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What to know about traveling for summer vacation this year

Can you go on vacation yet? What if you're vaccinated? Here's how to know what's safe.

Can I safely travel? Here's what to think about.
Can I safely travel? Here's what to think about.Read moreCynthia Greer

The weather is warming up, and after a year of staying at home and stressing out over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some of us really need a vacation.

But are you allowed to go on a vacation right now? In a word: Yes. The stay-at-home order has long been lifted, and Pennsylvanians are free to travel. Additionally, at the beginning of March, the commonwealth loosened out-of-state travel restrictions, eliminating the 14-day quarantine and testing requirements for travelers coming to Pennsylvania.

But in the middle of a pandemic, nothing is simple, including traveling. The Health Department says we are still “safer at home,” though some restrictions have eased. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that travel “increases your chances of spreading and getting COVID-19,” and that staying home is the best protection against getting sick — even if you are vaccinated.

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work, and life? Ask our reporters

So while you can travel, it’s important to think about whether you should. While you can mitigate the risk of getting sick, you can’t eliminate it. Here is what you need to know:

What if I do decide to travel?

Here’s how to think about your risk:

  1. Take the usual precautions. The CDC’s advice is familiar now, and you should stay vigilant about it: Wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, stay six feet away from others, and wear a mask (or two).

  2. Remember: The problem is people. “This is an infection that is associated with density — lots of people — and duration of exposure,” says Seth Welles, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “If you can think about those, you can reduce your risk.” So: Outside is better than inside, less populated areas may be safer than denser areas. And it is possible to spread the virus without feeling sick. Don’t be that guy.

  3. Check what’s happening where you’re going. Welles says it’s a good idea to check local coronavirus statistics — like the number of cases and vaccination rates— for both the nation at large as well as the area you’re going to before you go. But while this can help you calculate risk, it’s also worth noting that even if there are relatively few infections where you’re going, there also may be people who are coming from areas with higher infections, Welles says.

  4. Staying local may just be safer, says Michael LeVasseur, a visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. That way, he says, you can avoid the exposure you may have during a long road trip. “If you are traveling cross-country and you have to stop every 12 hours to rest, maybe that is repeated exposures over time with more places,” LeVasseur says. “I would stay local.”

» READ MORE: Do you need to wear two masks? How to protect yourself from the COVID-19 variants.

What if I am fully vaccinated?

Currently, the CDC advises you to “delay travel and stay home” to protect both yourself and others from getting sick, even if you have been vaccinated. But if you go, it also advises that you get tested for COVID-19 up to three days before your trip, and again three to five days after returning in addition to self-quarantining for a week.

As LeVasseur says, a common misconception is that being vaccinated means you can’t be infected with the coronavirus, which isn’t true. But if you are fully vaccinated, and it’s been two weeks since your final shot, you may be able to feel more comfortable around other people who are also vaccinated.

“You can feel safer getting on a train or public transit, but it isn’t time to let down your guard,” he says. “If you want to get a cabin in the woods with family or friends who have been vaccinated, who you feel safe with, I’m cool with that. If you want to go out to the bars in New Orleans, I’m not cool with that.”

Welles also advises caution, as even if you are vaccinated, much of the general population is not — and herd immunity is likely still a ways off. That should impact your decision to travel or not, and also how you behave if you do go — specifically regarding social distancing, wearing a mask, and keeping out of crowded areas.

“Can you travel? Yes. Should you estimate your risk and act accordingly? Yes,” Welles says. “Should you take your mask off? Hell no.”

» READ MORE: Here's what you can do once you're fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

Is it safe to fly now?

While the idea of spending an extended period of time with strangers in an enclosed space like an airplane may be concerning, the risk of contracting the coronavirus on a flight can be relatively low, says Welles. “People don’t realize that the air in flights is filtered 30 times an hour,” he says. “More often than not, they have HEPA filters, so they are removing 99% of particles, including viruses.”

