Holiday travel during the COVID-19 pandemic: Is it safe?
Whether you’re itching to take a vacation, wanting to visit extended family and friends for the holidays, or needing to travel for cancer treatment, work, or even a wedding, you may be wondering: is it safe to travel this fall and winter during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?
How do you balance the very real desire to relieve quarantine fatigue with the risks of travel during a global health crisis? And, if you must travel, how do you choose the safest option?
Here’s what you need to know to make the best holiday travel decisions for yourself and others.
Assess your own COVID-19 risks to guide holiday travel decision-making
The first thing to do before making any travel plans is to assess your own COVID-19 risk level. That means thinking realistically about how both you and anyone who lives in your household might be affected by catching COVID-19, especially if one of you is a cancer patient or their caregiver.
Gather the facts about COVID-19 transmission rates
The next thing to do is assess the COVID-19 trends in any area(s) you want to visit. How high are COVID-19 infection and transmission rates in those cities or countries? Are they increasing, declining or under control? Are there any restrictions in place, such as mandatory quarantine requirements, that might make traveling there impractical?
“If you only have two weeks off and that’s how long you’ll have to quarantine yourself — either once you’ve arrived or after you’ve returned — it might make more sense just to stay home this year,” adds Chemaly.
Consider the venues and your planned activities
Another factor to consider is how many other people will be at the same gatherings you’re planning to attend.
“You’re going to want to stay away from crowds, regardless of where they are,” says Chemaly. “The general guideline is to limit groups to no more than 10 people.”
And while washing your hands, wearing a mask, and keeping your distance will offer you some protection at any venue, if other people aren’t doing the same, or if they’re coming from places that have high infection and transmission rates, Chemaly says, “It might be better not to go.”
Choose the lowest-risk travel option
Once you’ve made a decision to travel, the next step is figuring out the safest way to do it:
Car trips taken with only your household members continue to present the lowest-risk option.
Air travel presents higher risks of exposure, and should be considered only when necessary.
Cruises are in the highest category of risk and should be avoided altogether.
“Cruise ships are like floating cities, with everyone living in close proximity,” says Chemaly. “It is very difficult to maintain proper social distancing under those conditions, particularly at meal times in large, open dining rooms, where everyone has their masks off to eat.”
Take every precaution possible to avoid COVID-19
After you’ve made your travel plans, do everything within your power to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 — both while in transit and once you’ve reached your destination. That means washing your hands, wearing a mask, and keeping your distance from anyone who doesn’t live with you all the time.
“This applies even if you’re just visiting your mom’s house,” says Chemaly. “Unless she lives with you, you can protect both her and yourself most effectively by continuing to follow these guidelines.”
Other ways to reduce your risk of exposure while away from home include:
Air travel: Book flights at less popular times (early morning or late at night), choose airlines that still leave middle seats open, take direct flights instead of those requiring multiple transfers or layovers, and take shorter flights.
Lodging: Stay at motels or other facilities with outdoor stairways and access to rooms, rather than hotels with lobbies, elevators and access to rooms only from common indoor hallways.
Payment/registration: Use contactless check-in or payment options where available.
Socializing: Limit the number of people you visit in person during your trip.
“Until we have herd immunity, it’s wisest for cancer patients to avoid traveling unless it’s absolutely necessary for their treatment or follow-up care,” says Chemaly. “But if you must leave home, every additional precaution you can take will help reduce your risk for COVID-19.”
Stay flexible as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves
The pandemic continues to evolve, and a place that has low COVID-19 rates now may not be the safest place to visit in a few weeks or months. So, it’s important to stay flexible when thinking about your travel plans, and monitor the situation carefully.
Make only fully refundable plans whenever possible, and be prepared to postpone — or even cancel — your travel plans, if conditions warrant it. This applies to your own health, too. If you have COVID-19, think you might have it, or fear that you may have been exposed to it, the most responsible thing to do is to self-quarantine until the incubation period has passed, even if you feel fine.
“COVID-19 doesn’t take a holiday,” says Chemaly. “So, it’s better to put off your plans until it’s safer to travel than it is to insist on not missing a single year’s trip.”
Consider self-quarantining after returning home
Let’s say your trip goes perfectly: You stay masked and socially distant the entire time and only interact with people who did the same. Even then, you might want to think twice before resuming your normal activities after you get home.
People who show no symptoms of infection can still spread the coronavirus, and it takes between 2 and 14 days for most people to develop symptoms after they’ve been infected.
“To be on safe side, get tested on your arrival back home and then again 3 to 4 days later,” says Chemaly, “especially if you’re caring for a cancer patient or are immunocompromised yourself. You don’t want to put other people at risk.”