With the holidays around the corner, many of us are eager to travel to family or to take that much-needed winter vacation.
But is it smart to take a trip in the middle of a pandemic? Given the skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 around the United States, public health experts say this is the year to air-kiss relatives over Zoom and plot excursions for the end of 2021, hoping things will be brighter.
Still, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that travel increases the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19, many Americans are preparing to take the risk.
If you’re one of these people, Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York, says it’s possible to lower the odds of getting infected by carefully considering COVID-19 hazards at each step of your journey and planning every detail.
The following 10 steps will help you ensure that you don’t pick up any unwanted souvenirs.
1. Know the COVID-19 Rate Where You Live
No matter where you’re going and how many precautions you take, traveling when the novel coronavirus is still widely circulating carries some risk. In most of the United States, COVID-19 rates are reaching new highs, which means your community likely has more circulating virus than it did this summer.
There are a few reasons to know the local infection rate. For instance, if you’re planning to travel by plane from an area with many COVID-19 cases, the odds will be higher that a passenger near you will have the disease, which would then raise your infection risk, says Dr. Glatt, a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. In this scenario, you’re also more likely to infect any family you’re planning to visit.
Plus, some states like Connecticut are requiring people from noncontiguous states with high infection rates to quarantine for 14 days after arrival unless they can provide proof of a negative PCR test (the most accurate kind of coronavirus test) taken no more than 72 hours prior.
If you are required to quarantine, you’ll need to prepare thoroughly, such as by bringing any groceries you’ll need, since you won’t be able to go to the store.
2. Assess COVID-19 Rates at Your Destination
Tracking the infection rate at your destination is also important. If you’re heading to a location that’s red-hot with COVID-19, your chances of becoming ill there are higher. And with the hospitals in some areas already exceeding capacity, there’s a chance you wouldn’t be able to get adequate care if you do get sick.
You can find an area’s test positivity rate (a key measure of virus circulation levels) on the website of its local public health department. Or search for the color-coded risk level (oddly demarcated by congressional district instead of by county) at the comprehensive website Global Epidemics from the Brown School of Public Health.
For trips outside the United States, check the State Department website to determine what the virus rates are and even whether Americans are banned from entry, as they are in many European countries.
3. Consider Your (and Your Host’s) Health Situation
A key question to ponder is how risky would traveling be for you. “Everything with COVID-19 needs to be individualized. You need to view everything through your personal perspective,” Glatt says.
Are you or is anyone you’re traveling with at high risk for severe COVID-19 consequences? Older adults and people with underlying conditions, including type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, heart conditions, cancer, and obesity, are more likely to become seriously ill and require hospitalization if they catch the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
If you fall into one of these categories, flying on a plane or going to a crowded place with many other vacationers may be especially risky, Glatt says. But driving to an isolated vacation spot could be okay.
4. Test Before, During, and Even After Your Trip
Whether or not it helps you avoid quarantine, you may want to take a coronavirus test in the days before you leave, if one is available to you. (Best to discuss with your primary care physician and follow CDC guidelines.) Getting a negative result will reduce the odds you’ll unknowingly bring the virus to your destination.
Some places actually require testing. Croatia, for instance, currently allows U.S. citizens who’ve tested negative for COVID-19 no more than 48 hours before arrival to enter the country. (Travelers can also opt to quarantine in Croatia for at least seven days before taking a local PCR test.) Visitors to New York must test a few days before arrival and a few days after; these two negative results are the only way to avoid the state’s 14-day quarantine. Washington, DC, requires similar testing for anyone staying more than 24 hours.
Remember that it can take a few days or longer to get results from a PCR test, so plan ahead. Some testing sites require appointments, which may be hard to get at the last minute, especially around the holidays.
It’s crucial to remember that you are not immune to COVID-19 just because you’ve tested negative. You could come into contact with an infected person after taking the test, and there is the potential for testing inaccuracies.
As a further precaution, it’s also a good idea to self-isolate for one to two weeks before beginning your journey.
5. Decide on Your Mode of Travel
Experts consider driving to be the safest form of transportation now, especially if the destination can be reached within a day, because this substantially limits your interactions with others.
Flying can also be relatively safe, so long as proper precautions are taken. Your airline should ensure its plane is thoroughly cleaned and work to maintain sufficient distance between passengers during the boarding and disembarking process. As a passenger, look for an airline that does not fill all of its seats, remain in your seat as much as possible during the flight, and keep your mask on nearly all the time, especially when other passengers nearby remove theirs to eat or drink.
