Between volatility in infection rates and shifting guidance from federal and local agencies, it can be hard to determine how best to travel, or whether it’s safe to travel at all.
Somewhere between “it’s OK to travel” and “it’s not OK to travel” lies a vast gray area of caveats, personal preferences and precautions. Here we cut through this complexity to offer some simple factors that anyone should consider when planning travel during the pandemic.
While I'm not a health expert, and you shouldn't take these considerations as health guidance, there are several travel-related aspects to take into account.
Can it wait?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has been actively discouraging travel this winter, recommending would-be travelers stay at home and keep gatherings small, when possible. It’s clear that, for the sake of our own health and that of our communities, we should avoid traveling as much as possible over the next few months.
So the first question to ask when booking travel is: Can it wait? Sure, a family vacation sounds nice, but can you push it off a few months? If so, you might consider waiting a bit longer than usual to make your booking. Unlike normal circumstances, booking in advance doesn't currently offer much in the way of savings anyway.
Can you drive instead of fly?
Although the jury is still mostly out about whether air travel is safe, there's no doubt that it carries some risk. Even passing through an airport involves spending time indoors in proximity to strangers. So if you or anyone you'll be in contact with is in a high-risk group, it’s likely best to skip air travel altogether.
If possible, you can opt for a road trip. Although traveling by road involves some risk, it’s much easier to manage than it is on a flight. If your seatmate on an airplane chooses to eat throughout the flight with their mask down, there’s little you or a flight attendant can do to stop it.
Lodging poses the toughest challenge when on the road. Hotel lobbies and elevators, like airplane cabins, represent the enclosed indoor spaces that experts recommend avoiding. Choose a hotel with specific policies in place to ensure social distancing and mask enforcement, and spend as little time as possible in common spaces.
Is your booking flexible?
Regardless of whether you’re traveling by road or air, and no matter your risk tolerance or the current state of the pandemic, you’re going to want the most flexible booking options available.
Check our pages on airline and hotel flexibility policies to get a sense of which brands are offering the most generous flexible booking options. Be aware that these policies change constantly, so check with the airline or hotel for the most up-to-date information before booking.
Can you cancel and get your money back?
For most airlines, a “flexible” fare doesn't mean you can cancel it and get your money back. Generally, you're allowed to change these fares without fees. If you cancel your flight, you'll usually receive a “voucher” for future travel with that airline. So avoid booking a bunch of flexible flights expecting to cancel them later.
What about third parties like Orbitz, Expedia and Hotels.com?
For the most part, it’s fine to book through these online travel agencies. Flights and hotels booked this way generally follow the same flexibility restrictions as those purchased directly from the airline or hotel. No matter how you’re booking, make sure to check these restrictions carefully.
What about travel insurance?
Travel insurance can offer helpful protections under most circumstances, and some policies are especially helpful during the pandemic. However, this coverage generally doesn't include "cancel for any reason" protection, which lets you do precisely what its name implies. In other words, travel insurance can help cover your trip if you end up getting sick, but not if you decide to call off travel because of infection rates or other concerns.
When should you get tested?
It’s important to remember that travel poses a threat not only to yourself, but also to anyone else you travel with or spend time with after. To mitigate the risk of spreading the disease while traveling, the CDC recommends getting tested both:
One to three days before your flight.
Three to five days after your flight.
The first test will help determine if you should fly at all, and the second test can determine whether you were exposed while traveling.
The CDC also recommends staying home and isolating for seven days after travel, a much shorter quarantine period than the 14 days recommended previously. Keep this isolation and testing protocol in mind if you're traveling to visit friends or family and build it into your plans.
When will travel be safe?
Although the first vaccines have rolled out, there's no clear timetable for when general-public would-be travelers can receive vaccinations. And even the most effective vaccines aren't 100% effective, so infection rates will need to drop before travel returns to baseline safety.
However, many experts expect vaccines will be widely available to the general population by summer 2021 and that infection rates are likely to peak over the winter. So planning a (flexible) trip for next fall isn’t unreasonable.
The bottom line
Everyone has their own reasons to travel and their own individual risk tolerances, so it’s impossible to make general statements about when it’s OK to travel. That said:
When in doubt, stay home.
If you need to travel, consider a road trip.
If you do book flights, make sure they’re flexible.
Get tested before and after you travel.
Look to late 2021 for your bigger plans.
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