Doc's note: I first met Kim Iskyan in the famous Baltimore steakhouse The Prime Rib. Kim fell right into place with us, here, at Stansberry Research – he had stories about starting a stock exchange in a former Soviet republic, he's traveled to more than 90 countries and speaks several languages. And he's spent more than two-thirds of his life living outside the U.S. (in nine countries total). We hired him that night.
Since then, he's been part of our international investment advisories and has launched and operated a business for us in Singapore. Now, he's joining our team as a special contributor, sharing his insight into the global experience that's possible for folks with dreams of a different world. By the way, he lives the global experience – he lives in Ireland and still globe-trots for investment and lifestyle ideas. So, what I also enjoy about Kim is his political insight into places beyond our shores... enjoy!
You might think that right now – as the pandemic hits its northern hemisphere wintertime stride – is probably the worst time to travel in... forever.
That's certainly what the coronavirus police would have you think. In mid-December – when daily new cases of COVID-19 were 50,000 below current levels – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") cautioned that "postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others."
"Stay home," warned the head pandemic model in Ireland, where I (Kim Iskyan) live... and where daily new infections just hit a new high that's five times higher than the worst point in April.
Pandemically speaking, at least, they're correct. Joining your extended family for a homemade super-spreader event or jostling for position in a faraway crowded bar with dozens of unmasked strangers are terrible ideas.
I hesitate to say this – insert legal disclaimer here – but if you exercise some simple precautions, right now is actually a fantastic time to travel. Especially if you're looking to go beyond America's shores and see some of the rest of the world.
Reason No. 1: A lot of hassle of flying to faraway places stem from too many other people with the same idea. And right now, no one is traveling. The World Tourism Organization says that international travel fell by around 80% last year. According to the International Air Transport Association, international air traffic in November (the latest available data) was down by 88% from the same month the prior year.
As of November, about four out of every 10 seats were filled on international flights – compared to a bit more than twice that level in November 2019. By comparison, six of every 10 seats on U.S. domestic flights now are occupied.
With travel down so much, you might wonder why planes aren't 90% empty. Airlines have slashed the number of flights to try to stay afloat.
Of course, those November numbers are averages. During the half-dozen or so pandemic-era international flights I've taken, I've had a row to myself every single time (my batting average is about .250 during pre-pandemic times). That makes for a much more comfortable flight and makes social distancing a lot easier. And the usual bum-rush into and off of the plane is a much more civilized and socially distanced affair.
Many flight attendants – at least in my recent experience – today seem downright happy to be there, even if the full-body hazmat suits make it look like they're about to wade into a nuclear waste swamp. Thirty airlines went bust in 2020, and dozens more are zombies kept alive only with state aid. So, unlike many of their colleagues, at least they still have a job.
Reason No. 2: Flying is a lot cheaper now. My favorite airline, Qatar Airways, is practically giving seats away, with discounts of 25% to 75% on pre-pandemic prices.
Some airlines looking to get as much cash in the door as quickly as possible are offering steep discounts for future flights that you can take at any time. Unless you're booking with a national flag carrier that's treated like a national treasure – and is thus virtually guaranteed to make it through the pandemic hardships (think Singapore Airlines or Emirates or Qatar) – it's probably a good idea to pass on these offers. A future flight on an airline that goes bust is a flight to nowhere.
The big question, though: Is it safe to fly? After all, being packed into an aluminum tube for hours while inhaling the recycled breath of hundreds of strangers sounds like a petri dish in waiting.
But it might not be so bad. Air quality, thanks to high-powered filters that are similar to those used in hospitals, refresh cabin air every two to four minutes. Sitting with as much space as possible from others helps – and staying by a window is a good way to limit interaction with aisle walkers.
And of course, the normal rules apply: Don't touch your face, and wear a mask. "While there are risks associated with flying, it may be safer than you think," explains MIT Medical.
If you're ready to fly, the next challenge is that much of the world is off-limits to international travelers – especially if you're coming from the United States. The mishandling of the coronavirus by the U.S. government has meant that dozens of countries have barred Americans coming from the U.S. from entering.
Consider this... a year ago, an American passport could get you visa-free entry into 184 countries, making it one of the most valuable travel documents on earth (citizens of Japan and Singapore could get into a few more). But with the imposition of coronavirus travel restrictions, in August, that same passport would open the doors to just 29 countries.
Today, the menu of destination options for Americans has roughly doubled, but with restrictions. Some countries require a negative coronavirus test prior to boarding or upon arrival. Others ask that visitors self-quarantine after they arrive and provide contact details (see this CDC website for details). But to be sure, check with the embassy website of your destination before you book a trip – and before you take off, in case the rules have changed. (A very recent rule change: As of January 26, international travelers to the U.S. will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding.)
Unfortunately, most of the European Union is off-limits (however, Ireland isn't... and once you're in Ireland, traveling elsewhere within the EU is simple). Canada – the second-most popular foreign destination for Americans – has closed its border. Mexico, the top choice for Americans going abroad, still welcomes Americans, though. So does much of the Caribbean, where American tourist dollars keep the economy afloat. And if Albania, Turkey, Peru, or Zimbabwe are among your dream destinations, you're in luck.
(A word of warning... a lot of the countries where Americans are allowed to travel have health care infrastructures that aren't as strong as that of the U.S. Falling ill in a country where you don't speak the language, high-quality care isn't easily available, PPE is scarce, and your insurance doesn't work... all of these factors could make the National Lampoon's Vacation movies – featuring a hapless Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold enduring endless holiday disasters – look like a relaxing week at the beach by comparison.)
The world will probably begin to open up a bit more with the coronavirus vaccine – evidence that you've gotten it will probably become as important to your international travel plans as your passport. This might sound tough – but remember that children can't attend public schools throughout the U.S. without getting a chicken pox immunization. And many countries have long required visitors to have certain vaccines prior to entry.
But will we ever go back to how things were? I doubt it. We, humanity, have a new respect for the power of germs. Maybe we'll shake hands and hug again. But the days of packed restaurants, crowded sports stadiums, and wall-to-wall mall crowds might be over for good – or at least for the generation that is haunted by the memory of the Year of the Pandemic.
And remember... most of the world has a far higher population density than the U.S. Mexico has double the number of people per square mile than the U.S... China, four times... India, 12 times... and Hong Kong, nearly 200 times more. If you're cautious here, it only makes sense to be a lot more cautious elsewhere.
For now, though, it's a great time to travel... as long as you understand the risks. And wear that face mask.