Best vacation destinations for Americans during COVID-19: Updated
With most of the world's borders being shut tight since March of 2020, you can forgive many of us for being desparate to plan a vacation other than a weekend road trip. Nearly all summer trips to Europe in 2020 had to be cancelled and at this point we are still unsure that a summer 2021 trip will be possible. Is there any good news for those Americans (and Canadians) wanting to plan an international trip in the coming late autumn and winter? The answer is YES, and things are much better than you would probably guess.
As the temperatures drop in the northern areas we naturally want to head south for sunny beaches, and the great news is that almost ALL of our favorite destinations are actually open and welcoming American and Canadian visitors. Mexico and the Dominican Republic are among the most popular and easiest destinations to visit, but also quite a few other Caribbean islands and even some Pacific islands including Bora Bora are ready to be booked.
- 0.1 The information below can change
- 0.2 Important update for Americans
- 0.3 Is flying dangerous?
- 0.4 What about Europe for summer 2021?
- 1 Mexico
- 2 Caribbean: Large and affordable islands
- 3 Caribbean: Smaller islands
- 4 Elsewhere in the Americas
- 5 Other popular holiday islands
The information below can change
This article was first published in on October 9, 2020 and all of the information is current. Since the situation can change very quickly, we will be updating this article at least on a weekly basis. We are also providing links to official sources for each destination, so you can check those for up-to-the-minute rules and policies.
UPDATED April 27, 2021. All of the information below is current as of this last update.
Important update for Americans
Starting January 26, all those flying into to the United States must provide a negative COVID test taken within 3 days of arrival. This INCLUDES US citizens, which means that Americans who go to any of the places on the list below WILL have to get a COVID test within 3 days of returning.
We've heard that many larger hotels and resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean have started in-house tests for guests (Hyatt has announced free tests for guests at its Mexico and Caribbean resorts), and also that getting tested in most popular resort areas is fairly easy. That said, it's critical that you get that figured out before you leave the US and hopefully before you book a trip.
The good news is that as of April 2021, the nearly-instant tests offered by hotels are very widespread and are working well. It's still very important to get this figured out before you book, but it appears that getting back into the US is not a major issue for the vast majority of travelers who leave and return.
Is flying dangerous?
Being packed together on a big airliner is challenging during normal times, and many people are justifiably concerned that it might also be very dangerous during a pandemic like this. Each of us has our own level of risk tolerance and some people believe that no one should take a leisure trip for the foreseeable future, but so far flying actually seems to be rather safe.
As of October, we've yet to see any major COVID-19 spreading events on commercial plane trips, and experts mostly credit this to mask-wearing and the surprisingly effective filtration systems on modern planes. Interestingly, the air on planes mostly comes from the ceiling and is filtered down towards the floor, and not from the front of the plane to the back or vice versa. That said, there have been a few cases of transmission on very long flights of 10 hours or more. It's up to each of us to decide.
What about Europe for summer 2021?
Greece – In late April, 2021, Greece announced that it was open to US and other foreign travelers this summer who are vaccinated or provide a negative PCR test that is less than 72 hours old upon arrival. There are a few small Greek islands where nearly all of the residents have been vaccinated, but as of late April most of the country is still under lockdowns and curfews. In other words, even if they will allow you in the country, you might not be able to do much more than sit in your hotel room. Hopefully this will get better soon.
UK – Unlike the rest of Europe, the UK is doing quite well with vaccinations and the COVID infection rate is WAY down from earlier in the year. Unfortunately, they are still requiring that visitors go through a 10-day quarantine upon arrival, so there isn't much point in booking a vacation until that goes away. It seems possible that the UK will be fairly open to vaccinated visitors at some point in this summer, but it's too early to book because it might not happen.
Unfortunately, things are not looking good for any sort of normal-ish travel for the rest of Europe in summer of 2021. Visitors can technically go to the UK, Ireland, and Malta, but then face tests and long, mandatory quarantines of at least 10 days. While that might not be impossible for those moving to those countries, it would pretty much ruin a normal leisure trip. You'd also likely face some lock-downs and many ongoing closures if you did try it.
Autumn of 2021 still seems possible and we will continue to update the situation as things develop.
Fortunately for Americans and Canadians, Mexico is allowing tourists these days with very few restrictions. Since winter is the busiest time of year in Mexico, the country should be the most popular destination by far, and staying relatively safe should be fairly easy.
