More people are starting to travel again as we enter this next phase of the pandemic, but questions loom about how safe it is to embark on an adventure right now. At press time, just 48% of the eligible U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is enabling new variants of COVID-19, like the delta variant, to spread through pockets of the country. Life might be slowly going back to normal for some of us, but we aren’t technically post-pandemic yet. So, SELF talked to infectious disease and epidemiology experts to figure out the safest way to choose, arrive at, and enjoy a summer destination.
It’s best to be fully vaccinated before you travel.
If you want the most protection for yourself and your companions during travel—and you want to contribute to better public health overall—you should get vaccinated beforehand. “Delay travel until you’ve received your second dose,” Lorna Thorpe, Ph.D., M.P.H, director of the Division of Epidemiology at NYU Langone, tells SELF. (Or until you’ve waited two weeks after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.) “That is really the best mode of travel,” Dr. Thorpe says.
Henry Wu, M.D., infectious disease specialist and director of the TravelWell Center at Emory University, agrees. “I think that is by far the most important thing any traveler can do if it’s available to your age group,” he tells SELF. But even with precautions, traveling right now isn’t for everyone. “If you’re especially high risk, unvaccinated, or have a medical condition that makes the vaccine less effective,” it’s best to wait, Dr. Wu says. (Experts are still looking into how certain health conditions may affect the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.)
Study up on your destination’s COVID-19 safety requirements.
Different destinations have different travel requirements, particularly if you are traveling overseas and especially if you’re not vaccinated. “These rules are becoming somewhat complicated and changing regularly,” Dr. Wu says. France, for instance, requires a negative COVID-19 test within three days of arrival for all U.S. travelers who aren’t vaccinated.
There’s a possibility that countries will be more restrictive with American travelers if the delta variant continues to increase, says Shira Doron, M.D., an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
Dr. Doron was set to travel to Israel this month but canceled her trip when, in late spring, the Israeli government said it would require a negative PCR test before departure and a PCR and serological test (a blood test for antibodies) on arrival. As a scientist, she’s aware that blood tests for antibodies can be inconsistent. “The FDA specifically says [not to] use blood tests to prove immunity. Those tests are not accurate or reliable to do that,” says Dr. Doron. She opted to cancel her trip rather than risk a 10- to 14-day quarantine for a trip only intended to last nine days.
Regulations apply to domestic travel too. Hawaii requires everyone except those who were vaccinated in Hawaii to get a negative test from one of its “trusted testing partners” within three days of the last leg of their trip to the state. Otherwise, a 10-day quarantine is mandated. And anyone entering the U.S. from an international locale, including citizens and fully vaccinated people, must also have a negative test within three days of their intended entry.
While you research these kinds of regulations, also look into how common COVID-19 transmission is at your destination. If you’re traveling in an area where COVID-19 transmission is prevalent, it’s practical to take extra precautions no matter your vaccination status, Dr. Wu says. This is crucial for your own health, that of any of your travel companions, and that of the people you’d encounter during your trip. (For what it’s worth, it can also help avoid the inconvenience and cost of extending your trip with a long quarantine if you were to test positive.) What should those precautions look like, though? Great question.
The safety precautions for getting to your destination vary slightly depending on your specific situation.
If you or any of your travel companions are unvaccinated, not yet fully vaccinated, or unsure of how much the vaccine protects you for reasons like being immunocompromised, you may want to opt for a more local destination and take a road trip. It’s much easier to manage who you’re exposed to that way. (Here are some road trip safety tips that might be helpful as you plan.)
If going by car isn’t an option, “it’s really important to wear a mask when taking public transport of any kind,” Dr. Thorpe said. That’s true for vaccinated people and unvaccinated people. Dr. Thorpe is traveling to Spain this summer to visit family, and she and her family—all of whom are vaccinated except for one ineligible nine-year-old—will wear masks, use hand sanitizer, and keep their distance from others when they can. “But otherwise I feel confident in the efficacy of the vaccine,” she says.
COVID-19 vaccines are very effective, especially at preventing death and severe disease. However, no vaccine is 100% effective, so safety precautions like masking and hand hygiene are still prudent for even vaccinated people who are on planes or other crowded areas. And our public health goal, Dr. Thorpe says, is not just preventing sickness, it’s to “decrease transmission anywhere and everywhere.” If the virus isn’t transmitting, it can’t mutate into new or more resilient variants.
If your party is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers, most of the same safety rules apply. You should know that as a vaccinated person, it’s very unlikely that you would pass on the virus to others, Dr. Thorpe says. In May, the CDC reported that the rate of breakthrough infections in 101 million fully vaccinated people was .01%, as SELF previously explained. The real number of breakthrough infections is likely higher than this for a few reasons, such as the fact this surveillance system involves people voluntarily reporting their COVID-19 cases. But experts generally agree that the chance of getting—and spreading—COVID-19 as a fully vaccinated person is very low.
If you’re still concerned, everyone in your party (especially those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated) should limit contact with others for the two weeks leading up to the trip. This is a strategy Dr. Wu is using before traveling to Hawaii this summer to see his parents. All three of them are vaccinated, but he’s still going to limit interactions leading up to his trip.
As for traveling with young, unvaccinated children, Dr. Doron says this again comes back to individual risk tolerance. “They have an extremely low risk of severe complications,” she says of young children. But you’ll again want to consider factors like where you’re traveling from and to. “If you are traveling from an area of low cases to an area of low cases and following the CDC recommendations to mask indoors (unless in a family gathering where everyone else is vaccinated), you are not violating any principles of public health,” in Dr. Doron’s opinion.
Keep up the safety precautions while at your destination too.
The risk of traveling as the pandemic continues isn’t limited to transportation. Experts say it’s better to think about your risk as the sum of all your activities during the travel period. So, once you arrive at your destination, a lot of the safety practices from the last year and a half still apply.
That includes opting for outdoor activities when you can, particularly those where there isn’t widespread vaccination and/or sufficient masking. That goes for vaccinated folks too. It’s worth noting that the delta variant surge is primarily affecting areas with lower vaccination rates. “So I certainly would be more cautious in those areas,” Dr. Wu says. But, if you’re vaccinated, a lot of this itinerary planning will again come down to your individual level of risk tolerance. Dr. Thorpe’s opinion is that vaccinated people don’t need to be afraid to dine indoors, even with increasing concerns about the delta variant. However, she still plans to choose outdoor dining whenever she has the option on her trip to Spain.
In this period of reopening and new variants popping up, experts say the importance of getting vaccinated cannot be overstated. “We have vaccinated millions of Americans, and it has proven to be safe and efficacious,” Dr. Thorpe says. “If you are thinking about traveling and you haven’t gotten vaccinated, now’s the time. You will be that much more secure and confident when you do travel.”