Your post-vaccination travel questions, answered

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Vaccinated people might be eager to travel, but the approaching warm season raises questions about safety. | Getty Images

Can Americans travel right now? Kind of. Should Americans travel right now? That’s more complicated.

For many Americans, the inability to travel and see loved ones has been one of the hardest parts of the Covid-19 pandemic. As more people get vaccinated, however, going places in the near future is looking far more feasible — although until we’ve hit a critical mass of vaccinations both in the US and globally, it will still be risky to do so.

Can you travel if you have been vaccinated? Yes, but with some caveats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given a somewhat mixed message: While the agency recently stated that travel is “lower risk” for those who are vaccinated, officials noted that it’s certainly not entirely safe. They stress that even with a full course of inoculation, all American travelers should continue to adhere to social distancing, masking, and hand-washing guidelines whether their trips are domestic or international. Furthermore, the CDC recommends that people who are not yet fully vaccinated should refrain from travel altogether for now when possible.

It’s cautiously good news for travelers and for the industry. The details of post-pandemic travel are still hazy, but based on the current rate of vaccination in the United States, domestic travel may slowly start to ease back. As Terry Nguyen and Christina Animashaun previously reported for The Goods, 72 million people passed through TSA in March 2019. In March 2020, that figure was down to only 35 million. The number of travelers was about the same in March this year, but with an uptick in recent weeks instead of a sharp drop. Additionally, some travelers are eager to cash in on the flight credits and vouchers that airlines gave out early during the pandemic to amend canceled flights and trips.

Those who are vaccinated might be especially eager to travel, but the approaching warm season raises plenty of questions: Which countries are open to Americans? Will unvaccinated people be able to fly? What about vaccine passports? And although travel is technically possible, should anyone be traveling at all, from a public health or ethical standpoint? There are lot of rules, regulations, and recommendations, so here’s a breakdown of what travelers should know.

Do Americans need to be vaccinated to travel? And where are travelers allowed to go?

According to the CDC, domestic travel can be done safely for those who are vaccinated, but it isn’t a free-for-all just yet. Community transmission is still a big problem, and avoiding traveling and gathering with others is the best way to combat the spread of the virus.

“We know from some of the data from the three vaccines that are approved for use in the United States that vaccinated people are highly unlikely to get infected, and unlikely to transmit disease to others,” said Erica Johnson, the chair of the infectious diseases specialty board for the American Board of Internal Medicine.

She added: “I think that’s why the CDC was able to update the guidance and say that yes, people who are fully vaccinated can safely travel, including airline travel throughout the United States. … The reason it’s not a full endorsement is because there’s still a lot of people who haven’t been vaccinated yet.”

Those who are vaccinated should wait at least two weeks after their second shot to start traveling, if they must travel. Those who are unvaccinated probably shouldn’t be traveling.

“The guidance hasn’t changed for unvaccinated persons. There still are recommendations that unvaccinated people should generally avoid traveling,” Johnson said. “But if travel is absolutely essential, then [travelers] should make use of the availability of Covid-19 testing before their travel and after their travel.”

When it comes to the rest of the world, there are more than 90 countries where Americans can currently travel internationally — this notably includes places like Aruba, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom. You may have noticed that people on your social feeds who are traveling tend to be in these countries; technically, that’s totally allowed.

But international requirements might vary from place to place. According to Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, Americans have four categories of destinations at the moment. The first group includes places where Americans can visit without any requirements whatsoever — no quarantine, no vaccination, no testing requirements. Places like Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and a few others like Albania, North Macedonia, and Tanzania fall into this category.

The second group, which is much larger, requires a recent negative Covid-19 test — places like Barbados, Kenya, and Chile, for example. Then there’s the third group, in which there’s basically no American tourism — it’s either banned, or there’s a long mandatory quarantine period required before people can enter. Places like France and New Zealand, for example, are not currently accepting American travelers.