COVID-19 rules: Land borders are restricted but flights are not. A negative test is NOT required, though passengers can expect to be screened (not tested) at airports upon arrival. Land borders were set to reopen to Americans on November 21, but it's now been pushed back (again) to at least December 21. It's better to just fly.
These popular beach resort areas are all served by the busy Cancun International Airport, although the island of Cozumel has its own small airport with some international flights as well. Cancun itself is mainly a gorgeous strip of large hotels along a peninsula, while Playa del Carmen and Cozumel more resemble towns with varied smaller accommodations.
There are some excellent all-inclusive resorts all throughout this area, and those might be the best option to stay safe because they tend to be nicely spread out and it's much easier for operators to keep up with strict safety precautions. This area is the easiest Mexican destination to reach for most people in the eastern US and Canada, as well as for all Europeans.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $215 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $342 for two people
Mexico's premiere Pacific resort area is the best choice for most Americans and Canadians in the western half of those countries. This former fishing village has a lovely historic center with some wonderful hotels, but during COVID it's probably best to book at one of the many large beach hotels up and down the coast here.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $147 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $343 for two people
Quite a bit smaller than Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos could be the best choice for those on the Pacific coast of the US and Canada. The main town area is a fun and useful cruise port, but during COVID it's probably better to stay at one of the larger hotels along the western or southern beach zones. Cabo is the trendiest destination for famous folks these days, although part of that is because it's rather spread out and easy to avoid groups. That also makes it a good and safe choice during COVID.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $284 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $439 for two people
Caribbean: Large and affordable islands
Good news for those who love affordable all-inclusive resorts is that the Dominican Republic is ready for you. Most guests to these resorts tend to stay on the property the entire stay anyway, so they are wonderfully set up with everything you need. As long as the resort practices safety precautions, this should be one of the safest places to travel in the coming months.
COVID-19 rules: Arriving passengers have to fill out a health form, and anyone showing any symptoms is likely to get a screening at the airport. That's it.
Punta Cana is by far the DR's most popular destination for beach resorts, and especially for large all-inclusive resorts. Most of them are owned and operated by large European (mostly Spanish) resort companies so you should be able to expect high attention to detail and safety precautions.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $242 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $243 for two people
La Romana is close to Punta Cana and often you'll see its resorts included in the Punta Cana listings. The famous Casa de Campo all-inclusive resort is still popular here, but there are plenty of other great choices as well. The beaches in this part of the DR are top-notch, and the new highway system makes it surprisingly easy to get around.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $179 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $299 for two people
Along the Dominican Republic's northern coast you'll find Puerto Plata, which is a bit more old-school than Punta Cana, although there are many newer resorts as well. You won't find the island's best beaches here, but you do tend to get excellent value in its all-inclusive resorts. Flights into Puerto Plata can be cheap, which is another bonus.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $83 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $135 for two people
Samaná is more low-key than the other resort areas in the DR, so it could be a good choice for those who like to stay away from crowds. You'll find some smaller beach hotels here at reasonable prices, as well as some larger places similar to those found in the areas mentioned just above. Flights into Samaná are not always cheap, but fortunately it's served by a few different airports so finding a good airfare is usually possible.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $201 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $143 for two people
Along with Mexico and the Dominican Republic, the island of Jamaica is home to endless sandy beaches and scores of excellent beach resorts. There are three major clusters of resorts, and all three are served by the busy Montego Bay International Airport near the northwest corner of the island. Jamaica is also the only affordable Caribbean island where almost everyone you encounter speaks fluent English.
Well-heeled travelers can even choose from two different overwater bungalow resorts in Jamaica. Sandals offers these amazing accommodations starting at around US$2,000 per night and there is a 3-night minimum to even get that price.
COVID-19 rules: All visitors 12 years and older must have a negative COVID test that is fewer than 10 days before the arrival date, and an application completed between 2 and 5 days before arrival.
The town of Montego Bay is centered around its disappointing “Hip Strip” area, and during COVID you have even more reason to skip it. Fortunately, there are some really wonderful large beach hotels, including quite a few all-inclusives, that should be relatively safe choices for a winter holiday. The large and busy airport is right in town and that makes it an ideal choice for a shorter trip where you don't want to spend hours getting to one of the other areas after a long flight.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $206 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $289 for two people
Also a popular cruise port, Ocho Rios is home to dozens of large resort hotels stretching along the northern coast of the island. The town of Ocho Rios (locally called ‘Ochi') is also kind of a dud, so skip it and book at one of the big hotels where you won't need to leave the resort until you are heading back to the airport on departure day.
