From negative tests to temperature checks, COVID-19 has transformed travel. More vaccinations could bring back summer vacations, but safe travel is far from simple.
Despite the risks, many are abandoning their work-from-home setups for a change of scenery.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated recommendations, declaring that domestic and international travel is a low risk for those who are fully vaccinated. So how can you visit while slowing the spread of the virus?
Here’s what you need to know about traveling amid COVID-19 in 2021.
Should you travel amid COVID-19?
Travel after any alarming event can be tricky. Whether it’s an airline disaster, terrorist attack or the threat of a disease, it can be difficult to determine when it’s safe to travel again. Keeping a realistic perspective and taking responsible precautions is an important part of travel preparation. Travelers should remember that COVID-19 is not a typical threat, though.
The CDC advises that only those who are fully vaccinated should travel. One is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two weeks after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna shots.
Even people who are fully vaccinated have to be careful. The CDC recommends continuing to wear a mask, staying at least 6 feet apart from others and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces after vaccination. These measures must be maintained to protect others who might not be vaccinated.
Traveling in the US amid COVID-19
Travel within the U.S. has been complicated this past year. Some states and territories have enacted their own travel restrictions and recommendations throughout the pandemic and are updating them often.
If you are fully vaccinated, the CDC says you can travel freely domestically and that you do not need to get tested or self-quarantine before or after traveling. However, select states and local governments may choose to keep travel restrictions in place, including testing, quarantines and stay-at-home orders.
The CDC offers a useful online tool to help vacationers plan their trips. All users have to do is type in the city, state or ZIP code of the place they plan on visiting. Then, the website generates a description of the current advisories. Before you travel across state lines, use the tool to view the most recent rules at your destination.
International travel amid COVID-19
Fully vaccinated people can explore around the world, but only at places that will have them. Most of Europe is off-limits to Americans, but countries in the Caribbean, South America and Africa accept visitors who are fully vaccinated, can show a negative test and/or quarantine.
International travelers who are fully vaccinated do not have to quarantine after travel, but they will be required to take a coronavirus test to board a return flight to the U.S.
You can view a map of countries categorized by COVID-19 risk on the CDC website before planning your trip. The map uses a four-tier ranking system to show the level of risk in each area.
Traveling with kids or others who are unvaccinated
No vaccine has yet been authorized for children under the age of 16, which can complicate family travel. If you’re planning to take a trip with anyone 2 or older who is unvaccinated, be sure to plan for testing costs and an isolation period once you return to the U.S.
All air passengers age 2 and older must test negative within the previous three days before boarding a return flight. If a delayed or missed flight pushes the departure beyond that, a new test is required. An exemption applies to those who can show proof of having recovered from the virus in the previous three months.
Unvaccinated travelers are asked to test one to three days before leaving the U.S.; to get the mandatory test before boarding their return flight; and to be tested three to five days after they return home. They also are advised to self-quarantine for seven days upon their return, even with a negative result. People who don’t want to be tested are asked to stay home for 10 days (14 with known exposure).
What about hotels, planes and other shared spaces?
COVID-19 is primarily spread through close contact with another person. The type of transportation you use, accommodations you stay in and activities you do during travel can increase your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. However, there are choices you can make to reduce your risk.
All travelers should wear a mask in public, avoid crowds and keep 6 feet of distance from others and wash their hands regularly. Try to limit contact with people who live outside of your household and who might not be vaccinated.
Short road trips with fully vaccinated family or friends are the safest travel options this summer, but avoid making many stops for food or bathroom breaks. If you have to fly, choose a flight with the least number of stops and layovers.
Finally, choose your place to stay wisely. Renting a vacation home with people from your household or fully vaccinated people is relatively safe. Hotels or lodging with shared spaces is riskier but can be OK if you take the right precautions. The CDC says travelers should not stay at accommodations with many other visitors or with shared bathrooms like dormitory-style hostels.
How to stay safe
The most important thing to do after vaccination is to go on like the virus is still a serious risk — because it is.
Fully vaccinated travelers should not relax the rules they followed before being inoculated. That means mask-wearing, physical distancing and good hygiene are musts. Fully vaccinated people have to continue being careful for the sake of others. You never know when you might come in contact with someone who is unvaccinated, has a high-risk health condition or is close with someone who could contract a deadly case of COVID-19.
Until we know more about transmission after vaccination, it’s important to have others’ protection in mind at all times.