Months into COVID-19 vaccination programs—and with more than 60% of Americans having already received at least one vaccine dose—it may feel like the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, especially since the CDC said fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or socially distance unless going to a Hospital/medical facility, using public transportation, or visiting a congregate care facility.
But if you’re planning summer travel in 2021, it’s important to factor in some caution. After all, vaccination rates are uneven across the United States, and are still very low in many parts of the world. Although breakthrough infections are rare in fully vaccinated people, they’re not impossible. Meanwhile, children under 12 years old are not yet eligible for a vaccine and can be asymptomatic carries of the COVID-19 virus.
So, what does all this mean for summer travel this year?
Let’s break it down.
Fully vaccinated vs. partially or unvaccinated
You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your second dose of a two-shot vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) or two weeks after your only dose of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
In general, fully vaccinated people can resume all normal activities, indoor and outdoor, without a mask unless subject to federal, state, local, business, or specific workplace mandates. Fully vaccinated people should be prepared to follow any requests (masking, distancing, etc.) if or when asked. So, it’s a good idea to keep a mask with you, even if you don’t think you’ll need to wear it.
If you are partially vaccinated (only one shot of a two-dose vaccine or less than two weeks after your final shot), you should continue to follow all guidelines for unvaccinated people. This means wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, frequent handwashing, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces.
Of course, your best protection is to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
Domestic vs. International travel
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can travel normally throughout the United States without the need to test or quarantine before or after the trip (unless a test is required by your destination state prior to your arrival or by your employer prior to returning to work). Also fully vaccinated people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 no longer need to be tested or quarantine unless they develop symptoms.
You still must follow current state and local travel requirements and individual business policies that may be in effect. If you are asked to mask and/or socially distance, please be sure to comply. In addition, there is still a federal mask mandate for all public transportation, which includes planes, trains, buses, and inside airports and stations. Make sure to have a mask on hand if you’ll be using any public transit, regardless of vaccination status.
Traveling internationally is a bit more complicated, even if fully vaccinated. Some countries are still prohibiting international travel. Others are experiencing major COVID-19 outbreaks that could be unsafe even for those who are vaccinated, due to the possibility of new variants and the fact that vaccines aren’t 100% effective at preventing infection (though they are nearly 100% effective at preventing severe disease and death). Countries may also impose strict lockdowns with little or no warning. Before traveling internationally, check the State Department’s travel advisories for the latest information and also check your destination country’s COVID travel regulations.
If you’re fully vaccinated and you choose to travel internationally, you don’t need to get tested before your trip unless a negative COVID test is required by your specific destination. All travelers, regardless of vaccination status, must show a negative COVID test result done within 72 hours of your departure to airport authorities before returning to the United States. If vaccinated, you will not need to quarantine upon arrival to the US, but the CDC still recommends you have a follow-up test 3-5 days after returning home.
If you are unvaccinated, it’s best not to travel at all. If you must travel, get tested no more than three days before your trip. Continue to mask, socially distance, and wash your hands frequently. When you return, get tested three to five days later and quarantine for a full seven days. If you don’t get tested, quarantine for a full 10 days. Avoid contact with people at high risk for severe illness for 14 days regardless of your test results.
Traveling with Kids
If your kids are old enough to be eligible for vaccination, get them vaccinated and try to schedule your trip after they are fully vaccinated. If this isn’t possible, or your kids are too young to be vaccinated, you can still travel with them. But they should follow all guidelines for unvaccinated people, including masking and socially distancing. Mask guidance applies to everyone two years old and above.
Indoors vs. outdoors
In general, outdoors is safer than indoors for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. If anyone in your traveling party is unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, try to spend most of your time outdoors, especially when visiting with friends or family.
According to the CDC, unvaccinated people can spend time with fully vaccinated friends and family members unmasked, provided it’s a small group and solely outdoors. If the group contains other unvaccinated people, if it’s more than a few people, or if any activities take place indoors, all unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people should mask up.
For fully vaccinated people, indoor activities are generally considered safe. However, you might want to mask up for extra peace of mind if you’re in a crowded indoor space, especially with poor ventilation.
Indoor restaurants can be risky, depending on the ventilation. They likely pose a low risk for fully vaccinated people, but partially or unvaccinated people should use extreme caution.
Though indoor spaces are generally considered safe for vaccinated people, the more people share the same air, the higher the (still very low!) risk of contracting a breakthrough infection. Unvaccinated people should avoid crowded indoor spaces altogether. Hostels and other shared accommodations are the highest risks. High-rise hotels with crowded elevators are potentially riskier than low-rise motels with exterior corridors, though many hotels have implemented COVID precautions. The least risky, especially for the unvaccinated, are private rentals. You have the entire place to yourselves, especially if the owner has implemented precautions such as letting the rental remain empty for a few days between renters.
A note for fully vaccinated immunocompromised people
If you’re immunocompromised or taking immunosuppressant medications, you may already be aware that you are more prone to getting sick than those with strong immune systems. Although the data is still unclear, there is an emerging body of evidence that immunocompromised people may not mount a robust response to COVID-19 vaccinations. Talk to your doctor about whether you should follow the guidelines for fully vaccinated people or continue to follow all precautions for unvaccinated people. Scientists are studying whether immunocompromised people should receive a third shot, but it is not currently recommended at this time.
Summer 2021 looks a lot better than the summer of 2020, at least in the United States. But with uneven vaccination rates across the country, and the pandemic still raging globally, it’s too early to declare victory. When traveling this summer, keep the CDC guidance in mind while also following your specific destination’s federal, state, local, and individual business COVID regulations. If you’re immunosuppressed, talk to your doctor before planning your trip.