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What to Expect When Traveling this Summer

It’s been a long year-plus of living with COVID-19 restrictions and worries. But 41% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated against the virus (and half are halfway there), the weather’s becoming balmier, and challenging school years are winding down. Naturally, many of us are ready to venture out for proper vacations this summer.

Family traveling by car

Carrie Horn, MD, chief medical officer and chief of the Division of Hospital & Internal Medicine at National Jewish Health, hears loud and clear that her patients and their families are ready to roam. “’I’m tired of my house, tired of online learning, tired of masks, tired of feeling stuck.’ Most everyone, understandably, is ready to start making up for lost time.”

Although we’ve made big gains by developing vaccines and more effective treatments, we still need to take precautions until we reach herd immunity against the virus. Ahmad M. Rashid, MD, pulmonary and critical care physician at National Jewish Health, explains that at some point in the future, “enough people in society will become immunized against the disease, so that the spread of the virus will become limited. At this point the spread would be so limited that even people who cannot get the vaccine due to a medical condition would be protected as well. This is the ‘herd immunity’ that everyone keeps talking about. At that time, the masks and social distancing requirements in public will go away.” Herd immunity for COVID-19 will occur when 80-90% of the U.S. population is vaccinated.

Until then, Dr. Horn has some common-sense advice for traveling this summer.
 

Pick Your Destination Carefully

When you’re thinking about where you might travel to this summer, research locations. Look at infection and hospitalization rates. When Dr. Horn makes her own travel plans, “I wonder about different communities’ ability to handle a crisis. If their hospitals were full to capacity with COVID-19 patients, and if I were to get into a car accident, I might not be able to get the care I need. I look at the COVID-19 rates of destinations where I’m traveling.”

 

Don’t Plan a Multifamily Trip Just Yet

We often travel with friends or other families — or travel to places where we can spend time with loved ones. “If everyone’s vaccinated,” says Dr. Horn, “it’s safe to do that unmasked.” But if you’d like to travel with unvaccinated friends or family, she adds, it’s “best overall to stick to your bubble this summer, and I don’t recommend multifamily get-togethers yet. Mixing many different families is still a risk.”

The bigger the group, the tougher it is to assume which adults are vaccinated. Even if you’re vaccinated, you can still catch the virus and you can still spread it to other people — especially if they’re not vaccinated. Instead, if you can, plan to travel with your own family or other adults who you know are vaccinated.

 

If You’re Traveling With People Outside Your Household, Plan Ahead

If you’re taking your kids to visit your mom, advises Dr. Horn, “ask her not to hang out with friends the week before you go. Also minimize your own exposure before you travel — it’s going to be safer for everybody.” Also think about setting up most of your time together for outside — go for walks, hit the (uncrowded) beach, barbeque in the yard or at a park, hike in the hills, or play mini-golf.

 

Choose Flights According to Your Own Risk Tolerance

Shorter flights are better. “The longer you’re on the flight, the longer you’re exposed,” adds Dr. Horn. That said, it’s also smart to minimize your time in crowded airports — so don’t necessarily book two shorter flights instead of one long one.

No matter how long your flight, it’s sensible to avoid or minimize eating and drinking on the plane. If you have a long way to fly, before you book, ask yourself if you can wait to eat between flights, or if you’d rather take a longer flight and avoid having to spend time in multiple airports. Dr. Horn says, “There’s no right or wrong, but think ahead of time about how you want to handle the situation.”

 

Take as Many (or More) Precautions in The Airport as on The Airplane

“Personally I worry more about the airport than the airplane — things such as crowding around gates and waiting areas.” When waiting in the airport, Dr. Horn notes, “find a place to sit that’s not near everywhere else, especially if you need to eat before you board your flight.” If you can, avoid layovers and spending time in multiple airports on your journey.

 

Situate Yourself Well on the Plane

If you can choose your seat on a flight, Dr. Horn says—"not sitting next to strangers is a nice thing.” Window seats get less exposure to other people than aisle seats. And as far as air circulation in airplanes, she adds, “the way it works is that air blows down from the ceiling to the floor, and around to the aisle. I stow fewer items by my feet so that there’s better airflow around me.”

 

Take Extra Precautions for (Unvaccinated) Kids

Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. If you’re vaccinated and traveling with them, take extra precautions to protect them against the virus. Dr. Horns says of her own family, “When we travel with the kids, we make sure we wipe their spaces down, that they’re washing their hands and that they have their masks on properly.” She adds, “On a plane, I make sure the air is blowing on them, that they’re not sitting next to a stranger, and that they sit in the window between us and anyone that would come down the aisle.”

 

At Your Destination, Make Reservations for the Least-Crowded Times

Again, it’s best this summer to avoid being around people outside your household or bubble as much as possible. When making reservations at your destination for venues like museums and arcades, Dr. Horn says, “To try to go first thing in the morning — get the earliest ticket so there are just less people that have gone through ahead of you.” As far as restaurants, get the first reservation of the mealtime, and eat outside whenever you can, so that you can eat when the restaurant is the least crowded and the most clean.

 

Have a Back-Up Plan for Returning Home

If you’re on vacation and you or one of your family members gets COVID-19, you will not be able to fly home. Even if you have a non-COVID-19 sickness that causes fever (such as a bladder infection, cellulitis, or sinus infection), you’ll have to find a later flight or alternate path home. Dr. Horn advises, “As part of your travel planning, think about your contingency. You don’t want to be stuck for two weeks while your child recovers from a fever.”

 

Listen to Your Gut the Whole Way 

You may arrive at a restaurant and several servers have their masks pulled under their chins. You may step into a store that has shoulder-to-shoulder customers. If, while you’re traveling, you become uncomfortable with how safe a certain place feels at any time, Dr. Horn suggests, “just leave, just cancel the reservation and go do something else.” She also understands that “as people, we have a hard time doing that.” We want our favorite sandwich from our favorite restaurant. We really need to buy a sun hat in the certain store. But virus safety needs to take priority for one more summer!

Summer’s often a time that feels more free and easy—and this summer may have more highlights than last year! But we’re not completely free of COVID-19 just yet. If you take a vacation this year, know that the next one may be even less restricted if we can all help prevent virus spread now.

 

For more information on the nuts and bolts of travel during COVID-19, see:

Travel During 2019 Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Stay on Track with Safe Travel
Prevention Tips


The information on our website is medically reviewed and accurate at the time of publication. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, information may have since changed. CDC.gov and your state’s health department may offer additional guidance.

 

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