The fourth group allows fully vaccinated visitors, like Belize or Iceland. This group is also growing every week or so. With this in mind, Americans of all vaccination statuses have several options when it comes to where they technically can travel in the coming months, but this doesn’t mean that Americans should run to board a plane or vacation in a foreign country.

“Before the pandemic, you could virtually hop on a plane to Paris and all you needed was your passport,” Keyes said of American travelers. “You didn’t have to have any visas ahead of time or proof of inoculation against certain diseases. It was very, very simple. When the pandemic erupted, the number of restrictions started to really increase. That has slowly been letting up. Now there’s actually a good portion of the world that Americans can travel to.”

Even though Americans can travel, should they?

There’s been a lot of debate about the ethics of traveling right now. While some borders are technically open, it raises concerns about bringing Covid-19 to different countries and possibly infecting locals. Early on in the pandemic, for example, there were worries about tourists bringing Covid-19 to Hawaii. Although the state had a strict quarantine policy, the New York Times reports that their recently loosened restrictions have brought maskless tourists and a lack of consideration for Native Hawaiians, who are at higher risk for Covid-19.

The swarms of Americans who are vacationing in Latin America and the Caribbean are possibly spreading the virus to Black and brown people there as well, seemingly without much care for how this might impact their lives. It’s especially important to consider that other countries are not getting vaccine doses at the rate the United States is. Wealthier countries have been essentially hoarding their supply of vaccines, creating an imbalance elsewhere. The health and safety of others should be a priority, even as more Americans get vaccinated.

The variants of the virus are also important to keep in mind, although recent data has made doctors like Johnson somewhat optimistic about the efficacy of available vaccines. “The main variant of concern now in the United States is the B117 variant, which is the one that was first recognized in the UK. From the data that we have so far, the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine seem to remain very effective against this variant,” Johnson said.

There are positive signs for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, too. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested against the B1351 variant, which is the variant that was first identified in South Africa. While it was less effective in preventing symptomatic disease, it was highly effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalizations, and death. That offers a lot of encouragement around the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States as well,” she said. “The three vaccines that are currently available all induce a complex enough immune response, such that they maintain efficacy against the variants.”

Are there going to be “vaccine passports?”

Doing your own research before a trip is important in order to nail down the details of your particular destination, but if you choose to travel, it’s likely a good idea to bring along your white CDC proof of vaccination card. Since losing or ruining this card would be very annoying, there are some digital forms of proof being developed to ensure that vaccination status is easy to prove when trying to get into certain events and locations, known colloquially as “vaccine passports.”

It’s understandable that the term “vaccine passport” has been met with confusion, and even fear in some cases. Some people have expressed the fear that a passport might limit their rights, and as a result the idea has been heavily politicized.

“‘Vaccine passport’ is not the best phrase. It’s more of a concept than specifically one item,” Keyes said. “The idea of a vaccine passport is the concept of documented proof that you are low Covid risk.”

Keyes says being vaccinated may become like the “E-Z Pass” of travel. “There won’t necessarily be large swaths of society that are off-limits for people who haven’t been vaccinated,” he said. “Think of it like going on a toll road. There will still be plenty of cash lanes for access to places in society. Maybe you have to show a recent negative test. Maybe there will be rapid test stations, maybe it’ll be proof of recent infection. But if you just have your vaccine passport and can show, ‘Yes, I’ve been vaccinated?’ That’s effectively your E-Z pass to parts of society that are probably only able to reopen if there is confidence that it’s not going to be a superspreader event.”

For now, a white vaccination card is likely the best form of proof. However, a viral TikTok which has since been deleted created some confusion about what kind of paper documentation is needed to travel. A user claimed that white vaccination cards would not be enough, and that people would need a yellow booklet from the World Health Organization to travel in the future. Chaos ensued, and people scrambled to buy theirs online. Keyes tells me these yellow booklets are a total waste of time and money.

