Is travel still risky now that COVID-19 vaccines are changing the course of the pandemic? Here are the precautions you need to take, whether or not you’ve been immunized.
With growing numbers of peoples getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and infection rates dropping around the country, travel is feeling a lot safer than it did last year.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, you’re not taking much of a risk if you travel now. You still need to take some precautions, but it’s hugely different than it was in the past,” says Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidance on this issue, stating that people who are fully vaccinated (that is, who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, at least two weeks prior) can travel safely within the United States.
But if you’re not fully immunized or are taking a trip with others who aren’t — such as children under age 12, who are currently ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine— the same precautions as last summer apply.
The following 10 tips will help ensure that everyone in your traveling party remains healthy and no one brings home any unwanted souvenirs.
1. Know the COVID-19 Rate Where You Live
Even if you’re vaccinated, it’s still important to assess COVID-19 levels in you community. If they’re high, you are at greater risk of developing COVID-19, though these so-called breakthrough infections are rare and typically mild.
“Vaccination is excellent in protecting people, but it is not perfect and we do see a small number of vaccinated persons developing a breakthrough infection. Thankfully, these infections tend to be less severe,” says Richard Martinello, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine and associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
If you’re traveling by plane, train, or bus from a place where a lot of people have COVID-19, the odds will be higher that a passenger near you or your group could have the disease, Of course, this is especially worrisome if not everyone in your traveling party is vaccinated.
2. Assess COVID-19 Rates at Your Destination
The infection rate at your destination is also a factor to consider. If you’re heading to a location that’s red-hot with COVID-19, your chances of becoming ill there do rise, even if you’ve been vaccinated.
You can find an area’s test positivity rate (a key measure of virus circulation levels) on the website of its local public health department. Or search for the color-coded risk level at the comprehensive website Global Epidemics from the Brown School of Public Health.
For trips outside the United States, you must check the U.S. State Department website to determine what the virus rates are and what entry restrictions apply. This may vary by vaccination status. For instance, the European Union recently agreed to allow vaccinated Americans to visit this summer, lifting restrictions against nonessential travel from the United States that have been in place for over a year.
3. Consider Your (and Your Host’s) Vaccination Status and Health Situation
A key question to ponder is how risky would traveling be for you. “Everything with COVID-19 needs to be individualized. You need to view everything through your personal perspective,” Glatt says.
Are you unvaccinated and at high risk for severe COVID-19 consequences? And what about the people you’re traveling with or visiting? Perhaps they have a compromised immune system and remain vulnerable to COVID-19 even if they’ve been vaccinated.
In these cases, flying on a plane or going to a crowded place with many other vacationers may be risky, Glatt says. But driving to an isolated vacation spot could be okay.
4. Think About Testing Around Your Trip
If you or those you’re traveling with have not been vaccinated, you may want to take a COVID-19 test in the days before you leave. Getting a negative result will reduce the odds you’ll unknowingly bring the virus to your destination.
Some international destinations require testing before you can visit, even if you’ve been vaccinated. For instance, as of May, Croatia only allows U.S. citizens to enter if they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 no more than three calendar days before arrival.
And everyone needs to show a negative test when arriving back in the United States after traveling internationally.
5. Decide on Your Mode of Travel
For anyone who isn’t vaccinated, experts consider driving to be the safest form of transportation, especially if the destination can be reached within a day, because this substantially limits interactions with other people.
Flying can also be relatively safe. As of now, airlines continue to require all passengers to wear masks onboard. If you have not been vaccinated, be sure to remain in your seat as much as possible during the flight and keep your mask on nearly all the time, especially when other passengers nearby remove theirs to eat or drink.
Traveling by bus likely requires extra vigilance for unvaccinated people, as the ventilation systems (an important way that microbes are removed from the air) may not be as good as those on planes.
Vaccinated people should feel confident taking any mode of transportation. Even sitting next to an unvaccinated person is safe if you are immunized.
6. Don’t Obsess, But Do Clean Your Hotel Room
You can vacation pretty much as usual if you have been vaccinated, says Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. This means you can stay in a regular hotel room if you prefer, rather than limiting yourself only to isolated rental homes as many did last summer.
Even so, it’s smart to continue some safety habits, such as using antibacterial wipes to disinfect hotel room light switches, doorknobs, the TV remote, and other high-touch objects, without being obsessive about cleaning everything, Dr. Sell says. While the risk of contracting COVID-19 from a surface is minimal, basic cleaning can protect against norovirus and other germs.
If someone staying in your room isn’t vaccinated, “additional precautions are likely necessary. This would include things like opening windows for better ventilation,” Sell says, since tiny viral particles called aerosols that linger in the air have the potential to transmit COVID-19. This is especially key when you first arrive or after housekeeping has been in your room for service.
7. Eating in Restaurants Is Likely Fine
Last summer, experts were clear that it was not safe to eat inside a restaurant, so they suggested that vacationers dine outside or get takeout. That advice still holds for people who have not been immunized.
Those who have gotten their vaccine, however, should feel comfortable dining maskless indoors, according to the CDC (assuming that’s allowed by the local government and the business). This will make vacationing both easier and more fun.
Still, some experts advise caution, especially if the rate of COVID-19 where you are traveling is high.
“Personally, I am still avoiding indoor restaurant dining even though I am vaccinated, as COVID remains significantly circulating in my community. When the rate of COVID is consistently low to zero in my community for a few weeks, I will be comfortable returning to indoor restaurants,” Dr. Martinello says.
8. Be Smart About Your Activities
Rates of COVID-19 in the United States are expected to keep falling as more people become protected from the virus. This is not the case overseas, especially in countries like India where vaccination rates remain low and where new and potentially extra-contagious variants of the virus are constantly arising.
Especially on international trips, there may be activities you always love to do on vacation, but it may be wise to skip them now. Bars, karaoke cafes, theme parks with inside rides, and other crowded indoor activities may carry some COVID-19 risk.
Even in the United States, Glatt advises avoiding indoor places with large crowds of people whose vaccination status can’t be known. “Being vaccinated, your odds are much lower of getting serious illness and complications, but there is a small, small chance,” he says.
9. If You’re Not Fully Vaccinated, Stay Vigilant
While you’re on vacation it’s easy to feel like the limitations of your regular life don’t apply. But if you aren’t fully vaccinated there are no magical protections that keep the virus at bay just because you’re gambling in Las Vegas, kayaking in the Florida Everglades, or hanging with relatives you haven’t seen in ages.
For those at risk, it’s important to follow general CDC guidance at all times, Grant stresses, including washing hands regularly, keeping six (or ideally more) feet of distance between yourself and others, avoiding poorly ventilated indoor spaces, and, crucially, wearing a mask in all public settings.
10. Have a Good Time! You Deserve It
For all of us, the stress of this pandemic year means we need a vacation more than ever. For most of us, it’s been ages since we’ve taken a trip.
While you’re away, it may take a while to fully relax, to feel comfortable going without a mask and touring sites with strangers. That’s okay.
But if you’ve been vaccinated, give yourself permission to enjoy your travels.
“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list,” Susan Sontag reportedly said. After more than a year of staying home, it’s time — still being smart and careful — to start satisfying that wanderlust again.
By Meryl Davids Landau
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD
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