Is it okay to hop a flight, book a hotel stay, or visit grandparents if you’re vaccinated against COVID-19? What if you’re not? Here are the most important factors to consider.
This time last year, deciding whether to go to the grocery store — let alone hop a flight — seemed like a mind-bending puzzle. But this summer a lot of people in the United States are having an easier time making the choice to travel.
Currently, about 45 percent of people in the United States are fully immunized against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and almost 54 percent have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Still, that leaves a lot of Americans only partially vaccinated or not immunized at all.
And COVID-19 hasn’t gone away. While infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are on the decline across much of the United States, the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading rapidly. Around the world, countries like Brazil and India continue to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 illnesses and deaths.ADVERTISINGTo help assess the risks of travel, Everyday Health spoke to specialists in infectious diseases and family health, and checked in on updated CDC guidelines.
While there are few hard-and-fast answers, you and your travel crew can stay healthy and have fun on vacation if you keep these recommendations in mind.
Vaccinated? You’re Good to Go, With Some Caveats
If you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and plan to travel within the United States, you can book your trip and start packing.
Compared with the spring and summer of 2020, “it’s a different world now. In general, if you’re vaccinated and take reasonable precautions, the level of safety is acceptable,” says David Goldberg, MD, an internist and infectious diseases specialist at New York-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester in Scarsdale, emphasizing that “everyone should get vaccinated.”
CDC guidelines state: “People who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine or a vaccine authorized for emergency use by the World Health Organization can travel safely within the United States.”
Moreover, says the CDC, if you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need to take a COVID-19 test before or after travel within the United States (unless required by your destination), and you don’t need to self-quarantine.
Traveling internationally? The CDC says that while you are less likely to get or spread COVID-19, you are at a higher risk of exposure to virus variants. The agency advises checking COVID-19 rates at your destination and proceeding with caution.
”The vaccines are only 90 or 95 percent effective,” says Dr. Goldberg. “So avoid places where the vaccination rate is low or where the COVID-19 numbers are high or rising.”
According to the latest CDC guidelines, if you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need a negative COVID-19 test before you travel, but you will need to show proof of a negative test result no more than three days before returning to the United States, or proof that you had COVID-19 within the past three months and recovered. Also, the CDC recommends that you get tested three to five days after your return.
To be safe, keep a safe distance from others, wash your hands frequently, and wear a well-fitting mask while you’re flying or taking public transportation, even if you’re vaccinated.
Should You Travel if You’re Not Vaccinated?
The CDC advises against domestic or international travel until you’re fully vaccinated. If travel is essential, plan to get tested one to three days before departing, and again three to five days after arrival.
Even if you test negative, the CDC recommends self-quarantining for seven days at your destination or 10 days if you don’t get tested.
If you’re not vaccinated and plan to travel abroad, take a test one to three days before you leave the United States and then again before you return. Back in the United States, get another test three to five days after you land. No matter your test result, you’ll need to self-quarantine for seven days after your trip or 10 days if you don’t get tested.
You’ll also want to consider the healthcare situation wherever you are going. “You don’t want to fall ill in a setting where medical care is sparse,” says Emily Parker Hyle, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and attending physician in infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
What if You’re Traveling With Kids?
Kids under 12 can’t get a COVID-19 vaccine yet, “but the risk to children [from COVID-19] seems to be much lower than adults,” says Goldberg. “They’re much less likely to be infected than adults, and if they do, they’re much less likely to get really sick.”
Still, it’s important to minimize the risk. “As I weigh the risks and benefits for my own kids, I would rather my child not get COVID-19 because I’d rather them not get sick, and not miss out on activities or vacations they’re looking forward to,” says Claire Boogaard, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC.
When traveling with kids, she says, “If they’re 2 or older, the CDC recommends wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated places, and washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or with hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol.”
Is It Safe to Fly?
If you’re vaccinated, the decision about whether to fly is less fraught than it was last summer. “At this point, the CDC says it’s safe enough, assuming you wear a mask at the airport and in the plane,” says Goldberg.
Since vaccines are not 100 percent effective, you should assess what taking on a small level of risk might mean for you. Even if airlines are sanitizing planes and following strict COVID-19 safety protocols, you might find yourself sitting next to others who may not be vaccinated and who could be infected with the virus.