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $336 for two people
With amazing sunset beach views along Jamaica's western coast, Negril is old-school Jamaica and the best place to actually interact with locals. The 7-Mile Beach area is lined with large resorts mixed with smaller family-run places and restaurants in between. You can find high-end all-inclusive resorts here as well as affordable small hotels where your room is literally a few steps from the water.
- Good 4-star beach resorts in January from $234 for two people
- Good 4-star all-inclusive resorts in January from $406 for two people
Caribbean: Smaller islands
Antigua and Barbuda (nearly all of the hotel rooms are on Antigua, especially after the 2017 hurricanes) are very scenic islands where many celebrities and other rich people have homes. Quite a few of the resorts are very pricey, but there are some moderately priced resorts as well and flights from the US can be surprisingly cheap at times.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors must show a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR (real time polymerase chain reaction) test result, taken within seven (7) days of their flight
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $208 for two people
One of the Caribbean's more affordable islands, Aruba is just north of Venezuela and it's almost completely flat. This place used to be run by the Dutch, and it remains very popular with visitors from northern Europe. The airport is busy and flights can be quite reasonable, which is true for many of the island's hotels as well.
COVID-19 rules: Aruba requires a negative test from any visitor over 15 years old, or a test upon arrival. Citizens from quite a few US states also require “additional testing” and information is on the website linked below. You must also purchase Aruba visitors insurance from them, which runs about US$10 per day for most people.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $253 for two people
Spread out over a huge area with some islands just a ferry ride from southern Florida, the Bahamas have resort areas on many of their flat islands. The busiest and most famous place is Nassau and Paradise Island just across the bridge, which is home to the stunning Atlantis Resort. The second most popular island is Grand Bahama and its main town of Freeport. Hotels here are more expensive than you might have guessed, so it might be better for a short trip rather than a relaxing week.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors must apply for an online health visa for the Bahamas, which includes a negative test within 5 days of your arrival.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $203 for two people
Among the most remote of the Caribbean islands, Barbados is also one of the loveliest. They've got quite a few large and medium sized chain hotels in a few different parts of the island, as well as a long beach strip along the west coast that is more or less the “Beverly Hills” of the Caribbean. Many rich and famous are regulars in Barbados and quite a few have homes. Fortunately, the regular hotels come in all price ranges.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors must complete an online application at least 24 hours before arrival, and provide proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours of arrival, so that's a pretty tight window and you'll obviously have to take a test where you get the results almost immediately. You'll also have to quarantine at your hotel for at least the first five days of your stay.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $201 for two people
Known for pink-sand beaches and some holdover British culture, Bermuda is well north of the Caribbean Sea and it has actual seasons that need to be paid attention to. Some good news is that it's often possible to get surprisingly cheap flights to Bermuda from the US, but the bad news (for some of us) is that there are essentially no budget-friendly hotels on the island.
COVID-19 rules: Bermuda requires an application fee of US$75 per passenger and also a negative Covid-19 PCR test result. Upon arrival you'll have to take another COVID test and then quarantine at their accommodation until the results are ready, which is usually within 24 hours.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $197 for two people
Easily among the most beautiful of the volcanic Caribbean islands, Grenada has become a popular cruise ship stop, and it's also gaining popularity for longer-term guests. There aren't many resorts on Grenada yet, which also means that the island will feel much less touristy than most others as long as the cruise ships are still not going.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors to Grenada are required to submit a negative PCR test taken within 7 days of arrival. You also have to have a reservation for at least 4 nights at an approved accommodation for observation and quarantine. After four nights you can take another test and move about freely if the result is still negative.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $200 for two people
Known to most people as simply ‘St. Barts', Saint Barthélemy deserves its reputation as the prime destination for the very rich and very famous. It's a small island that is officially part of France. It has only about 30 hotels and most of these are small. Most of the regular visitors stay in condos or other home rentals that can range into the stratosphere price range.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors to St. Barts need to provide a negative test that was taken within 72 hours of arrival. Those wanting to stay more than 7 days will need to take another test on the 8th day. UPDATE: St. Barts being part of France is currently closed to visitors, although they are trying to get an exemption as of March, 2021.
