Even as international travel restrictions are easing in many countries, the rapid spread of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, means some countries and territories continue to enforce strict rules for international travelers. Self-isolation upon arrival in the country is chief among these restrictions⁠—particularly for unvaccinated people. 

Depending on your destination, your country of departure, your vaccination status or the vaccine you received, self-isolating for a determined period of time upon arrival may be required in addition to COVID-19 testing⁠—or until your test results are available. Regardless of a country’s entry requirements, you also may wish to self-isolate while you await COVID-19 test results just for peace of mind, or to protect vulnerable people you may be visiting. 

But how do you find accommodation for the purpose of self-isolation while abroad? And how do you self-isolate in a way that is safe? We break down the essential advice for you, with expert input from Gary Bartlett, MBBS.

First things first: before and during travel

Before worrying about what will happen at your destination, it is important to consider what preventive measures you can take before you embark on your journey and as you travel.

National and international health agencies and experts are all clear about one thing: you should get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if you can. That’s because vaccines are currently the best way to minimize the risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Bartlett also reminds us that, under all circumstances, we should stick to some key best practices for preventing the spread of respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2.

Mom squeezing hand sanitizer onto her daughter’s hands.
Hand sanitizer helps mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 © Images By Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

“Wash your hands regularly with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. This is particularly important after taking public transport or being in a public space,” he emphasizes.

Wearing a mask that covers your mouth and nose, particularly in indoor spaces—including airplanes—and outdoor spaces that are crowded is also an effective measure in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

“Remember face coverings in the airport and on public transport,” says Dr. Bartlett. “Face coverings do not replace social distancing and hygiene measures, but they may reduce the risk of spread,” he adds.

How to find safe accommodation

Some countries have specific requirements for where you must isolate on arrival, like a quarantine hotel. However, in some cases you may have to organize your own accommodation. If that’s the case, you’ll want to find accommodation that is as safe as it is comfortable.

Dr. Bartlett suggests booking private accommodation through a rental company. That’s so you can book an apartment that you don’t have to share, he says. This will not only ensure that sweet sense of privacy, but also that you do not have to make contact with other guests and staff, as you would in a hotel or hostel.

However, notes Dr. Bartlett, “some hotel booking sites also have the option of booking small self-contained apartments which include a kitchen” and other private facilities.

So if hotels are more your thing, look out for those that go the extra mile to ensure privacy and en-suite facilities. 

However, always check with any hotel or rental to make sure they can accommodate self-isolation and what rules and safety measures are in place⁠—both for you and the staff or hosts. 

Should you self-isolate with friends or family?

For many people, the first big international trip is focused on reconnecting with friends and family in other countries. Some people may have friends or family who are willing to put them up for the self-isolation period and beyond.

This may be the most cost-effective form of accommodation and has the added bonus of providing quality time with loved ones. But is it safe to self-isolate in a shared space?

Dr. Bartlett suggests considering your options well before accepting accommodation offers from friends and family⁠—no matter how much you may have missed them.

He says: “If you do decide to self-isolate at friend or relative’s accommodation, consider if that person you are staying with has received their COVID-19 jabs. And are they fully vaccinated?”

If they are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, you may risk exposing them to SARS-CoV-2 infection, or vice versa: you may unwittingly contract the virus while staying with them.

Moreover, “consider alternative accommodation if the person you stay with is clinically vulnerable with underlying health issues or [is] elderly, as they may be more susceptible to complications should they catch [SARS-CoV-2],” Dr. Bartlett also notes.

Should you nevertheless decide to self-isolate at someone’s house, be mindful of your hosts, and do your best to stay away from the other people in the household throughout the self-isolation period.

“Make sure you avoid communal areas, if more than one bathroom exists see if you can have sole use of the spare bathroom, [and] if only one bathroom [is] available consider using [it] at a set time every day, after everyone else has finished in the bathroom,” Dr. Bartlett advises.

He also advises cleaning the bathroom after every use, using separate towels from the rest of the household, and using separate plates, cups, and cutlery at every meal.

What to do about food and medication? 

Countries that ask international travelers to self-isolate on arrival will often require that the self-isolation period last around 7 to 10 days. The question then is: how do you obtain food and, where necessary, medication if you’re self-isolating?

Those staying at hotels may be able to order meals to their room and enlist the help of hotel staff in obtaining some basic, over-the-counter medication, if necessary.

But what about if I stay in self-catering accommodation?

“If there is no help available when abroad getting food and supplies, if you need to travel to the supermarket for example, ensure that you wear a face covering and venture out at off-peak times,” Dr. Bartlett advises. Check the local rules and regulations for whether venturing to shops is allowed during self-isolation. However, many grocery stores also offer delivery services, which you could arrange in advance of travel. 

He also emphasizes that, if you require specific medication, you need to make sure you can bring enough of it with you on your trip. You should make all the necessary purchases and arrangements well in advance, especially if you require prescription medication.

“Before you leave to travel abroad make sure you check with your [doctor] or pharmacist—in good time so that extra medication can be ordered if required—that you have enough medication for the trip,” notes Dr. Bartlett. 

Good travel health insurance, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is also key in preventing any unforeseen situations.

Read more: How do you choose travel insurance that covers COVID-19?

“If you are running out of medication whilst abroad or if your return is delayed and you are concerned you may run out of medicines or medical equipment, contact your travel health insurance provider for advice about obtaining safe medical supplies at your destination,” Dr. Bartlett advises.

“Do not wait until supplies of medication [or medical] equipment are low,” he goes on to warn. “In some countries the pandemic may affect supplies.”

What can you do if you become unwell while abroad?

Despite the best precautions though, people may still become unwell while abroad, so what can you do should this happen to you?

“If you develop COVID-19 symptoms—new continuous cough, high temperature or loss/change in your sense of taste or smell (anosmia)—while abroad or during travel, you must immediately: self-isolate [...] and arrange a test locally at your destination,” Dr. Bartlett urges.

Read more:  What do you do if you get COVID-19 while you're traveling? 

He also advises calling your health insurance provider to discuss options for accessing medical care at destination if necessary.

It may also be helpful to “be aware of the country’s emergency services number and know where [the] local emergency department is located should you require urgent medical treatment if you do become acutely unwell,” he adds.

Preparing for a trip ahead of time, particularly during the pandemic, will ensure that things run smoothly at destination and give you peace of mind along the way, so don’t put off making all the arrangements you’ll need to make your life easier.

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI. 

Read more: 
What is a vaccine passport and do I need one to travel?
PCR tests for travel: everything you need to know
What do I do if my flight gets cancelled - and can I get a refund?

Explore related stories

Black man standing on Great Wall of China, Beijing, Beijing, China

Destination Practicalities

🌍 Help me, LP! How do I plan a trip to China now that international travel is back?

Mar 28, 2023 • 3 min read