“You have to consider whether or not you have comorbidities [other diseases or medical conditions] that put you at increased risk of severe COVID,” says Goldberg. “If you have a history of heart disease or are immunocompromised or elderly, it might be best to put off any nonessential plane flights just a little longer.”
He adds, “I think a lot of people have come to the conclusion that visiting grandchildren they haven’t seen in a year is an essential flight, and they decide to go. And I understand that.”
Is It Safe to Travel by Train? What About Taking a Road Trip or a Cruise?
If you’re feeling anxious about taking a long flight, consider a destination you can reach relatively quickly. “The risk of infection is clearly related to the duration of exposure, so a short trip is safer than a longer trip,” says Goldberg.
You may want to consider traveling during off-hours or midweek for less crowded conditions. On a plane or public transportation, “The risk depends on how closely together people are seated and whether you’re seated near someone who is infected,” says Goldberg.
“Driving in your own car with family is safer than being in a plane, train, or bus with strangers,” Goldberg adds. “And if you can rent a car, that’s safer than having someone drive you around.”
But you could still be exposed when you stop to get gas or if you have to stay the night somewhere. “Any new contact increases the risk,” says Dr. Hyle.
As for cruises, for now the CDC is still advising against them. “I would avoid any large cruise ship,” says Goldberg. As for smaller ships, he recommends getting on board only if everyone is vaccinated.
Should You Travel to Visit Elderly Relatives?
This summer, many grandparents are looking forward to the chance to see the grandkids they’ve missed spending time with during the pandemic. Is it finally safe to do so?
“It’s okay as long as the grandparents and parents are vaccinated, and it’s okay if the kids are not,” says Goldberg. But wearing masks indoors around kids who aren’t vaccinated is still the safest protocol for anyone at risk of more severe COVID-19 if they do get infected.
If everyone in the group is fully vaccinated? It’s a personal decision, but “the latest CDC recommendations are that if everyone is vaccinated, you can take off the masks indoors,” says Goldberg.
What about staying in a vaccinated grandparent’s home? Dr. Boogaard suggests considering these questions if you’ll be in close quarters with grandparents, even if they’re vaccinated: Could you quarantine before going to see someone who is at higher risk? Could you get tested first?
She adds, “Community levels [of infection] make it safer right now in the United States, but it’s not a 0 percent risk.”
Should You Travel to See Friends?
Vaccination status is key. If everyone is vaccinated and following the travel safety protocols noted above, the risk is minimal.
If not, or if you or others have health conditions that put you in greater danger of severe illness or death from COVID-19 (whether or not you are vaccinated), “You maybe want to put it off,” warns Goldberg.
Is It Safe to Stay in a Hotel or Summer Rental?
“A rental property is safer than a hotel, but hotels are really very safe at this point, at least in the United States,” says Goldberg.
One reason: According to recent CDC guidelines, for vaccinated people, surfaces aren’t really a risk. “The virus is spread person to person,” says Goldberg.
What Can You Do for Fun When You Travel?
Last year, pretty much any indoor activity you’d want to do on vacation was out of the question. This year, many parts of the United States are fully reopening, but certain activities will be safer than others. While you can do much more than you could last year, you might want to hold off on certain dicey choices.
Even if you’re vaccinated, says Goldberg, “You want to avoid gatherings where you’re in close proximity to others who aren’t vaccinated. It’s okay to go to a museum that’s not that crowded if you can maintain a safe distance from others.”
“It’s safer to be outdoors than indoors. If at a restaurant, it’s safer outdoors than indoors,” says Goldberg.
Hiking or camping vacations are good bets. “Of all the nonessential travel, it’s probably the lowest risk because you can socially distance,” says Hyle.
Masks are still a good idea for times when you’re in close proximity with others who are not in your group and may not be fully vaccinated, even if you’re outdoors and fully vaccinated, says Goldberg.
When it comes to traveling during the pandemic, “Everyone has their own level of anxiety and comfort,” says Boogaard. “If you’re going on a trip with anyone outside your immediate family, I would encourage you to talk to them about their comfort level and to have contingency plans in case someone gets sick.”
Ultimately, the decision to travel is a personal one that requires each of us to weigh benefits against risks.
“There is always some risk in travel,” Goldberg says. “The only way to make that risk zero is to stay in your home and never travel. You can get in a plane or car and have an accident. The question is: Is the risk low enough that it becomes acceptable?”
Article originally appeared on EveryDayHealth