Ron Williams wants to know if it’s safe to travel yet.
At 72, he’s in a high-risk group that makes him especially vulnerable to a coronavirus infection. But even if he weren’t, what kind of trip would it be?
“My wife and I like hanging out at the pool and visiting museums and shopping,” says Williams, a retired bank manager who lives in Ocala, Florida. “All of these activities are severely restricted or fraught with risk.”
He adds, “I’m not sure when we’ll travel again.”
Williams’ question is all too common. And it’s not the first time I’ve tried to answer it. This is the time of year when many Americans begin to think about holiday trips, spring break and maybe even next summer’s vacation. (For those of you who skipped this summer’s vacation, you have probably already started planning.)
Hit the road or plan a staycation
Bill McIntyre, a spokesperson for Global Rescue, a medical and security response service for travelers, says internal surveys of the organization’s members indicate a readiness to get back on the road. “Most travelers already have plans to go somewhere domestically by year’s end, and a majority say they’ll travel internationally sometime in 2021,” McIntyre says.
Talk to medical experts, and they will tell you to stay close to home. Manisha Juthani, an infectious-disease specialist at Yale University School of Medicine, says a person who wants to take one to two weeks off should make it a staycation or road trip, at least for now. “I personally do not recommend traveling far from home,” she says.
Juthani says the highly infectious nature of the novel coronavirus is to blame for her travel advisory. Outbreaks continue across the country, in part because people are traveling. One sign that it is safer to travel is if the test positivity rate at your destination is around 1%.
“If we can drive rates down everywhere in the country to around 1%, maybe we could travel with very low risk of bringing the virus elsewhere,” she says. “That’s the only way we will be able to travel again safely before a vaccine is available.”
The major benchmarks for travel safety
Of course, many Americans are already traveling, albeit cautiously.
“One of the trends we have already seen is increased travel by car and a real increase in people traveling in recreational vehicles with their families,” says Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID-19 officer.
But what about flying? “Airline travel is most certainly safer now than it was at the start of the pandemic,” Bratzler says. “However, transmission of the infection has clearly been documented during flights. If you are traveling by plane, you need to make sure you wear a mask from the time you arrive at the airport until you leave the airport at your destination.”
Despite these and other best practices for staying safe in transit, many travelers are unwilling to risk it until we reach one — or all — of the major benchmarks for travel safety:
When governments lift their warnings
Global Rescue’s members say that nations lifting the bans on travel, particularly the limits on traveling to Europe, will be a green light for venturing abroad. But experts point out that travel bans can easily be reinstated if the coronavirus resurges.
When a COVID-19 vaccine is available
“Eventually, there will be a vaccine … and it will provide public health with a valuable asset in the fight against this disease,” says K.C. Rondello, a clinical associate professor at Adelphi University’s College of Nursing and Public Health. Having that vaccine will be a sign for many travelers that they can travel freely again.
When the pandemic ends.
One day, the coronavirus pandemic will be over. A declaration from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization would be the ultimate green light for future travel.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer
So when should you feel safe traveling? That depends on who you are. An older traveler in a higher-risk group might feel reluctant to leave home without a coronavirus vaccine. But younger travelers like Gregg Jaden, a photographer based in Manhattan Beach, California, are ready to go now. He says he has almost died twice, once in a car accident and once with emergency neck surgery, and feels as if he is living on borrowed time. He is planning to visit Canada and Turkey soon.
“I don’t want to waste any of my life worrying about something that may — or may not — affect me,” he says. “I’m not trying to be insensitive to anyone with health challenges, but this is the reality of life. If I have a chance to live, I want to live while I still can.”
If nothing else, the travel industry hopes you will start planning your next vacation soon. In September, it launched an initiative called Let’s Go There to encourage Americans to begin booking their next trip.
When it comes to feeling safe when you travel, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on your age and the state of your health, where you are planning to visit, and your risk tolerance, according to experts. You also have to keep a sense of perspective about the dangers of travel.
“I don’t think it was ever completely safe to travel to begin with,” says Ryan Jones, owner of Here We Go Travel, a travel agency in Greensboro, North Carolina. “But if you never let go, you will never go far.”