As coronavirus vaccinations ramp up in the United States, many grounded travelers are likely looking forward to planning their first fully vaccinated getaway—perhaps booking a long-awaited flight to visit family they haven’t seen since last year.
And while there is good reason to celebrate inoculation, health officials have warned that a vaccination is not a free pass to travel as we used to. This is largely dictated by the undetermined degree to which vaccinated people can transmit coronavirus; until everyone is inoculated against COVID-19 or it is proven that vaccination prevents transmission, vaccinated people will need to continue masking and social distancing to protect those who are unvaccinated.
But while post-vaccine travel isn’t without some risks, some activities—including being able to more confidently fly, returning to places lifting restrictions for vaccinated individuals, and gathering with other vaccinated people—do become safer, experts say.
“It’s not appropriate to tell people that they should do exactly the same thing after vaccination that they did before being vaccinated, and it’s also not true,” says Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “People are not going to want to be vaccinated if they think that they can’t do anything different [after],” and the efficacy of COVID vaccines depends on widespread participation.ADVERTISEMENT
“I booked my first air ticket in a year and I’m happy to fly, masked,” says David Freedman, a vaccinated infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who has studied in-flight transmission of the coronavirus. “The vaccines are excellent … and while a small percentage [of vaccinated people] are still going to get COVID, you probably won’t end up in the hospital, or anything like that.”
Here’s what doctors say travelers need to know before booking their first post-COVID trip.
Fully vaccinated people are well-protected
New guidance for vaccinated people issued by the CDC on Monday states that fully vaccinated people two weeks past their final shot (or from the sole shot, in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine) can reasonably gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people, unmasked and without distancing. But vaccinated individuals, including travelers, should continue to follow pre-existing advice including wearing masks in public and avoiding travel while COVID-19 cases are high. The agency’s federal requirement that all travelers to the U.S. show a negative coronavirus test result still applies for vaccinated people. Outside of legally required travel quarantines, the guidelines also state that vaccinated people do not need to self-quarantine after exposure to the coronavirus if they do not have symptoms.
Vaccinated populations will still see cases, but they should be mild—which is what matters to doctors. “We don’t care so much if somebody gets the sniffles, we care if they end up in the hospital on a ventilator,” Wen says.
Because of those study results, doctors like U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony S. Fauci have said it is reasonably safe for vaccinated people to gather indoors and unmasked—but only with other vaccinated people.
Masking will still be required for some time
Because we do not yet know if vaccinated people could be asymptomatic carriers who could infect others with coronavirus, health experts stress that masking and distancing requirements are still necessary.
“The safest thing is to only travel with people that are vaccinated,” says Freedman. Studies have pointed to vaccinated people carrying a lower viral load of coronavirus, and scientists could reach a definitive conclusion about vaccinated transmission within months. If the conclusion is that vaccinated people do spread the virus, then masking on planes is likely here to stay until global herd immunity is reached—which is unlikely to occur this year, according to the World Health Organization.
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“If you are in public around other people who have not been vaccinated, you should still keep up precautions, because you don’t want to contract the virus and be the next super spreader, unknowingly,” Wen says. That thinking also applies to people you may be flying to visit who are not yet vaccinated, like children, as people under 16 are not yet eligible for the shots. Even though you are protected, it’s important to continue distancing, masking, and handwashing while traveling for the sake of others.
The type of trip you’re taking matters more than ever
Domestic U.S. and perhaps European travel will be faster to rebound, says Freedman; because of unfortunate COVID vaccine inequity, richer countries are likely to reach herd immunity first.
“With any luck Europe travel could come back by fall, but more developing countries, safari travel, cruises, remote travel is going to be a while,” Freedman says. He also advises that, from a practical standpoint, visiting one country instead of planning a multi-country trip is wise because of complex international testing requirements. Guided tour groups should also be fully vaccinated and only operate in countries with widespread immunity.
Opting to visit destinations waiving travel restrictions for vaccinated travelers is one way to navigate your return to traveling, although Freedman points out that only a handful of countries have gone that route. Among them is the Seychelles, which is aiming for its population to be one of the first in the world to reach herd immunity. For domestic travel, Vermont recently moved to allow vaccinated travelers to visit without quarantining and the state of Hawaii is also weighing the approach.
Freedman also notes that Americans may not be as welcome overseas as they once were due to the United States’ consistent levels of coronavirus. “I think it’s important to remember that the U.S. still has a huge problem with COVID, and a lot of countries just don’t want American travelers right now,” he says. Though he is fully vaccinated, Freedman says he is sticking to domestic travel to visit family for now, and will continue to wear a mask in public for the sake of others.