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Commentary: Is it Safe to Travel During COVID-19 in 2021? 5 Key Questions Answered

Commentary
2/18/2021 Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH, DTM&H, Associate Professor, Family Medicine, Global Health, University of Washington

We’re all itching to travel again.

Whether it’s visiting family out of town, a quick weekend getaway, or a month-long excursion across Europe, most people have daydreamed about post-pandemic trips and an end to our collective cabin fever. And while we may be excited about the prospect of safe travel again, we’re not there yet. The fact of the matter is travel is still a risky undertaking, and it’s still severely restricted in the U.S. and around the world.

People’s approach to travel has changed radically in the wake of COVID-19. International travel has come to a standstill, and people are delaying all kinds of smaller trips as part of our combined effort to slow the spread of this virus. But it’s not necessarily realistic for everyone to avoid all travel for the foreseeable future. With guidance from public health officials and medical experts, it is possible to decide if a particular trip is worth the risk and take steps to minimize your chances of contracting COVID-19 during travel. Here are the answers to five common questions people have when it comes to travel and COVID-19.

1. Should I Travel During COVID-19?

Generally, the answer is no. The recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is clear: Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. The safest thing to do is to not travel.

Yet it’s important to find a reasonable middle ground between the risks of exposure to COVID-19 and the needs of your job and the risks of social isolation. When considering travel, remember that the biggest risk for contracting COVID-19 is being around other people. The more you can limit your exposure to other people, the better.

2. What Method of Travel is Safest During COVID-19?

Is it safer to travel by car or plane? There are many factors to consider, but again the best indicator is the number of people you’re exposed to on a trip. On a long car ride, you’ll need to stop for gas and food, maybe even get a hotel for the night. When it comes to flying, early research suggests the filtration systems on commercial airlines might be fairly effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. But a flight also involves traveling to the airport, waiting for your flight and spending other time around groups of people. All of these activities increase exposure but are relatively small risks. Prioritize travel options where your exposure to other people is limited and the people you are exposed to are distanced and wearing masks.

In terms of accommodations, the same rule of thumb applies — look for ways to reduce the number of people you’re exposed to. If you can go straight to a motel room or a lockbox for a rental without having to go to a lobby or interact with a host, that decreases exposure a little bit.

3. Are There Additional Precautions I Should Take?

The best precaution is to avoid travel all together. But if you are going to travel, postpone travel if you’re sick, even if it just seems like a “cold.” Make sure you pack masks and hand sanitizer in addition to any medications you’ve used in the last year. Get the flu shot and other necessary vaccines, including COVID-19 if you are eligible. During travel, it’s essential that you wear a mask, wash your hands frequently and maintain social distance. If you start to feel ill, contact a medical professional right away.

It’s also a good idea to have your medical insurance card on hand and consider supplemental travel coverage. For international travel, make sure you have adequate medical evacuation coverage. Medical evacuation can be very expensive, and there are some insurance exclusions around pandemics and other conditions. It’s essential to read the fine print.  

4. How Should I Prepare for My Trip?

If you choose to travel during a pandemic, your first step should not be to buy a ticket. It should be a lot of research. Travel restrictions change regularly, and many places require a negative COVID-19 test within a certain period of time. Make sure to research case levels and hospital capacity at your destination and check for additional travel restrictions for your destination and when you return home.

It’s a good idea to see a travel medicine doctor to talk through the specifics of your itinerary. Often, this can be done as a telehealth appointment, unless vaccines or other in-office procedures are needed. A specialist will be up to date on the most recent travel rules and will be able to point you to resources for additional information.

Here are a few reliable resources to bookmark for the latest travel restrictions and requirements:

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention COVID-19 Travel

United States Department of State COVID-19 Traveler Information

United States Embassy Site for Destination Country

 

5. Is it Safe to Travel Once I Have the Vaccine?

For people eager to travel again, the vaccine offers hope for a return to normal. The vaccine rollout is slowly making things better, but COVID-19 is still very much a reality and a risk, and traveling increases exposure to that risk. Additionally, researchers are still working to understand the full effect of the vaccine. The vaccine has been shown to reduce the severity of illness if you get COVID-19, but it is not perfect in preventing you from getting infected. It’s not clear whether someone who is vaccinated can feel fine but still be infected enough to transmit the virus to someone else. That means that it’s essential that all people — even individuals who have been vaccinated — continue to wear a mask, wash their hands, and social distance for the foreseeable future.

To learn more about travel precautions related to COVID-19, check out the Manuals page on travel preparations as well as the COVID-19 resource page