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Should You Plan Travel as the Pandemic Continues?

Some opt for 'trip stacking,' while weighing COVID-19 health risks at destinations around the world

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Americans were finally starting to vacation and visit loved ones again last summer, both domestically and internationally, but the recent surge in the omicron variant and continued COVID-19 spikes have led to new travel restrictions and added fear and uncertainty about travel. Cities, states and countries are introducing rules that seem to change almost daily, as do U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel advisories and the agency’s roster of “high risk” destinations. What hasn't changed: The CDC continues to advise against travel unless you are fully vaccinated. (You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.)

On the plus side, global vaccination levels continue to increase, and airlines, cruise ships, hotels and tour companies have introduced infection prevention measures, some quite stringent. But children under 5 still can’t get vaccinated, adding anxiety to family travel that includes young kids, while the enforcement (or even existence) of health protocols varies widely by location.

Given this uncertainty, is now the right time to travel or even plan a vacation?

We asked travel industry and health experts to weigh in on the subject.

Evaluating travel's risks vs. rewards

“Travel now is a matter of balancing risks with benefits,” says Paul Holtom, M.D., infectious diseases specialist and chief epidemiologist at the LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles. “I agree there is a mental health and wellness benefit to travel, but there are inherent risks as well, with seniors in a higher risk group. If you want to travel, you should do everything you can to reduce those risks.”

And everyone's risk tolerance is different, says Joost Schreve, chief executive officer of the Boulder, Colorado-based travel service company kimkim. “The decision of whether or not to travel is a personal choice that mostly depends on your health risk profile and willingness to deal with potential logistical challenges,” he notes.  

Some travelers are, if not throwing caution out the window, taking a carpe diem attitude toward travel, says Jack Ezon, founder of Embark Beyond, a New York-based travel agency specializing in the luxury market. “Most of our clients have recognized from the past two years that you only live once. With the right precautions, they value their freedom to travel, to explore and most of all to connect with the world. And right now there are great values and most places aren’t overcrowded,” adds Ezon, communicating while on vacation with his family in South Africa. “While omicron of course poses challenges, we actually took advantage of the public fear and were able to get prime space at some of the most sought-after lodges in South Africa.”

The most obvious way to dramatically lower your risk: Get vaccinated for COVID-19, including a booster shot. But even vaccinated people face some risk of getting a breakthrough infection of COVID-19 while traveling. “While it’s unlikely that a vaccinated person contracts COVID, it’s not impossible,” Holtom cautions, particularly in light of the recent surge in breakthrough cases (where vaccinated people are becoming infected). “These cases will more likely be mild or asymptomatic, but given testing requirements to return to the U.S., this still means you’ll have to quarantine for two weeks in a foreign country [if traveling abroad]. And if you should happen to suffer another type of serious illness or injury while traveling, you’ll have to use local health care facilities that may be substandard or overburdened from COVID patients.”

In terms of timing, Holtom says that “historically we’ve seen a virus surge in winter with lower temperatures and increased indoor gatherings. But none of us have a crystal ball; we really don’t know what’s coming.”

Given the uncertainly of virus trends and travel restrictions, reducing the risk for travel now comes down to being as well-informed as possible about your destination and modes of travel, as well as your own health — both physical and mental. You won’t benefit from the soothing benefits of travel if you’re stressed the entire time, says Schreve: “While traveling, you’ll find yourself in airports and other places that can get crowded. If you’re uncomfortable with those kinds of situations in your hometown, traveling now might not be ideal for you. But if you’re living a fairly normal life at the moment, we’ve found that most of our travelers have had no issues and in many cases enjoyed a relative lack of crowds since many places have fewer visitors.”

Traveling within the U.S.

Domestic U.S. travel, particularly travel by car, has enjoyed great popularity during the pandemic, allowing Americans to avoid confusing border restrictions, as well as crowded airplanes. There are are varying restrictions within the U.S., however. Hawaii has particularly strict rules about vaccination and testing for visitors, requiring enrollment in the Hawaii Safe Travels program, and a five-day quarantine for those who don’t meet requirements. Los Angeles County and Las Vegas are among the jurisdictions that require everyone to wear masks in indoor public areas, and Washington, D.C., and New York City require customers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter restaurants and other venues.

If you're considering a trip in the U.S., Holtom recommends researching the COVID-19 status at your destination, while many cities and counties continue to experience dramatic spikes in infection rates. And think about where you're least likely to become infected, according to the CDC: outside. That's likely why road trips to outdoor destinations such as the U.S. national parks have been receiving record numbers of visitors. Many travelers have also been turning to home rentals, where, unlike at a hotel, travelers generally don't need to interact with anyone outside their group. Last summer, available short-term rentals grew scarce at popular beach destinations like Wisconsin's Door County and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which saw a more than 30 percent increase in home-rental demand compared with the pre-pandemic summer of 2019, according to online rental giant VRBO.


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Traveling to other countries

Any international travel right now requires careful planning, including checking the CDC's COVID-19-related warnings for international destinations. The agency currently lists more than 100 countries and territories as “Very High Risk — avoid travel," with dozens more considered “High Risk.” (You can check its color-coded map.) Travelers should also check recommendations from the State Department, which may have stronger warnings for certain countries, often due to factors other than COVID-19, plus any advisories from the U.S. embassy in the country you're planning to visit. And, of course, you need to stay on top of your destination's entry rules, which vary widely by country and can change quickly.  