Airlines are also taking additional measures to lessen the risk of infections, such as enhanced cleaning procedures, blocking seats to enable physical distancing, and requiring employees and guests to wear masks. Some airport and airlines have instituted temperature checks, and won’t let customers fly if they have a fever (although it’s possible to spread the virus and not show symptoms).

The airport, however, is another story. The reason for the higher risk: Crowds, says Stephen Gluckman, medical director of Penn Global Medicine and professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Is it safe to travel by car?

Traveling by car may be a safer option — especially if it is your own vehicle and you are traveling with people you’ve already been around, such as your family. Plus, Welles says, you can control your environment more in a car compared to somewhere like an airport.

One issue: rest stops and bathroom breaks. When you have to stop, Welles suggests wearing gloves, washing your hands, and wearing a mask. Packing your own food may also be a good idea, so you can reduce your exposure in rest areas.

If you need to rent a vehicle, Gluckman suggests cleaning the car yourself once you get it. Many rental car companies now have enhanced cleaning procedures, such as Hertz, which seals vehicles after a 15-step cleaning process, or Enterprise, which offers a “Complete Clean Pledge” that involves disinfecting high-touch areas. But an extra clean doesn’t hurt.

Is the beach safe?

Being outside, experts say, allows coronavirus particles to diffuse through the air more easily, but being outside doesn’t come without risk. The concern with taking a trip to the beach, Gluckman says, is being able to properly physically distance from others.

“I’m not concerned about people getting it from the ocean or a pool. It’s how close you are together,” he says. “If you can park yourself on a beach six feet from other people, I think you are safe.”

So stay away from popular spots. Crowded areas give the opportunity for infection to spread if it’s there, Welles says. And often, LeVasseur says, they can result in “mixing” of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and, when looked at on a larger scale, give the coronavirus more opportunities to mutate.

“The more chances of exposure, the more the virus can mutate to potentially escape the impact of the vaccine,” he says.

So, Welles suggests choosing an area that is likely to be less crowded, or you can hit the beach earlier in the day when there might be fewer people. And yes, you should wear a mask, especially on crowded beaches and boardwalks — but don’t let it get wet or dirty.

» READ MORE: Is the beach safe? What you need to know before you go.

How about camping?

Like going to the beach, camping can be less risky than being indoors, but you still have to be careful.

Campground bathrooms, Gluckman says, could be “slightly iffy,” so take precautions — or, if you have the means, rent an RV or cabin so you have your own bathroom. And if you go hiking, Welles says, bring a mask and stay away from others, since hiking trails can get busy.

The Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources seconds those precautions, and says you should avoid hiking in groups, only go with people you’ve already been around, and if you are sick, stay home.

» READ MORE: Can I go camping in Pennsylvania during the pandemic?

Can I go to a hotel?

If you plan to stay at a hotel or a rental property during your vacation, Gluckman suggests finding out how they are cleaning their rooms, and clean the space yourself once you get there. Many hotels have more stringent cleaning practices now, such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s “Safe Stay” guidelines, and Airbnb’s Enhanced Cleaning Initiative includes a vacancy period of 24 to 72 hours between guests.

A tricky problem with hotels: Elevators, Welles says, because they make social distancing difficult, and don’t have good ventilation. But at least your exposure is short, LeVasseur says. Still, consider taking the stairs.

Gluckman says a rental property may be safer — provided it is properly disinfected — if it eliminates the elevator issue. They are more self-contained than hotels, so you may not be exposed to as many people. (Welles disagrees, saying hotels are “going out of their way to be extremely clean.”)

“I think a rental property, if you go to rent it for a week or two, that is probably a little safer than a hotel,” Gluckman says. “If you are self-contained, you are no different than when you are home.”

» READ MORE: Our best pandemic tips: Read our most useful stories about COVID-19

Expert sources:
  1. Seth Welles, PhD, ScD, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife School of public health

  2. Michael LeVasseur, PhD, MPH, visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health

  3. Stephen Gluckman, MD, medical director of Penn Global Medicine and professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania