Travel Writer Alice Wibberley shares her expectations for a ‘post-pandemic’ year abroad

Written by Alice Wibberley
Images by Ross Parmly

In the last few weeks, students have been allocated places at host universities, including students who last year chose to invert or postpone their year abroad. However, familiar feelings of uncertainty prevail. Some U.S. universities have been operating online-only since the beginning of the pandemic, so it remains to be seen whether they reopen in time – and fundamentally, whether this extends to foreign students. Possibilities of international travel remain entirely reliant on government policy, and it’s likely quarantines and restrictions will persist. But it also depends on personal attitudes towards travel and the perceived safety of doing so. So what can students expect from a post-pandemic year abroad?

Whilst optimism is growing for a return to travel with the vaccine rollout, it is unclear whether it will become safe enough, or accepted in the media to do so

Read any article doling out advice for a year abroad and nearly all of them will mention taking the chance to explore more of the country than the University’s surrounding area. This is one aspiration many prospective travellers might have to reconsider. Recently, the British media has been hosting the debate on the morality of non-essential travel during the pandemic. Celebrities and influencers have come under fire for travelling to Dubai, suggesting that on the whole, the public are not very sympathetic towards travel they deem unnecessary. Whilst optimism is growing for a return to travel with the vaccine rollout, it is unclear whether it will become safe enough or accepted in the media to do so. 

But what about travelling to a country with a vastly different outlook on the pandemic? The U.S. has consistently seen higher than average death and transmission rates, hosting a quarter of global COVID-19 cases in August 2020 despite only making up 4% of the world’s population. The British media has keenly reported every ill-informed recommendation made by former President Donald Trump, from injecting disinfectant to the racist language surrounding the pandemic’s origins. Individual attitudes to the pandemic have also varied, with anti-lockdown sentiment being widely reported since the beginning of the pandemic. Stories on college parties, videos of ‘anti-maskers’ interrogating retail workers, and interviews with COVID-19 deniers have all constructed the perception that American people are more likely to reject measures put in place to contain the pandemic. 

But data suggests that the public’s adherence to regulations and levels of personal responsibility mirror those of Britain. A U.S. study published in December 2020 reported 72% of Americans believing that attending in-person gatherings around the holiday period posed a ‘large or moderate risk’, and 76% believed travelling during the period to be the same level of risk to their health.

Planning for a year abroad will likely be governed by cautious hope

The key difference is in policy – the U.S. has traditionally taken a more laissez-faire approach than the U.K., with no national lockdown and mask mandates only sporadically enforced. Planning for a year abroad will likely be governed by cautious hope. The fast pace of the U.S. vaccine rollout may put socialising, domestic travel, and face-to-face learning back on the table, but it’s likely that they will be accompanied by the caveats of mask-wearing and social distancing, especially with the growing threat of new variants.

Travelling anywhere during the pandemic has always had its risks and drawbacks, but living in another country for an extended period of time will only exacerbate frustrations with restrictions and altered experiences. Year abroad experiences over the next year will vary massively. They will depend on the host country, its attitudes and handling of the pandemic, and personal risk appetite for travel and socialising. With the vaccine rollout, there is hope that flights can resume and Universities can bring back in-person learning and all the extra-curricular and social add-ons that make the experience so worthwhile.  But travel now necessitates a lowering of expectations.  From quarantine to attraction closures, the experience of travel has been far from normal – and it’s likely to stay this way for a little while longer.

For more Year Abroad articles:

Year Abroad Series: Top Tips

Year Abroad Series: Halfway Point

The Small Things: A Year Abroad in Amsterdam