- The CDC still says “do not travel.”
- But many health experts disagree, arguing that travel should be a perk for the fully vaccinated.
- If you do decide to book a flight or hotel, here are some tips for how to do it most safely.
- This article is one in a four-part series on the simple ways to fix the America’s biggest COVID-19 mistakes. Click here to read more.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Last month, Kyle, a 21-year-old college student, traveled from Arizona to Mexico for spring break. He wasn’t supposed to, as his school’s spring break (like so many others) was officially canceled this year.
But, he said, he really needed a vacation.
“The virus has been going on for a while now, so I might as well go, because it’s not going to end anytime soon,” he told Insider, asking to omit his last name for privacy reasons.
Kyle is not the only one using pandemic fatigue as an excuse to travel. Beachgoers are flocking to Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. The number of people passing through TSA checkpoints has been on a steady upward creep for the past month.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t shifted its recommendations to address this uptick, nor has it come up with new guidelines for vaccinated travelers.
“Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19,” the agency‘s website has read for months. “CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time.”
This kind of abstinence-only approach has fallen on deaf ears, alienating the public. At this point, when case rates are declining, vaccinations are ramping up, and pandemic fatigue is going strong, people are straight-up ignoring the conservative government advisories.
Perhaps if more public health officials had suggested ways to travel safely, rather than warning against any and all trips, things would be different.
Many leading, independent public health experts now agree: loosening up travel restrictions for fully vaccinated people makes scientific sense, as long as a few common sense precautions are followed to protect those who aren’t vaccinated.
Let vaccinated people travel a bit, with guidelines
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University school of public health, recommends vacations only as a perk for the fully vaccinated.
“I think right now people, if they need to travel and have been fully vaccinated can — but they’ve got to continue wearing their face mask,” Jha told reporters on Thursday.
That doesn’t mean jetting off to Europe for weeks on end, since there are some limited studies that suggest viral COVID-19 transmission has happened on a few long-haul flights. (“Would I get on an airplane as a vaccinated person and travel around the world right now? I probably wouldn’t,” he said.)
But short, domestic flights to see family generally carry a low level of risk, especially if people are vaccinated and cautious on the trip.
“Grandparents really want to see grandkids,” Jha added. “And that requires traveling. And the question is, is that unsafe? And I don’t believe it’s unsafe.”
Make transport hubs safer, and be stricter about what tests are acceptable
Jha said that by summertime, more domestic travel will be “relatively comfortable and safe,” but we need to keep up the reliable public health measures that work well.
First, that means mandating masks and distance.
It’s true: planes are generally well-ventilated and safe, as long as passengers are masked up. But that doesn’t mean that your entire air travel experience is risk-free. You should still avoid crowded areas of the airport and take precautions on your way to and from your destination, especially if you’re taking public transit.
It also means fixing our testing strategy.
The US has mandated that international travelers must show a negative COVID-19 test result from up to three days before their flight to enter the country. Some states have implemented stricter testing and quarantine requirements for domestic travelers too. But these state and federal guidelines still don’t address well the fact that some people can incubate the virus for an entire week (or more) before they become infectious to others.
A more stringent testing-quarantining combo would yield more reliable results, as a COVID-19 test can only capture a moment in time. When someone takes a test three days before their flight, it doesn’t capture their exposures in the few days before and after the test — so staying unexposed to other households during the period after a negative test, but before a flight, is vital.
Teach people how to take small, safe, domestic vacations
For the unvaccinated, there are some trips that don’t involve going to an airport or popping your social bubble, like a road trip with just your household. These options are “zero risk,” pandemic preparedness expert Amesh Adalja told Insider. And there’s a wide spectrum of risk levels between that kind of conservative option and a “Spring Breakers” kind of vacation.
Camping is another well-ventilated outdoor option, as the weather gets warmer.
It’s also possible to safely take a trip that looks similar to a “normal” vacation, as long as you’re willing to observe precautions and feel comfortable taking on some level of risk. Private home rentals that are not shared with other travelers are safer than busy resorts.
A socially-distanced hotel stay isn’t completely out of the picture either. Just make sure that the place you’re staying is following common sense COVID-19 protocols (contactless check-ins, room service options instead of indoor dining, and places with plenty of outdoor seating for meals are all good signs).
Any kind of vacation rental that includes a private, en suite bathroom and absolutely no shared indoor space with other travelers (including for dining) is going to be the safest bet.
Scrap performative measures and focus on the real risks
If you do your own research on traveling during the pandemic, you’re bombarded with a barrage of recommendations on how to do so safely. But before you spurge on a Naomi Campbell-style hazmat suit and goggles combo, let’s review. Because some precautions are more crucial than others, and it can be tough to separate the signal from the noise.
While it might give you some peace of mind to watch flight attendants wipe down your seats on a plane, most visible sanitation measures are simply “hygiene theater,” a term coined by The Atlantic to describe performative COVID-19 precautions meant to put customers at ease.
Cleaning shared surfaces can’t hurt, but it’s much more important to protect yourself from the airborne particles that carry the coronavirus from person to person. Wearing a well-fitted mask (or two) and staying at least six feet away from others on your travel journey is far more effective than packing antibacterial wipes (though those can be good in a pinch to replace handwashing if you need to clean your hands before you touch your face, or eat a meal).
Letting confined spaces air out before you use them is good too: if you rent a car, roll down the windows and let the air blast for a few minutes before you get in. If you check into a room and don’t know how long it’s been since the cleaning crew came, or the last customer left, crack some windows and let a good crossbreeze blow through. Same goes for dining tents. In general: avoid breathing the same air as people from different households as much as possible.
Many businesses, including airlines, theme parks, and hotels, have implemented temperature checks to screen out potentially sick customers. But given that a quarter of COVID-19 patients don’t develop a fever — and even more might slip through the checks before developing symptoms — temperature checks may give travelers a false sense of security, chipping away at other, more effective measures.
“It’s more effective to think of personal hygiene to reduce your own exposure,” microbiologist and author Miryam Wahrman previously told Insider. “You have to assume where people are, there are going to be germs.”