“It was misinformation. They sold out on Amazon, and it put a headache in the customer support at WHO, who’s already had plenty to deal with,” he said. “But there are no countries or institutions that have said, ‘We will only accept a yellow vaccine passport and we will not accept your white CDC card. We will not accept a digital app.’ That just is not something that has existed, and I’m highly confident that is not going to be the case.” The yellow WHO booklets are real, but are actually meant for people traveling to places like Africa, where they might be required to prove vaccination against yellow fever and other specific diseases.

Outside of the white vaccination cards, other options might be available in the future. The International Air and Travel Association is developing a travel pass that could become adopted. But the details of what each airline, country, and venue might require are yet to be seen, and will be determined by those entities individually. As for the United States, the Biden administration has been thinking about the possibility of a national vaccine passport, although the administration doesn’t seem sold on the idea, since the rollout would be difficult and the ethics of such a passport are iffy. However, some standard of evidence of vaccination will likely be developed with private companies.

It will likely end up being a state-by-state decision, which could make things messy. “It doesn’t seem as though the Biden administration is terribly inclined to create a national framework for vaccine passports. They have repeatedly said they’re looking to the private sector to take the lead on these matters. The issue then is that you have a real patchwork of requirements,” Keyes said. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis has promised to ban vaccine passports entirely in the future.

For European citizens, there might be more uniformity. On March 17, The European Commission announced the development of the Digital Green Certificate. It will be available in paper or digital form, with a QR code, and will verify Covid-19 vaccination, negative test results, or previous recovery from Covid-19. It is meant to be non-discriminatory, and the Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, said that it will not be a “pre-condition to free movement.”

On a smaller scale, states like New York are planning to roll out their own passes. The digital Excelsior Pass will allow entry into large New York-based entertainment venues, like Madison Square Garden, or smaller venues, by verifying a negative test result or prior vaccination. Businesses in New York also can accept vaccination cards, or negative test result copies. Similarly, Israel has implemented a “Green Pass,” which allows vaccinated users access to specific locations, such as the gym or entertainment venues.

Is it even safe to take a flight right now?

Another concern travelers might have is plane safety. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was often posited that airplanes were full of “recycled” air, and that germs traveled more easily on flights, due to lack of airflow. However, Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard, wrote in the Washington Post that airplane ventilation systems actually meet the standards of the Centers for Disease and Control, and use HEPA filters that capture 99.97 percent of airborne particles. Strict mask wearing coupled with “10 to 12 air changes an hour” is more protection than we typically encounter in our everyday lives, and certainly in the airport itself.

It should be noted that many airlines are no longer waiving change fees as of March 31, 2021. Flights will probably be fuller this summer, too. Airlines like Southwest and JetBlue have implemented an empty middle seat policy in the previous months, but Delta recently announced they are shifting back to middle seat occupancy on May 1 — the last major US airline to do so.

Cruise ships are another story altogether. One company, UnCruise Adventures, plans to require all passengers to be vaccinated, as will the American Queen Steamboat Company. Other cruise lines may follow suit — who could forget the terrifying situation aboard the Diamond Princess in February 2020, which led to 700 reported infections and seven deaths?

To cut down on risk, the CDC recommends short car trips without many stops where feasible, or, if you must fly, flights with as few layovers as possible — this recommendation applies even if you and your household are fully vaccinated, in the interest of risk mitigation.

It should be okay for children to travel safely as well. According to the Atlantic’s reporting on the CDC’s assessment of risk, “being a child aged 5 to 17 is 99.9 percent protective against the risk of death and 98 percent protective against hospitalization. For children 0 to 4, these numbers are 99.9 percent (death) and 96 percent (hospitalization).”

This is not to say that people should return to vacationing before they are comfortable, or that traveling is perfectly safe. “I think the reason for not having a whole endorsement of travel is because we’re still seeing some disturbing trends in regions throughout the United States with increasing rates of new disease and hospitalizations,” Erica Johnson said.

“I think that’s the reason for the ongoing sort of message of caution, even in people who are fully vaccinated. People should still evaluate their reasons for travel,” she added.