pinpoint a time on the calendar that you can see them. Aside from the fact that everything does tend to still feel a little unpredictable, this is the most open that travel has felt in a long time, and I think you can kind of start to make plans. And I think the most important thing is to have something on the calendar. And if you go and take a trip for yourself before that, then who cares? They also didn't even need to know.

And I also think another thing to remember is that going to see family doesn't always count as vacation. Often we have to use vacation days to make those trips, but that in itself is not a vacation. Make some time to take a vacation—we all need it.

MC: Shannon or Jess, do either of you have anything you want to say to Maria about traveling first for her and then seeing her family?

JP: I think just being really clear and upfront about the fact that we all have so many demands on our time right now travel-wise. Like Meredith, I know you can relate, and Lale, I think you have a few weddings on the calendar that you have to go to that were supposed to happen in 2020. Just being really clear that your calendar is filling up and you need your own time and space to kind of reconnect with yourself. I know I used to do that in my apartment, but now it's kind of like a crowded space or it's my office too. So I can't really get that time to unwind. So I need to travel on my own with no other family commitments. And I think just kind of being upfront about that can be very helpful.

MC: So speaking of reconnecting with yourself, I don't know if Maria wants to go on a solo trip, but Jenna asked on Instagram, what our favorite solo travel destinations in the U.S. were that weren't L.A. or New York. Shannon, do you have any favorites?

SM: Yeah, my favorite is actually Chicago. It's just one of my favorite cities in the US, and the people are so friendly. If you want to talk to people and be alone, go to the Midwest. And it has amazing food. You can just go chill on the beach and meet people. I love to go to Chicago and just sort of go with the flow. I used to visit friends there, but would try to spend a day by myself on either end when I did go. And I just miss it. It's such a fun city to be in and do truly whatever you want.

JP: I had Chicago on my list, too. That's so funny. But then I was also thinking of other beach locations. When I think of relaxing solo travel, I think of the beach. For me, that's definitely closest to me that I like to go to is Rhode Island. I think Newport would be a great place to travel solo because you can go to the beach. You can go to the mansion tours. There's cool restaurants and stuff. You can just kind of bop around and have many different flavors of a trip, all wrapped into one. And if you're based in the Northeast, it's just a quick Amtrak ride away.

LA: It's funny that Jenna said not L.A. or New York, because while I think New York is a great place for a solo trip, I would not recommend L.A. to anyone because—and I say this, I love L.A., it's actually one of my favorite cities in the country, but it's not a walking city, and it doesn't have great public transport, something that it famously does not have, and I think that's key if you're traveling solo. I think you need walkability in a city or you need to have a really great transport infrastructure. You don't want to think about getting around. And if you're on your own, you don't want to spend a bunch of money on Ubers. And you don't necessarily want to drive everywhere and be stuck in traffic. You want to be experiencing the city or the place that you're in on your own, around the clock. So one place I was going to suggest, which I had never traveled solo to, but I know that Mere is a big fan of is New Orleans.

MC: That was my pick, but keep going.

LA: No, I'm going to pass the mic to you because I think you're going to do better case selling it than I will.

MC: Well, no, I think what you were saying about walking is so important. And I think the way that I travel solo is so much less planned than the ways that I travel with a group. For some reason, when I travel with a group, I feel like we need to know where we're going, what we're seeing, so that everyone's needs are met. And when I travel by myself, I say, “Okay, today I'm going to this neighborhood,” and I'm just going to walk around, and there's like some level of spontaneity. And if I meet someone and they're like, “Oh, you should check out this place down the street,” you just have the total flexibility to do that and do whatever you want. And I feel like New Orleans has such great neighborhood pockets for you to be able to do that and just go to Magazine Street for the day. And all you do is just go and eat and shop and walk and meet people up and down Magazine Street. And I also think people are super friendly there. Every time I go there, I end up playing telephone in pretty much every store that I go to. And I'm like, “Okay, if you were here visiting, where should I go next, after I go to this store? I'm hungry for lunch. What should I eat?” And I just let people kind of decide where I'm going. And that is honestly my favorite way to explore New Orleans. And I think it's somewhere that I really enjoy traveling to by myself.

The other place that I like for a pretty similar reason, though it's not as walkable, is Nashville, kind of for the same people reason as New Orleans, which is that the many times I have been in Nashville on my own, I have made great friends that I've actually kept in touch with long after the trip ends. Bartenders, shopkeepers, just people that I talked to along the trip. And yeah, I think people are just really open to chat in Nashville. And I think you can do Nashville by yourself in a way that doesn't involve running into every bachelorette party on the planet. You just have to kind of plan around Broadway and make choice decisions of where you want to go, based on your interests and what you want to do while you're there. So New Orleans and Nashville are my two picks.

Now that I've stolen New Orleans from you Lale, do you have any other suggestions?

LA: Well, this isn't so much a suggestion as an observation. One thing that I think that Nashville and New Orleans share is an incredibly electric and also accessible nightlife. And one thing that I find really challenging when I'm traveling alone, as someone who loves nightlife and loves staying out late, loves partying, is it's really hard to do it if you're by yourself. And it's really hard to kind of crack a nightlife scene of a new place if you're by yourself and you don't have people to go out with. I think even if you're the sort of boldest, most confident person, beyond going having a drink at a bar alone, it's hard to kind of really get immersed in that scene.

