Americans are traveling again after the COVID-19 pandemic curbed travel in 2020.
According to the Transportation Security Administration, travelers ahead of the July 4 holiday reached their highest numbers since March 2020. And in the coming months, millions more Americans will be taking trips.
“As expected, we had no travelers coming for pre-travel counseling pretty much since the pandemic went into full effect late last spring,” says Carolyn Fernandes, MD, director, UPMC Travel Health Program and director, Outpatient Services, UPMC Division of Infectious Diseases.
“This May, we started to get traffic again, and we’ve had a few travelers coming for pre-travel counseling. Questions about COVID-19 and how to travel safely have come up.”
As you make your summer and early fall travel plans, you should keep safety in mind. You can take steps to lower your risk from COVID-19 while traveling.
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Should I Get the COVID-19 Vaccine Before Traveling?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized multiple COVID-19 vaccines for distribution. Americans ages 12 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends waiting to travel until you are fully vaccinated. That’s 2 weeks after you get the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. More than 154 million Americans had been fully vaccinated as of the end of June 2021, according to the CDC.
The authorized vaccines are safe and highly effective against COVID-19. They are especially effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
“Vaccination is a big part of being able to travel safely,” Dr. Fernandes says. “There’s plenty of good data showing that vaccination drastically reduces your risk of being hospitalized from severe illness and death.”
If you are fully vaccinated, you can take part in many activities without following COVID-19 preventive guidelines like wearing a facemask — except where required by law or regulation.
“Besides needing to follow the mandates that are currently in place for the destination you’re going to, you can pretty much have a good and safe trip if it’s been 2 weeks since you received a full vaccination series,” Dr. Fernandes says.
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Tips for Unvaccinated Travelers
If you or a member of your traveling party is not fully vaccinated, you should take precautions to limit your COVID-19 risk. According to the CDC, people who aren’t fully vaccinated should:
- Get tested for COVID-19 before and after the trip and self-quarantine upon returning.
- Wear a facemask that covers their nose and mouth when in public.
- Maintain appropriate physical distancing from people not from your household.
- Follow good hand hygiene.
Immunocompromised people or those at risk of COVID-19 complications must be careful, even if fully vaccinated.
What to Do Before Traveling During COVID-19
In addition to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Fernandes says travelers also should consider other things before their trip:
- Monitor COVID-19 at your destination. Check vaccination rates and COVID-19 transmission rates in the place you’re going. Consider postponing or canceling your trip if a surge is taking place. The CDC has a tool that allows you to check the risk of COVID-19 at your travel destination. “If you are traveling to a place where the rate of vaccination is high and the rate of local transmission of COVID-19 in terms of new cases is favorable, your overall trip is more likely to be safer,” Dr. Fernandes says. “Especially if you’re vaccinated.”
- Learn what’s required by your travel destinations. Find out if the place you’re where going has any quarantine restrictions or requires a negative COVID-19 test.
- Get travel health insurance. This can help you in the event that you do become sick or injured during your trip.
Traveling Safely During COVID-19
The CDC says many typical travel activities are safe for if you’re vaccinated. This includes flying by plane, staying in hotels, and eating at indoor restaurants.
You can further lower your risk, especially if you’re traveling with children who can’t get vaccinated, someone who is immunocompromised, or anyone at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Some things to do include:
- Wear a mask. You must wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other transportation into, throughout, and outside of the United States. You must continue to wear a mask in those situations even if you’ve been fully vaccinated. Transportation hubs like airports and bus/train stations require masks. Your mask should fit snugly, covering your nose and mouth. If you are not fully vaccinated, continue to wear a mask and physically distance throughout your trip.
- Travel by car. If you’re going somewhere relatively close, consider going by car. Traveling by bus or train could mean extended periods of time in close proximity with many people. Air filtration on planes makes the risk of COVID-19 transmission lower. However, you also may have to congregate in crowded airports for a long period of time. “If you’re flexible in your journey, go by road trips,” Dr. Fernandes says. “You have more control over your environment in a car.”
- Make fewer stops. If you travel by car, bring food with you. Find a picnic area where you can stop and eat along the way instead of visiting a restaurant. If you do make a stop and you’re not vaccinated, wear a mask, physically distance, and use good hand hygiene.
- Rent a house. If possible, consider renting a house at your destination instead of staying in a hotel. Congregating with large groups of people in a hotel carries a higher risk of COVID-19.
- Plan outdoor activities. In general, outdoor activities carry a smaller risk of COVID-19 spread. Consider outdoor activities like going to the beach, taking a hike, or outdoor sightseeing. Go to restaurants with outdoor seating options, or get takeout instead of eating at the restaurant.
Learn about any local COVID-19 laws or guidelines regarding masks and other prevention efforts.
If you travel with children who can’t get vaccinated or people, someone who is immunocompromised, and anyone at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, follow all prevention efforts. That includes wearing a facemask, physically distancing, and keeping good hand hygiene.
“For parents, if they want to express solidarity with their children even if they’re vaccinated, they may want to wear masks as well to encourage their children to do so,” Dr. Fernandes says.
It’s possible to travel safely during COVID-19, as long as you take the proper precautions. The CDC provides guidelines for domestic and international travel during COVID-19, including guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers.
UPMC’s Travel Health Program provides health guidance to travelers preparing for trips. Specialists from UPMC’s Division of Infectious Diseases can counsel you about how you can minimize your health risks during travel. If you do get sick during your trip, the clinic can provide care for you.
For more information, call 412-647-7228 or visit us online.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.