We all want to know when it’s OK to resume our travels. Can we travel internationally after we’re fully vaccinated? After most people in the world are immunized? Ever again?
The U.S. State Department recently updated its travel advisories, upgrading some 115 countries to the highest “do not travel” stage-4 level due to the pandemic. This move aligns with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for these countries, and even applies to fully vaccinated travelers, throwing cold water on the notion that the vaccine rollout would open the world to U.S. travelers this summer.
Expert guidance has been, frankly, confusing. The CDC has issued guidelines for vaccinated travelers, suggesting they can “Refrain from testing before leaving the United States for international travel (unless required by the destination) and refrain from self-quarantine after arriving back in the United States.” Yet the CDC is also telling U.S. citizens to avoid travel to nearly every international destination.
Like with most things during the pandemic, the question of when and whether travel will become safe again doesn't come with a clearly defined answer. Travel will neither be completely safe nor completely unsafe at any point this year (or ever). Instead, we must all navigate the gray area of changing conditions and our own risk tolerance.
Given that, here are three tips to help put the confusing decisions regarding your future travel into perspective.
1. Don’t wait for an all-clear
Travel is risky. If you’re willing to get in a car to drive to the airport, you're already demonstrating a tolerance for some risk. The reality is, if your goal is to wait for an all-clear on COVID-19 (or any other infectious disease) before traveling, you’ll likely never leave your house.
A better question to ask about traveling during a pandemic is not when the risks will disappear completely, but when will the risks meet an acceptable threshold?
Does that mean you should ignore the State Department and CDC guidance? Absolutely not. But you might not need to wait for a destination to fall completely off its watchlist before you consider traveling there.
For example, the State Department often carries a low-level warning on travel to Mexico City due to crime, yet thousands of U.S. tourists flock there every year. The question is not “Is Mexico City completely safe?” but rather, “Is Mexico City safe enough for me to feel comfortable traveling there?”
In the end, this is a personal decision. Do your research, listen to the experts and make your own judgment call. Just don’t wait for an all-encompassing go-ahead.
2. Don’t worry (as much) about transmitting to others
Throughout the pandemic, there have been two main reasons to avoid traveling. First, most obviously, is to avoid contracting the disease yourself. Second, and often underplayed, is to avoid spreading the virus to others.
The available COVID-19 vaccines seem to be effective at stunting the spread of the virus, rendering the second issue less pressing for would-be travelers. According to the CDC’s interpretation, “Any travel-associated transmission risk is likely to be substantially reduced among those fully vaccinated with an effective vaccine.”
Again, this isn't to say that fully vaccinated travelers can't spread the virus, but rather that the risk is significantly reduced. It means that fully vaccinated people aren't being completely selfish or putting others at high risk by traveling. So you can (almost) take this off your list of concerns.
3. Don’t expect certainty
Between the two types of travelers — those who plan everything in exacting detail and those who fly by the seat of their pants — this tip is going to be tough to swallow for the former.
No matter when you decide that the risks of travel have dropped below your threshold, you should still expect the unexpected and plan accordingly. What does that mean in practical terms? It means booking flexible airfare and accommodations. And having a sense of humor when your plans fall apart.
Thankfully, flexible booking is much easier to do than before the pandemic. Most airlines have eliminated change fees for all but their lowest-cost fares, and many hotels are offering more flexible booking options. As long as you avoid purchasing basic economy fares, it should be relatively easy to rebook your trip should any unanticipated disruptions arise.
So if you’re on the fence about the safety of traveling, you can book regardless, and then change your plans if needed. Just don’t expect to get a full cash refund.
The bottom line
After more than a year of canceled plans and uncertainty, we’re all eager to get the green light to travel again. Yet, while infections continue to spread around the globe, a full return to normal remains unlikely.
Instead, it’s up to you to do your own assessment of the relative risks and rewards of traveling after getting vaccinated. The good news is that the risk of spreading the virus to others drops significantly after immunization, and airlines are making it much easier to rebook travel if you change your mind.
When will it be safe to travel? When you decide that it’s safe for you to travel.
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