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Do's and Don'ts of (Almost) Post-Pandemic Travel

An anxious traveler hits the road with his family

Bruce Horovitz and family

Courtesy Bruce Horovitz

Bruce, Rachel, Evelyne, and Becca

En español | After endless pandemic months, that vacation you and your family are finally planning to take this summer is going to be a bit different.

Ours sure was.

My family of four just returned from a late-spring trip that — due to COVID-19 safety precautions — was far different from any we've ever taken. Yet it still felt like a vacation. My wife, Evelyne, our two daughters (Rachel, 23, and Becca, 19) and I flew from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to celebrate Rachel's one-year-delayed graduation from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. We're all fully vaccinated.

Just like us, more than two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) are planning to travel this summer, according to a recent survey by TripAdvisor. But as the pandemic is starting to loosen its grip, we find ourselves in an awkward in-between place: Many restrictions are easing for those who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said it's safe for vaccinated individuals to do most things maskless — but we're so used to following social distancing and other safety measures, it feels strange to venture into the world with relative abandon.

Meanwhile, at the time of our trip, California still required that everyone wear masks in indoor public places (it lifted the rule on June 15). And the TSA continues to require mask wearing on public transportation, as well as in places like airports and bus stations, for all travelers, vaccinated or not.

When we returned, we ran the highlights of our five-day vacation by medical experts from Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic, and asked them to comment on what we did right and what we did wrong.

They agreed on the most important step: We all were fully vaccinated by the time of our departure. (The CDC says to delay all travel until you're fully vaccinated.)

Here's more on what we learned about the new world of travel in summer 2021.

Air travel

Dulles International Airport in Virginia was its own adventure. Having not stepped into an airport for almost two years, I forgot all airport etiquette, let alone all COVID-19-related requirements. At security, a TSA agent rightfully barked at me when I placed a plastic bin on the floor before slipping my shoes and cellphone into it.

The experts say: If you're fully vaccinated, you're probably fine flying, but driving's safer when it comes to infection-prevention. “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes,” according to CDC travel guidance, though it adds that because social distancing is so difficult on a plane, flying “may make you more likely to get COVID-19.”

That's why the safest way to travel and protect your family from COVID-19 is still by car, says Gina Suh, M.D., an infectious disease expert and head of the travel clinic at the Mayo Clinic. (Note, though, that if you're vaccinated and you do get infected, your symptoms are likely to be no worse than a bad cold.)

Inflight

I thought I was mentally prepared for the flight, but it was more nerve-racking than I expected. Yes, I kept my mask in place — except to eat — as required by law. But I was stuck in a middle seat with masked strangers on either side of me. Both occasionally unmasked to eat and drink, and they forgot on occasion and briefly left their masks off even after eating. I simply touched my own mask to remind them, and both quickly put their masks back on.

Experts agreed on the most important step: We all were fully vaccinated by the time of our departure.

The experts say: If you're anxious about exposure, despite being fully vaccinated, you might start a conversation mentioning that you are vaccinated in order to find out if the people sitting around you are, too, says William Greenough, M.D., a retired geriatrician from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and an international expert in infectious disease. Whether or not they are, if you're vaccinated, you are well protected. But if they're not, and that makes you uncomfortable, you can try to change your seat.

Rental car

Once in L.A., we boarded the shuttle bus to pick up our rental car — careful to wear our masks and staying socially distanced from other riders, as required. We did not wipe down the car interior.

The experts say: It's not critical to wipe down rental cars. “There is very little [in terms of the COVID-19 virus] that you can catch from surfaces,” Greenough says.

Hotel

Checking into our hotel on the beach in Santa Monica was a breeze. The Shore Hotel required everyone to wear masks and to social distance indoors. When we checked into our room, we were too tired to wipe down the nightstand, the TV remote and the bathroom.

The experts say: It's not necessary to wipe down surfaces to avoid COVID-19 (but note that TV remotes and other high-touch amenities are famously germy in general).

Sightseeing

Since we still had a few hours until sunset, we drove to Venice Beach to stroll the boardwalk and chose to eat dinner at a restaurant with outdoor seating.

The experts say: Eating outdoors is the least risky choice, though the CDC says that those who are fully vaccinated can safely dine indoors. Do what makes you comfortable.

Bruce Horovitz's daughters

Courtesy Bruce Horovitz

Rachel and Becca after the parking-lot graduation

Graduation

Because of the pandemic, Rachel's graduation was a drive-in event, held at the sprawling outdoor parking lot at the Los Angeles County Fair Grounds in Pomona, with the ceremony projected on a big screen. While we didn't have to sit in the car the whole time, we did wear our masks when we were out, because that was required by the school. Rachel could cross the stage maskless to receive her diploma. Our family enjoyed a maskless group hug after Rachel returned to the car.

The experts say: Cal Poly did it right. And regardless of CDC guidance, we were right to follow the stricter protocols set forth by the institution.

Beach

The last day was all about the beach. We drove to Paradise Cove, a semi-private beach in Malibu. We were socially distant from other sun worshippers and felt comfortable not wearing our masks. Yes, two of us left with sunburns.

The experts say: We did good. Because we were fully vaccinated, we were safe going maskless on the beach, says Suh.

But we should have worn more sunblock.

Travel tips for the fully vaccinated

  • Be sure to stay on top of the COVID-19-related protocols for your destination. They may vary from the CDC's guidance, and may change before or while you're there.
  • Know your local COVID-19-related requirements. While most states have dropped their quarantine and testing requirements for travelers or residents returning from out of state, a few (Hawaii and Alaska) still require or recommend testing upon arrival or return.
  • Bring a mask with you wherever you go on your travels. You never know when an individual business may require face coverings, and you will still need it on public transportation.
  • Be patient. You may find longer lines at airports as more people return to flying and slower customer service in some hot destinations where they've had trouble with staffing. Go with the flow.
  • Don't get distracted by unnecessary precautions, like wiping surface areas with disinfectant; the coronavirus is an airborne threat.

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Bruce Horovitz is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and caregiving. He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY. Horovitz regularly writes for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, AARP Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Kaiser Health News, and PBS Next Avenue.

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