With the dangerous surge in COVID-19 cases now underway, the prospect of traveling to see family for the winter holidays is raising lots of questions.

And looking beyond the holidays, many people may be wondering if they can go somewhere warm for a vacation from winter.

We break down what you need to know:

Am I allowed to travel?

Currently, Pennsylvania is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, and with it, new restrictions to help curb the climb. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has issued a statewide stay-at-home advisory, and officials advise against seeing people outside of your immediate household. And Philadelphia has banned public and private gatherings through the New Year.

Do I have to quarantine if I travel?

Possibly. Rules for when you go somewhere vary by state, but according to the latest order from Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, if you visit other states for personal travel, you have to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of coming home, or quarantine for 10 days.

If you defy the rules, you could be fined between $25 and $300.

What if there’s a vaccine? Can I travel after that?

Currently, two vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have shown to be highly effective against COVID-19 and authorized for use. Both require two doses to be effective.

But, as Levine said in November, it could take “a significant amount of time to vaccinate everyone in Pennsylvania.” Vaccine deployment has been slow, and it will likely take months after vaccinations begin before everyone in the U.S. who wants a vaccine gets it.

So, should you travel this winter?

Well, no. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, travel “increases your chances of getting or spreading COVID-19,” and that the best protection against getting sick is staying home.

Some folks may choose to take a trip anyhow. So if you’re set on traveling this winter, here is what you need to think about:

How to stay safer away from home

  • 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.

  • 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 University’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.

  • Check what’s happening where you’re going. Pennsylvania Department of Health press secretary Nate Wardle says it’s a good idea to check local coronavirus statistics — like the number of cases — for the area before you go. “Just like if someone were to travel to Florida during hurricane season, you want to make sure no hurricane is coming,” he says. “You want to do the same thing here.” You should also check what local rules are in place.

  • Try to stay local. That way, says Michael LeVasseur, a visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, you may be able to 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.

Is it safe to fly now?

The risk of contracting the coronavirus on a flight may 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 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 have any fever or show symptoms). It’s important to see what precautions different airlines are offering.

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, Wardle says. Plus, you can control your environment more in a car compared to places like an airport, Welles says.

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.

Can I go to a hotel?

If you plan to stay at a hotel or a rental property, 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.

A tricky problem with hotels: Elevators make social distancing difficult and don’t have good ventilation, Welles says. 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.”

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

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

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

  • Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.