The AAA Expert Guide to Rediscovering Travel Joy

When you’re ready to plan a trip, we’re ready too.

AAA Expert Guide to Rediscovering Travel Joy Ballooning over Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. iStock

As cruise ships begin to sail again and borders reopen, your sense of wanderlust may be kicking into high gear. But with that feeling of anticipation you may also be experiencing some uncertainty. How will new safety guidelines affect your trip? How do you know when to plan a trip? We asked several AAA Travel Advisors to weigh in with their best advice for reengaging in travel. No matter what your travel dreams are, their tips and insight will help you make informed decisions and explore with confidence.

Sail the High Seas

Advice from: Gina Stevens, Westminster, Colorado

AAA Travel Advisor Gina Stevens has 30 years of experience in the travel industry and is certified as a cruise specialist. Oh, and she’s been on at least 20 cruises herself. It’s safe to say she can relate to travelers’ eagerness to get back on the water again.

“I have a lot of clients who are avid cruisers and who are ready to sail again, with no fears about being on a ship with thousands of other people,” she says. “They have a lot of confidence that the cruise industry and the crew will do what is necessary to keep the germs away.”

The importance of planning ahead

Landing that dream cruise may be tougher to do these days. The pause in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic has left demand for cruises high—and supply reduced. Stevens’ best advice? Plan a trip now.

“Thousands of cruisers who had canceled vacations have taken the future cruise credit incentives they were given and are eager to use them before they expire in 2022 or 2023,” she says. “Plus, cruise lines are going to be required to have reduced capacity in the near term. If anyone wants to take a cruise before 2023, I suggest that they book at least a year in advance so they can get the cabin they want at a good price.”

dream cruise to the caribbean iStock

Where you can sail should also be a consideration. With many travelers still skeptical about visiting overseas, Stevens says closer-to-home cruises are popular—think Alaska and the Caribbean—especially for 2021.

What cruising looks like now

If you haven’t sailed in a while, your next cruising experience may hold more challenges than before, including pre- and post-cruise COVID-19 testing and additional required documentation for the countries you’re visiting. But there are advantages, too: With ships operating at less than 100% capacity, you’re in for a more intimate experience. Ships are fully staffed again, and you might even find some good deals for 2021.

If you’ve been missing travel and are eager to explore the world again, Stevens’ advice is simple: “Get vaccinated and book early—for safety, more choices and better experiences.”

AAA Travel Advisor Gina Stevens in Venice, Italy AAA Travel Advisor Gina Stevens in Venice, Italy.
Seeing the World on a floating hotel

Advice from: Kim Cordonier, Lincoln, Nebraska

When AAA Travel Advisor Kim Cordonier thinks of the difference between ocean cruising and river cruising, a quote used by AAA travel partner AmaWaterways comes to mind: “Oceans take you to countries; rivers take you through them.”

“On a river cruise, you’re able to go to smaller towns, where you can see the people and experience the local culture,” she says. “The river ships let you off right in the heart of the city.”

In her six years as a travel advisor, Cordonier has sailed on two river cruises—on the Rhine and Danube in Europe—and is planning a third in France.

“I absolutely love traveling via river cruise,” she says. “It’s like being on a floating hotel. The river cruises primarily sail at night, so when you wake up in the morning, you’re in a new city.”

Cordonier’s experience with and love of river cruising helped her earn the AAA Trusted Expert in River Cruises designation, so she has plenty of advice for travelers looking to plan a trip.

Making health and wellness a priority

Many aspects of river cruises make them a good fit for today’s safety-conscious travel mindset. Smaller ships carry fewer passengers, so it’s easier to practice social distancing. And much of your time will likely be spent outdoors in the fresh air.

“No matter the cruise line, the ship will be laid out the same way, with chairs and couches spread out on the top deck,” Cordonier says. “If I’m on the ship and not eating in the dining room, I’m typically up there!”

plan a trip expert guide Portugal Robin Allen Photography/Getty Images

Most river cruise lines also have a health specialist on board who not only keeps track of COVID-19 safety precautions but who also might lead daily workouts, bike rides or dance lessons.

“On my last river cruise, I did morning yoga on the top deck of the ship and watched the scenery go by as we were cruising,” Cordonier says. “It was breathtaking!”

When and where to go

When it comes to planning a river cruise, Cordonier advises her clients to book as soon as they’re comfortable doing so.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand, since people who had cruises booked in 2020 and 2021 have had to move their reservations to 2022 and 2023,” she says.

European waterways such as the Danube and Rhine are typically the most popular river cruise destinations. But since those cruises book quickly, Cordonier recommends considering other options—France, Portugal, Peru, Cambodia, Africa or even the United States.


“You can’t forget about sailing on the Mississippi, Columbia and Snake rivers,” she says. “Due to the pandemic and people wanting to stay within the country, these sailings have become extremely popular.”

