En español | The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current guidance says that people who are fully vaccinated can resume travel “at low risk to themselves,” although the agency still recommends staying home as the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. It continues to ask non-vaccinated Americans to avoid nonessential travel.
Now that they've received their COVID-19 vaccinations, Joel Ettinger, 75, and his wife, Gail, 73, are set for their first big trip since the coronavirus pandemic began last March: They’re headed from their home in New York City for a two-week visit with their two sons and their families — including a new baby granddaughter — in Seattle. “We are off-the-charts excited to meet her,” says Ettinger, who adds that they also can’t wait to spend time with their two grandsons, whom they haven’t seen in more than a year because of COVID-19.
As an increasing number of older Americans receive COVID-19 vaccinations — about 75 percent of people 65 and up had received at least one dose by April 4, according to the CDC — they are eager to visit dearly missed family members or take dreamed-about vacations (some are calling them “vaxications”) knowing that they’re protected from the worst effects of the virus.
A survey of 1,200 clients by Virtuoso, a network of travel advisers, this year found that among those older than age 56, about 90 percent said they’re more ready to travel in 2021. Eighty-two percent said they'd wait for the vaccine before they depart.
“There’s definitely a big bump in interest,” says Dana Storr, owner of Luxami Travel, based in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “Starting at the end of January, I started hearing from my older clientele, saying, ‘We’re getting the vaccine next week,’ and then, ‘We’ve now gotten our second shot.’ There’s this appetite to just go.”
But is it safe?
The CDC says yes (it’s “low-risk”), and other health experts also express confidence that the vaccines will keep travelers safe from contracting a serious case of COVID-19. “If someone’s vaccinated, their risk during travel is negligible,” says Aaron Richterman, M.D., a fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. You have a higher risk of getting COVID-19 if you’re out and about than if you stay home, he adds, but as long as you’ve been vaccinated, it would most likely manifest as no more than a mild, coldlike illness.
A surge in bookings
Air travel is on a steady upswing. On Monday, April 5, the Transportation Security Administration processed more than 1.56 million travelers at U.S. airports, compared to about 108,000 on the same day last year, when the pandemic was in its early stages (though down from 2.38 million on the same day in 2019).
Hotels are seeing bookings rebound as well. At Casa Marina Key West, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Florida, the hotel management doesn’t ask guests about their vaccination status, says Andrew Rosuck, director of sales and marketing, though “many have anecdotally mentioned that they’ve recently received a vaccine.” He says that the hotel is also receiving more inquiries about its mask rules for vaccinated guests.
In Charleston, South Carolina, the Spectator Hotel got 10 times as many bookings in February (when the pace of vaccinations sped up) than in January among guests 55 and up. “We believe that the rollout of the vaccine played a large factor,” says general manager Carlo Carroccia.
Where they're going
American travelers are opting for U.S. travel, considering the continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, and the fact that many countries aren’t fully open to tourists. Much of Europe, including France and Italy, remains closed to American visitors. Canada has added another month to its U.S. border closure, which will remain in effect until at least April 21.
The big draw again this year: outdoorsy areas like national parks and other scenic destinations. Expect them to be extremely busy this summer, Storr says. She points to particular interest among her clients in Montana for late summer and early September: “It’s selling out fast.” Delta recently announced that in May it will add new routes to Bozeman, Montana, near Yellowstone National Park, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the Grand Tetons, from big cities such as Detroit, New York and Los Angeles.
Beach vacations are similarly hot. On North Carolina’s Outer Banks, “We’re just about sold out,” says Doug Brindley, who runs a rental agency, Brindley Beach Vacations, based in Corolla. He says properties are about 97 percent full through August, and “by the end of April, everything from mid-May through Labor Day will be gone.” But Brindley attributes the surge in interest — higher than it was even in pre-pandemic 2019 — less to the rising number of people getting COVID-19 vaccinations and more to the fact that “our destination is extremely safe,” due to its focus on outdoor activities.
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On Cape Cod, Massachusetts, “demand is very high” for home rentals, says Annie Blatz, sales manager for three branches of Kinlin Grover Vacation Rentals, the largest rental agency on the Cape. She adds that it’s led to an extreme shortage of available rentals, exacerbated by some property owners taking their homes off the market so they can “move into their second homes, because they think the Cape is safer and they can work remotely from here.”
One exception to the desire for only domestic travel: Mexico, which has drawn Americans with its lack of restrictions on incoming travelers — no quarantines, no testing necessary. Arrivals need only complete a health form. The Mexican state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun, saw 578,143 arrivals in February, down from about 1.7 million in February 2020. But that’s despite the CDC’s advising Americans, “Avoid all travel to Mexico,” its highest warning level. Because all passengers coming or returning to the U.S. from Mexico are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, many Mexican hotels are offering testing for their international visitors. (If you’re considering international travel, check the CDC's COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination before planning your trip.)
Cruise lines are drawing vaccinated travelers with the reassurance that their fellow passengers will also all be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Royal Caribbean has a vaccine requirement for its Caribbean cruises, which kick off in June. Crystal Cruises, which plans to start cruising the Bahamas in July, will also require that everyone aboard be fully vaccinated for at least two weeks before departure, with no exceptions. The cruise line told Travel Weekly that 4,000 cabins were booked within 24 hours of its itineraries going on sale on March 18 — the biggest booking day in company history.
Starting July 1, the river cruise line American Queen Steamboat Company will require all guests and crew members on its cruises to be vaccinated (the same goes for its sister company, Victory Cruise Lines) and to get tested for COVID-19 before boarding. That’s encouraged travelers like Richard Reiff, 70, and his wife, Pat, 71, who were vaccinated in February. They’ve booked a July trip with American Queen along the Ohio River, and another trip, from Chattanooga to Memphis along the Mississippi River, for the fall. They might have considered taking these cruises without the vaccine mandate, considering that they are vaccinated themselves, Reiff says, but “that makes us even more confident that we’ll be OK.”
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 22. It's been updated to reflect new information.
Christina Ianzito is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who joined AARP in 2010. She’s the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.