Many people believe that St. Lucia is the single most beautiful of the Caribbean islands, although the views in the popular hotel zones aren't quite as spectacular as the views of the famous Piton mountains in the south of the island. Still, St. Lucia is gorgeous and it's home to many wonderful beach resorts, including a Sandals that has some of the Caribbean's only overwater bungalows.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors to St. Lucia will need to provide a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 7 days of arrival. You'll also need to have reservations at one of the approved hotels on the island so they can monitor you and make sure precautions are all being followed while you are there.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $192 for two people
The Caribbean's only island that is run by the French in the north and the Dutch in the south, Sint Maarten/St. Martin is another popular stop for cruise ships so it's much less crowded these days. Hotels here are more reasonably priced than many people expect, and flights can be affordable as well.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors must submit an rt-PCR test for the SARS-COV-2 virus obtained from a naso-pharyngeal swab only and performed within 120 hours prior to departure to St. Maarten.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $199 for two people
Technically just north of the Caribbean Sea, Turks and Caicos islands are famous for some of the regions best beaches. There are some large chain hotels including some all-inclusive places and they tend to be quite expensive. Some of the smaller hotels can be more affordable, and flights are often fairly cheap compared to other islands.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors must submit a negative COVID-19 test that was taken within 5 days of arrival. You also have to complete an online health questionnaire and prove that you have travel insurance that would cover any COVID-related costs.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $278 for two people
Elsewhere in the Americas
Anyone who'd like to explore Central America for the first time should probably head to Costa Rica first, although Belize is another decent option. Costa Rica has by far the region's most organized tourism infrastructure with a great mix of beach hotels and inland adventures. The Guanacaste region in the north along the Pacific is home to most of the more modern beach resorts and is the best choice for those who speak little or no Spanish.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors from all US states will be allowed into Costa Rica as of November 1, 2020, and many states are allowed before that date. You'll need to complete a Health Pass and now a negative test is NOT required. You'll also need to show that you have travel insurance, or buy it when you arrive.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $153 for two people
Once known as British Honduras, Belize is the only Central American country with English as an official (and commonly used) language. This is very helpful for those of us who took a language other than Spanish in school. Belize feels a surprising amount like a little Jamaica, although sandy beaches are harder to find than you might expect. Still, the resort islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are a lot of fun and the Placencia Peninsula does have many great, sandy beaches. Belize is a hot spot for diving and snorkeling, with the second largest coral reef in the world just off shore.
COVID-19 rules: Belize opened back up to tourists on October 1 and they are requiring visitors to download their health app to prove your status as someone who submitted a negative COVID test less taken less than 3 days before arrival. Visitors also have to stay within the approved resort areas and hotels, though that shouldn't be a problem for most people.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $185 for two people
While the modern and busy Panama City is a big draw during normal times, we are guessing that most visitors during COVID-19 would prefer a beach resort. Panama isn't really known for beach resorts like some of its neighbors, but it does have a few, and particularly the San Blas Islands could be a great choice.
COVID-19 rules: Visitors must show a negative COVID-19 test taken less than 48 hours of arrival time in Panama. Since that isn't easy for many people they are fortunately able to test visitors upon arrival if they don't have a very-recent test.
Anyone interested in a South American holiday in the coming months can at least consider Brazil as a possibility. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed so winter is coming up. Rio de Janeiro is just outside of the Tropics and its weather is actually lovely all year round, so visiting in January is not a terrible idea, or at least it wouldn't be in normal times.
COVID-19 rules: As of December 30, 2020, Brazil now requires that visitors fill out a health declaration AND provide a negative COVID-19 test taken less than 3 days before boarding the flight to Brazil.
- Good 4-star hotel in January from $94 for two people
Other popular holiday islands
Honeymooners and other romantic couples get a bit of good news with the fact that French Polynesia is back open for business. You can book an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora or on the slightly more affordable island of Moorea. The accommodations and resorts are rather spread out and small even during normal times, so they should be safer than average choices.
COVID-19 rules: UPDATE: French Polynesia CLOSED to tourists starting February 3 until at least April 1, 2021, but it is now scheduled to reopen on May 1, 2021. Any bookings after that date should assume similar rules to before.
The Maldives is home to about two thirds of the world's 10,000 or so overwater bungalows, which are usually called ‘water villas' here. This island country located just southwest of India has well over 100 “private island” resorts that (by law) each occupy one island. The Maldives is very popular with Europeans and Asians because it's a much more reasonable distance from those places, but some Americans have been known to make the trip for special occasions.
COVID-19 rules: Arriving visitors must present a negative result for a PCR Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival. One tricky part about that for Americans is that it literally takes about 24 hours to get from the US to Male International Airport, usually with a plane change in the Middle East or Europe.