A trip that makes the whole family happy

Advice from: Nikole Devost, Fort Collins, Colorado

AAA Travel Advisor Nikole Devost knows firsthand what a challenge it can be to plan a trip that will make everyone in the family happy.

“I have two daughters, ages 25 and 13,” she says. “One would prefer to lounge on the beach and sun herself all day; the other wants to make sure the resort has other children or video games.”

But Devost’s experience as a mom—and a travel advisor—has taught her that there are lots of ways for families to explore together with less stress and more fun. Here are some examples of the types of trips she recommends for families.

  • Cruises: “Cruise lines that cater to families design their ships to provide younger children, teens and adults with a variety of onboard activities. There are usually clubs for different age groups as well as adults-only areas. The cruise line may even have a private island that families can explore. And there are excellent family-friendly excursions to choose from, too.”
  • All-inclusive resorts: “Many all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, the Caribbean and even Florida cater to families, offering multiple dining options, resort activities, nonmotorized water sports and clubs for kids. This is a great option for families who don’t want to worry about how much will be owed at checkout. Packages can be created to include airfare, accommodations, excursions and travel insurance.” Pro tip: The AAA Diamond Program can help you find the right fit.
  • Guided tours: “AAA and its travel partners have many options that allow families to travel worldwide. Plan a trip to Europe, Africa or Asia, or stay in the United States. Having a group leader and tour guides with a set itinerary reduces stress. There’s always someone there to assist, if needed, and the tours are educational and fun.”

Oh, the places you can (still) go in 2021

Devost says travel within the United States has been especially popular in 2021, with Florida, California and Hawaii at the top of the list for families. But because those destinations are so popular, availability has become scarce.

“Families may want to try other locations,” Devost says. “Explore the outdoors in Arizona and Colorado; enjoy the lakes of Michigan and Idaho; or play in the sand on the beaches of Mississippi and Alabama.”


Internationally, Devost says Mexico has been a big draw in 2021, but she notes, “All-inclusive resorts in Costa Rica, and on many of the Caribbean islands, are destinations that should not be overlooked.”

2022 and beyond

Families who are ready to plan a trip for 2022 should be able to find more available options. But Devost still suggests planning early to make sure you get your dream vacation. And remember that, as 2020 taught us, anything can happen.

“There are many things to consider when traveling in the coming year. COVID restrictions still exist in many places, not all borders are open, and travel requirements are fluid,” she says. “The best advice I can give is to use a professional to arrange your travel plans. Your AAA Travel Advisor can provide you with the most up-to-date information in a world that is still in transition.”

Go with a Guide and without stress

Advice from: Jessica Pinyan, Greenville, South Carolina

During her seven years as a travel advisor with AAA, Jessica Pinyan has taken five guided vacations to Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Jordan and Egypt. She loved them all, but Greece stood out.

“We went to this restaurant in Olympia where the Olympic officials go after they light the torch for each of the Olympic Games. We had the whole place for just our group,” Pinyan says. “They also brought in dancers who taught us several traditional Greek dances. We even got to throw the plates on the floor and dance on the tables.”

That trip shaped the way she thinks of guided trips—and the amazing experiences that a professionally led tour can provide for her clients.

“It made me realize a guided tour creates opportunities that would be difficult for someone to create on their own,” Pinyan says. “Guided trips also help you feel like you’re a part of the local culture in a short amount of time. You get a much better understanding of the people and place you are visiting.”

An effortless way to explore

“Guided tours have always made travel easy,” Pinyan says, “but now, in a COVID world, it’s going to be the easiest way to travel.”

Pinyan says tour operators are working hard to keep travelers safe, comfortable and in the know. That includes providing well-being directors to help anticipate safety protocols and adjust arrangements as needed, as well as to make sure guests are aware of any COVID-19 regulations in the places they’ll be visiting. Many tour operators are even assisting with the COVID-19 testing required before guests can fly back to the United States.


With travel restrictions constantly changing, it’s a good idea to have frequent conversations with your travel advisor to ensure you have the most up-to-date information. “Find out what the restrictions are when you’re booking the trip,” Pinyan says, “and check them at least one to two weeks prior to your departure.”

Choose your travel companions

If you don’t feel ready to travel with a group, you can still get all the benefits of a guided tour with just your loved ones or friends.

“Many tour operators are offering private tours for families or friend groups, and it’s not much more than the standard tour price,” Pinyan says.

Space is already limited on many trips, so she recommends booking as soon as you have an idea in mind.

“Traveling with a guide is easy. I love just ‘showing up,’” she says. “It makes the vacation simple, enjoyable and a whole lot less stressful!”

Go my own way on a custom trip

Advice from: Heather DeCourcy, Cary, North Carolina

For some travelers, the point of a vacation is to do exactly what they want to do: no going with the crowd and no adapting to other people’s priorities. For these adventurers, a custom trip is the way to go.