Before arriving at the airport, you’ll want to download the airline’s app, advises Terry Adirim, MD, MPH, the senior associate dean for clinical affairs at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, in Boca Raton. “Boarding pass screens are touched by many people, so they’re a risk for disease transmission,” she says.
Traveling by bus likely requires extra vigilance, as the ventilation systems (an important way that microbes are removed from the air) may not be as good as those on planes.
6. Be Choosy About Where You Stay
Fortunately, many hotel chains are paying special attention to sanitizing guest rooms and common areas. Some are also “buffering” rooms, keeping them unoccupied for a day or two between guests to allow any virus in the air sufficient time to diminish. If you decide to stay in a hotel, experts suggest calling beforehand to ask what procedures they are following.
Many travelers are choosing to rent an entire house from sites like Vrbo or Airbnb so they won’t have to worry about passing people in the lobby or stepping into a crowded elevator. But because homes are owned by private individuals, the level of sanitation before your arrival will vary considerably.
No matter where you stay, as soon as you get to your lodging open any operational windows for a little while (if it’s cold, a tiny amount is fine). This boosts ventilation by bringing in fresh air. Even if the place looks spotless, disinfect all high-touch surfaces yourself, especially light switches, sink faucet handles, doorknobs, and remote controls, the Mayo Clinic advises. If there’s a kitchen, wash all plates, cups, and silverware before using.
Of course, if you’re staying with family, it will be next to impossible to keep from commingling germs. But it’s smart to wear masks when indoors around one another.
7. Cook or Bring in Takeout
One of the risks of leaving home is what to do about all the meals you’ll be eating. “Getting takeout or cooking your own food while traveling is safest,” says Matthew Grant, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
Eating at an outdoor restaurant is relatively safe (although not as low risk as curbside pickup, according to the CDC), but that will be challenging to do in parts of the country experiencing cold weather. (Still, it’s not impossible: Find a restaurant with heaters, bring a lap blanket, and wear your coat and hat during the meal.)
Even if you’re going to a warmer climate, you can’t count on eating all meals alfresco. “Things like thunderstorms or very hot conditions may make that uncomfortable or impossible,” Dr. Grant says. This may cause you to move indoors, which poses a much higher threat.
Be sure every restaurant is following proper protocol, such as ensuring that staff and wandering patrons are wearing masks and that tables are set far enough apart to allow for social distancing. One sign an establishment is taking the virus seriously is when it goes above and beyond, such as by ditching reusable menus for digital ones.
8. Don’t Let Your Guard Down
While on vacation it’s easy to feel like the limitations of your regular life don’t apply. But there are no magical protections that keep the virus at bay just because you’re gambling in Las Vegas, kayaking in the Florida Everglades, or hanging with relatives you haven’t seen in ages.
It’s important to follow general CDC guidance at all times, Grant stresses, including washing hands regularly, avoiding touching your face as much as possible, keeping 6 (or ideally more) feet of distance between yourself and others, and, crucially, wearing a mask in all public settings.
9. Be Smart About Each Activity
There may be activities you always love to do on vacation, but it may not be wise to do them now. Bars, karaoke cafes, theme parks with inside rides, and other indoor activities will put you at increased risk of getting sick.
Instead, find activities that keep you outside and distanced from others. Some venues are offering creative, safe entertainment, such as drive-in movies and concerts.
If you’re not sure if an activity is safe, check out the Brown Alpert Medical School’s interactive COVID-19 risk app. You input information about your planned activity and it spits out the risk based on virus spread where you are. This app is more beneficial for some activities than others. If you plan to visit a friend’s house, for example, you can easily answer all questions about the numbers of people who will be present and what percentage will wear masks. This is harder to determine about, say, a restaurant or mall.
10. Reevaluate at Every Turn
Book lodging and activities that you can cancel, even at the last minute. Should you or someone you’re planning to travel with develop symptoms or come into contact with someone with COVID-19, nix the trip and stay home.
While away, constantly reevaluate everything, shifting plans when necessary. If you’re at a restaurant and notice the waitstaff wearing masks around their necks instead of over their mouths and noses, for instance, get up and leave, Glatt advises.
“You have to be willing to say it’s not working, even for something you’ve already paid for,” he says. “With a contagious virus around, safety has to take a higher priority than money.”