But in New Orleans and in Nashville, it's just everywhere. It's just out in the street. You don't even have to go inside anywhere in New Orleans to feel the nightlife and feel that energy. And it's also, I think, a city in where it feels very accepted to walk into a bar and listen to music by yourself and experience that side of the city, which I think is quite rare. And so, for me, that's another draw, is being able to stay out late on my own and a place that feels inviting and accessible.

MC: I think revolving solo trips around music, now that I think about it, I'm like, “Austin's a great solo travel city, too.” That's like a really good way to think about it because it is so normal to go sit in a country bar, a jazz bar, rock bar, and listen to music by yourself. You're not going to look out of place at all, not that you would look out of place if you wanted to go anywhere by yourself. But so interesting, music cities, great for solo travel.

LA: On the topic of nightlife, nightlife often comes with crowds, which is something that I don't think many of us feel used to after a year and a half of the pandemic and social distancing. And Stephanie submitted a question asking how we suggest people deal with post-pandemic social anxiety when it comes to traveling again, specifically when moving through and being among crowds.

JP: I think a lot of people can relate to this right now. I know I'm feeling a little bit of this nervousness or anxiety with the Delta variant coming around, so it's definitely top of mind. I edited a piece about tackling that travel anxiety when you're going back to a crowded airport or a crowded train or a crowded plane, and there's a few different tactics you can take.

First, personally, I would do research on where I'm going, just to kind of know how vigilant I should really be. What's the vaccination rate? Are there cases on the rise? Just so I can kind of have context. And second, if I were traveling with anyone else, like my partner or a group, or even just alone, I would be really clear with myself or my travel companions on what I'm comfortable with and what I'm not comfortable with. Like maybe being inside a restaurant or a museum feels okay. But if you're in a crowded karaoke bar, that might be too much for you and that's where you draw the line. So really just setting those boundaries for yourself. Maybe you want to jot them down so every decision doesn't feel so fraught, that's something I would definitely do.

And if you're in a situation that you can't really control or you can't really get out of, like you have to be on that plane or in that airport that's full of people, I would just try to remind myself that there are some safeguards in place. People still technically have to wear masks in airports and on planes. They might try to get around that, but the majority of people will follow that. And they are really strong air filters in place. I'm vaccinated too. So just try to go over those safeguards in your head.

Also, you can call a trusted friend and just have a calm conversation. Maybe you can tell them ahead of time you're traveling on these days and you might feel a little frantic or nervous so you can have a nice cheery chat with somebody. And maybe just save something to do on the plane or in the airport that you're looking forward to. Maybe it's downloading a movie you really like or a show you haven't seen that you've been wanting to watch. For me, it would probably be doing a crossword puzzle that I'm really looking forward to. Anything that can kind of just help you look forward to that time instead of just the dread, I think would help improve it.

SM: I think the first part of what Jess said is just so important. I heard an epidemiologist recently say that traveling during COVID now is sort of like dressing for the weather. And I just feel like researching, like you would for any travel, but just researching the epidemiological situation beforehand and sort of knowing your boundaries based on that is so important because you don't want to find yourself in a city where you're overwhelmed by some news that you find out while you were there. You always want to know the situation before you're on the ground.

LA: I love that weather analogy. It makes it feel so much less daunting and so much more manageable. And think about it in the same way where it's like, “Okay, well it's raining, so maybe I won't go outside,” and you can think about that in terms of case rates and your own comfort level. And I think comfort level is a huge thing here. And obviously if you're traveling, you can't avoid going through busy airports or train stations unless you are taking a road trip. But beyond that, you can plan your trip around things that make you feel comfortable and maybe you don't feel ready to be in a big city right now, so you want to plan something that's more focused on the outdoors and being in big open spaces, and not going too crowded or popular tourist destinations.

MC: I think the thing that I try to keep in mind is that yes, I want to set boundaries for myself, but I also kind of want to give myself an exit plan. So when I am at an airport and the gate is too busy and it makes me feel uncomfortable, I'm going to go and sit six, seven gates away. At this point, if you listen to or follow Women Who Travel, you probably know well enough when your plane is going to be boarding, it's not going to take off without you. So just plan to be there just before your plane takes off, or maybe when your group boards, just kind of adjust your timing that way so that you don't necessarily have to be sitting at a crowded gate. You could sit at a gate where no plane is taking off at that point. Or if you are going to a restaurant and it just looks too crowded, you go to the takeout option and you go sit in a park nearby. Just always having those kinds of alternative choices to make, to make sure that you're not yourself beyond your comfort zone or what you think is safe. I think we all need to cut ourselves a little bit of slack. And if you aren't comfortable in a crowd, I would just make decisions ahead of time or give yourself some scenarios to think through where you can get out of that situation and still have a great time, but maybe not in a crowd.

LA: And not enjoying crowds is a very-

MC: That was a long, that was a pre-pandemic situation.

LA: Yeah. I would say plenty of people hated crowds before the pandemic.

SM: I did. Nothing has changed.

MC: Well, thank you guys so much for joining us today. If people want to follow your travels and see what you guys are up to, where can they find you on the internet?

JP: I'm on Twitter, @jesspuck.

SM: I am on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

MC: I'm @ohheytheremere.

LA: I'm @lalehannah.

MC: Be sure to follow Women Who Travel on Instagram. We will also link that traveling in an airport story and some other stories that kind of go along with some of the questions that we answered today in the show notes, so be sure to check this out if you want more information. Be sure to sign up for our bi-weekly newsletter and we'll talk to you next week.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler