As coronavirus vaccines roll out nationwide, many Americans seem to be wondering: “Can I travel after I’m vaccinated?”
According to a recent AAA survey, 45 million Americans are planning a family trip this spring. And the Transportation Security Administration has recorded more than 1 million people passing through airport security checkpoints for 11 days in a row.
But even with at least 82.8 million people having received one or both doses of the vaccine, we are still a long way from the pandemic’s end – or a true return to travel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still cautioning against nonessential travel, even for those who are vaccinated. Last week at a news briefing, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said officials are worried about travelers who are letting their guard down and warned that the United States could face another coronavirus surge with relaxed precautions.
As we work through the second year of the pandemic, the question that plagued travelers in 2020 is back again: If we do travel, is it safer to fly or drive?
When we first posed the question to experts last year, it was clear that hitting the road was the preference. But as we navigate the mid-vaccine era, that sentiment may be changing. Here’s what six doctors and infectious-disease specialists told us.
An infectious-diseases specialist says both methods still come with risk
With only about 12% of the U.S. population (and an exponentially smaller fraction of the world) vaccinated so far, coronavirus continues to remain a worldwide risk for others no matter how you travel, says Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious-disease specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“We want to protect people who are not vaccinated from getting covid,” she says.
Between flying and driving during the pandemic, Kuppalli says, her recommendation depends on how far a traveler is going. Flying will put you in close quarters with strangers for prolonged periods of time. But if your road trip is a long haul passes through areas with high infection rates, flying could ultimately be safer.
For either transportation option, Kuppalli urges vaccinated travelers follow standard precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing, even if they feel protected.
An infectious-disease doctor says flying isn’t as dangerous as we thought last year.
Paul Sax, the clinical director of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says while he understands why the CDC is still advising people to avoid travel, he thinks it is worth remembering that flying isn’t as dangerous as we had originally worried.
“When you compare it to some other activities that people are doing pretty regularly, like going to restaurants or even places of worship, flying isn’t so bad because there’s a lot of ventilation in the flight,” he says. “Most of the people on the flight are wearing masks and not talking, and not singing and shouting.”
Sax recommends that vaccinated travelers who are at high risk for severe coronavirus cases, like older people or those with comorbidities, add eye protection to their travel PPE, with either goggles or a face shield.
A medical-school chair says flying comes with more variables than driving.
Paul Chung, chair of health systems science at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, says car travel comes with fewer variables than flying, where you are more likely to have uncontrolled environments.
“But you could certainly put yourself in a position with driving that is way worse and than taking a flight,” Chung says, citing risks like road tripping in a crowded car with people who are not vaccinated.
“Going through a pretty empty airport, a pretty empty airplane and straight to your friend’s house staying inside … that’s a totally different risk profile than somebody who’s going to be in the middle of LAX and flying on a completely packed plane to a giant festival.”
When deciding to fly or drive, travelers should think about how many people you’ll come in contact with along the way, and consider the risks involved, remembering that “it’s not just about risks to yourself, but it’s also really about risks to others,” Chung says. “You don’t know the degree to which you still remain a possible vector of the virus, even though you’re vaccinated.”
A public-health senior scholar says flying should be safe this summer.
Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently calculated the risks of flying and driving cross-country for her family, who needed to move from Baltimore to Washington this month. She factored in coronavirus risks, as well as basic road trip ones (such as car accidents) and ultimately chose to fly.
“For a vaccinated person, I certainly think that flying is probably safer than a cross-country road trip,” Sell says.
Nonetheless, Sell recommends holding off on planning a vacation until later this year and avoiding nonessential trips at this time, citing the potential to spread the virus to unvaccinated people.
“Right at this at this very minute, the CDC is still saying that travel isn’t recommended because cases are high,” she says. “But I expect this summer, as cases come down and vaccinations go up, I think it’s probably safe to fly.”
An academic physician and author is reassured about plane safety.
Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and guest host of the podcast “In the Bubble,” says being in your car is just as safe as being inside your house.
“If you have been comfortable going shopping, it’s not obvious to me what about a road trip would be different,” he says.
Wachter recognizes that while there has been coronavirus spread on flights, “planes overall have been quite safe during COVID,” he says. “I’m quite reassured about flying as a general mode.”
But he identifies meal service as a specific danger while on board.
Two factors made him feel comfortable flying recently to see his vaccinated parents: being vaccinated in January and knowing the prevalence of coronavirus has been going down. The part of flying that Wachter is wary of is meal services when fellow passengers remove their masks, and he recommends fliers eat or drink quickly when others are masked.
A critical-care medicine specialist believes driving still wins over flying.
Joseph Khabbaza, a critical-care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, says he believes driving is always going to be a lower-risk travel option because you’ll be better able to avoid strangers.
“Stopping at a rest area or a hotel or to get a bite to eat on a long trip, those are not really going to have sustained contact with people you don’t know,” he says.
Khabbaza says while he is reassured by airplane ventilation, he says those who choose to fly should take extra precautions, like wearing a face shield and booking low-volume, direct flights at off-peak times.
“I have always said you’ll never regret being too cautious during this pandemic,” he says. “All I see and hear about is regret and guilt from the people who may have let their guard down or veered away from their usual precautions.”