Why custom travel

“A custom trip is for the traveler who wants to set their own course and who does not want to have a scheduled itinerary to follow every day,” says AAA Travel Advisor Heather DeCourcy, who has planned both domestic and international trips for independent travelers. For many of these people, this style of going your own way has even more benefits as the world opens up after the pandemic.

“A custom itinerary is a great alternative for travelers in light of COVID-19 because they may be more limited as to where they can go and what they can do,” DeCourcy says. “But we can customize everything according to international restrictions and guests’ desires.”

Flexibility is key

The pandemic has not only made travel more complex, but it has also made planning more important.

“I’m suggesting to all my clients who want to travel in 2021 or 2022—regardless of the type of travel—to start planning now,” DeCourcy says. “Keep an open mind and know that things can change and that there still may be restrictions.”

Why a travel agent

Until travel gets back to normal, these evolving factors can make it more difficult to plan a trip—but they can also present opportunities for travel with smaller crowds and better value. And identifying those opportunities is exactly where a travel agent shines.

plan-a-trip-expert-guide-horses-on-beach Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

“Custom trips are a great way to travel if you’re an independent or experienced traveler; you can plan exactly what you want and how you want to do it,” DeCourcy says. “But get a travel agent! Custom trips are the most difficult vacations to plan, and having someone with experience helping you can make the process so much easier.”

Go beyond family on a group trip

Advice from: Kelly Brock, Hilton Head, South Carolina

With more than 30 years of experience in the travel industry and 22 years as a travel advisor with AAA, Kelly Brock has client relationships that go back 20 years. And because many of her clients in Hilton Head are retirees, she has deep connections to the retirement community there and is a veteran of many group travel experiences.

“I have planned a lot of multigenerational travel—family groups,” she says. “There are some families where I knew the kids when they were 8 or 10 years old, and then later I planned their honeymoons. I love that.”

The allure of group travel

In Brock’s experience, much of the group travel she organizes (and sometimes hosts) happens organically. Her clients may not be part of the same family, but they often live in the same community. And when someone develops an interest in a travel opportunity, they naturally reach out to friends.

River cruising is a popular form of group travel. Individuals or couples can spend the day on their own, Brock says, and then come back to the ship and have dinner with friends and fellow travelers. On a river cruise, all the planning and logistics are taken care of.

“They just want to travel together,” she says. “They don’t want to have to figure out how to do it.”

Planning tips for group trips

By their very nature, group trips require more planning than solo adventures. And COVID-19 has multiplied that. The key, Brock says, is keeping an open mind.

“We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like when your trip finally happens,” she says.

In addition to flexibility, long-term planning is critical with demand high and supply low.

“I plan a lot of trips 18 to 24 months ahead to get people what they want,” she says. “When you go with a group, you need more supply, and to get that supply you need to look ahead to your goal and work backward.”

plan-a-trip-expert-guide-iceland Ryan Howell/Eyeem/Getty Images

Destination matters

Where you want to go is critical because some international destinations simply aren’t open to visitors. But there are opportunities. Brock has a small group going on a Mississippi River cruise in fall 2021, and she’s planning to host a cruise on the Douro River in Portugal in 2022. She is also excited about the potential of Iceland, which saw a lot of visitors a few years ago but not as many recently.

“I love to put puzzles together,” she says. “If you’re ready to travel, let’s try to find you something. Everyone needs something to look forward to.”

Bonus tip: Don’t Plan a Trip Without Travel Insurance

The power of travel insurance is twofold, says AAA Travel Advisor Nancy O’Neil. “Not only does it provide potential reimbursement for trip cancellation or interruption, but it also helps while you are traveling.” This is especially important with COVID-19 as a potential complicating factor.

“With boarding restrictions, quarantine requirements and the risk of becoming ill—or having to stay home and take care of a loved one—travel insurance provides peace of mind with coverage for critical situations,” O’Neil says. Of course, travelers are still responsible for heeding destination requirements regarding vaccinations and mandatory COVID-19 testing.

Travel insurance can help if you:

  • Need to cancel a trip due to illness or other identified reasons.
  • Need emergency medical, dental and/or medical transportation coverage—especially if your U.S.-based health care provider doesn’t offer coverage in other countries.
  • Have losses related to travel delays (including flight delays) or baggage loss/damage/delays and even more extreme situations.

“It may surprise travelers to know that travel insurance can help you locate your lost luggage,” says O’Neil. “And if you’re having trouble with language barriers during a travel emergency, providers such as Allianz offer a multilingual team of problem-solvers.”

AAA Travel Advisor Nancy O’Neil in Rome AAA Travel Advisor Nancy O’Neil in Rome

Travel insurance can also be adapted to meet your needs. Are you traveling with valuables? Are you worried about illness or pregnancy? Has your destination imposed mandatory travel insurance requirements? “One size does not fit all when it comes to the best policy,” O’Neil says. “It’s important to select the coverage that works best for your needs.”

This story was featured in the
September/October 2021 issue of AAALiving Magazine

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