Then there are rules for coming back into the U.S.: All travelers — regardless of vaccination status or nationality — arriving from international locations need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of their flight to the U.S. (Until recently, fully vaccinated U.S. travelers could offer tests taken within three days of their flight home.) ​​The CDC also continues to advise all U.S. travelers to get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the country and to watch for symptoms.​

Plenty of Americans are heading overseas, despite the regulations and omicron, however. “We have seen a surge in new short-term international booking requests, up 83 percent this January," says Ezon. For those planning to travel internationally, Ezon, who caters to a high-end clientele, has these recommendations: “First, make sure the place you are going to allows you to quarantine in a luxury hotel or resort and not a government facility [in case you test positive for COVID-19]. Second, make sure the locale has good medical facilities, in case you need more help, and, three, always be sure to take travel insurance that includes medical evacuation insurance.”

You also can reduce the risk and stress of international travel with strategic planning that lowers your risk of complications and, possibly, COVID-19 infection, Schreve says, such as booking direct flights to avoid the additional exposure to crowds and potential snafus that can come with connecting flights.  

Matt Berna, the California-based managing director for Intrepid Travel North America, suggests an outdoorsy vacation as a good option for international travelers in the age of COVID-19. Intrepid’s hikes through the Italian Dolomites and around Mont Blanc in France have been popular, as well as the lesser-known Rota Vicentina along the Portuguese coast.  

Even in countries the CDC labels “high risk,” all-inclusive resorts can provide safe havens, says Joshua Bush, chief executive officer of Avenue Two Travel in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. “Lots of resorts in the Caribbean and Los Cabos, for example, offer a feeling of security with on-site testing and by containing guests while still offering plenty to do so that the vacation experience isn’t hindered. Travel agencies partnering with the large luxury brands usually have inventory and access to great value-added amenities to defray costs.”

Cruising

The cruise industry has been hit hard over over the past two years, with early pandemic-era stories of massive outbreaks on ships and long-term quarantines at sea. All of the big cruise lines have vaccine requirements and new shipboard health protocols in place, but the recent omicron surge has caused yet another series of cruise cancellations, COVID-19 outbreaks onboard, and ports refusing ships’ entry.  

The CDC, meanwhile, is clear on its current recommendations for cruising: Don't do it. Earlier this month it raised its warning level for cruising to Level 4 (Do Not Travel) "regardless of vaccination status." The agency states, "It is especially important that travelers who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 avoid travel on cruise ships. The chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high because the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.” 

It also says that even those passengers who are fully vaccinated should get a COVID-19 viral test one to three days before departure, and three to five days after their trip. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bob Levinstein, chief executive officer of Iowa-based Cruise Compete, still calls cruises a great travel choice now, going so far as to label cruising “the safest vacation out there.” Levinstein adds that “cruise ships have an advantage over other modes of travel in that they have total control over their environment and rules.” He cites cruise lines’ strict new vaccine and testing requirements and their newly installed shipboard air filtration devices. “And if you do get sick on board,” he says, “every ship has trained medical staff on call and COVID tests readily available. You’re not going to have that in any other type of travel.”

But, regardless of your risk tolerance, a cruise vacation is currently vulnerable to disruption, as passengers continue to test positive on ships, warns Gene Sloan, cruise writer for The Points Guy. Your cruise “might miss a port call or two, as some ports are turning ships away due to COVID worries or adding new COVID-related requirements that make it more difficult for ships to visit," he notes. For example, multiple Caribbean ports recently instituted temporary bans or tight restrictions for cruise ship visits. Shore excursions may be limited, and itineraries may change mid-cruise. "There’s also the relatively small chance that [passengers] could get quarantined on a ship,” Sloan adds. 

Planning far ahead? Both Levinstein and Sloan agree this could be a great time to book cruises with departures several months or even a year or two away, as long as you are able to keep your plans flexible. There are some great deals out there," Levinstein says, "and cruise lines have introduced generous cancellation policies.” 

Holtom does not consider cruising a safe option when it comes to infection avoidance, however — pandemic or no. “It would be hard for me to ever get on a cruise ship, even without coronavirus, given other shipboard outbreaks like norovirus,” he says. “Cruise ships have an inherently higher risk of disease spread given their setup with large groups in confined indoor spaces.”

Considering the 'travel stacking' strategy

One increasingly popular way to manage travel uncertainty and improve flexibility: trip stacking. “It’s a strategy employed by those who don’t want to be disappointed if a trip cancels or they have narrow travel windows. By booking multiple trips for the same date, they’re guaranteed one of them,” Bush says. “The challenge is to know the terms and conditions of that trip inside and out and to not be stuck in a financial penalty when you cancel or change the timing on one of them.”

Ezon is seeing the same thing at Embark Beyond. “We have many clients trip stacking in order to ensure they can get somewhere over a certain time frame. As a travel agency, we try to negotiate very liberal cancellation penalties to avoid losing money,” he says.

What everyone seems to agree on: With the continued uncertainty in travel, booking trips with any sort of lead time is going to require evaluating your personal risk tolerance and staying flexible. And whether your strategy is trip stacking or simply having a tentative “plan B,” you should confirm a trip only with careful consideration of cancellation policies and an awareness of the latest health situation and COVID-19 restrictions at your planned destination. 

Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, The San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 29, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

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