For many families, summer travel plans are up in the air.
Parents across the United States are wondering whether it is safe to travel with kids right now and if they should move forward with a well-deserved summer family vacation—or plan a staycation at home. Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn't clear cut.
On the one hand, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues to advise against nonessential travel. Some states have imposed quarantine restrictions for travelers, especially travelers from states like Florida and Texas that are currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. On the other hand, airlines claim that it's safe to fly again thanks to hospital-grade air filtration and vigorously updated cleaning and distancing practices.
Meanwhile, public health experts and epidemiologists agree that even while it's technically possible to fly domestically, there's no such thing as a no-risk trip that involves a flight or hotel stay right now.
Here's how to decide whether to travel with your family this summer, and how to reduce risks if you do travel.
How do we know if it's safe to travel as a family?
The CDC's guidelines for nonessential travel are basically a decision tree, encouraging individuals to consider the following questions:
- Is COVID-19 spreading where you're going? You can get infected while traveling.
- Is COVID-19 spreading in your community? Even if you don't have symptoms, you can spread COVID-19 to others while traveling.
- Will you or those you are traveling with be within 6 feet of others during or after your trip? Being within 6 feet of others increases your chances of getting infected and infecting others.
- Are you or those you are traveling with more likely to get very ill from COVID-19? Older adults and people of any age who have a serious underlying medical condition are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
- Do you live with someone who is more likely to get very ill from COVID-19? If you get infected while traveling you can spread COVID-19 to loved ones when you return, even if you don't have symptoms.Still not sure whether to plan that family trip? Here's another way of thinking about travel safety during the pandemic.
Epidemiologists identify the risk factors for coronavirus transmission in terms of "time, space, people, place." Put another way, the least amount of risk involves the shortest possible amount of time spent with the most possible space between the smallest number of people in the largest possible place (preferably outdoors). Airline travel, train travel and hotel stays—all of which by definition involve a large group of people confined in a small amount of indoor space—present a challenge for families worried about the risk of virus transmission.
That said, in the absence of clear national guidelines for how, where and whether to travel domestically, it's up to individual families to decide whether travel feels right and safe for them. If your family includes even a single immunocompromised or older individual, your tolerance for risk is going to remain low—or close to zero—and you're likely going to want to stay close to home this summer. Likewise, if you are pregnant or the parent of a newborn infant, you are going to want to remain cautious about travel.
If you live in an area where transmission levels are low and declining, you're traveling to an area where transmission levels are low and declining, you're able to take social distancing and cleaning precautions during your trip and no one in your family belongs to an at-risk group, you might decide that family travel is a risk you are willing to take (with reasonable precautions for yourself and others) for the sake of your mental health and your children. If this is the case, you're taking the position that's right for you. If you decide you're not ready, then that's what's right for your family. You know your family's particular situation best.
Here's how experts break down various kinds of travel risks and how to minimize them if you do decide to travel.
Is it safe to fly right now?
Airports and airlines are doing everything they possibly can to reduce the risk of virus transmission on airplanes and keep passengers safe, including checking temperatures, reducing contact points as travelers go through baggage check, check-in, security and boarding, frequent deep cleaning and modified seat booking. But every airline and airport has different practices (just like the pandemic guidelines for everything else from reopening schools to requiring masks, it's all a region-by-region patchwork), and no one can guarantee that it's impossible to get sick from flying.
Kacey Ernst and Paloma Beamer of the University of Arizona expressed their expert and personal opinions in a widely-circulated post about the risks of airline travel during the pandemic, published by CNN: "We have been thinking through this issue as moms and as an exposure scientist and infectious disease epidemiologist…[W]e've decided personally that we're not going to fly right now."
The two main risks of air travel during the pandemic, as Ernst and Beamer point out, are exposure by sitting near an infected (possibly asymptomatic) person and exposure through contact with contaminated surfaces.
If you do decide to fly, there are ways to reduce both of those risks—but they involve advance planning, preparation and a not-miniscule amount of tolerance for hassle. Here's how to minimize your risks if you do fly:
- Get super-educated about your airline's booking, seat selection and boarding policies— these vary widely by provider and even by route. On some flights you may be able to rebook for free if it's 70% full. On other flights you may be asked to choose your own seat as you board.
- Likewise, be an expert on what your local airport's check-in, screening and security procedures are—these are changing often, and you don't want to be surprised.
- Download your airline's app and have your boarding passes pre-loaded on your phone.
- Choose a window seat, or wherever you can be seated farthest from other passengers.
- Some experts suggest checking bags to reduce the number of touch-points for your stuff—but the fact is any luggage you bring is going to be in contact with a lot of surfaces regardless. Pack light, and wipe your luggage down after your flight.
- Wear a mask, obviously—all major airlines now require them for passengers older than 2 years of age, except when eating or drinking.
- Eat before or after you go to the airport, so you don't have to remove your mask to eat while on your flight or to eat in the airport.
- Bring disinfecting wipes and wipe down all surfaces near you, or anything you touch.
Some states, like Hawaii, require a 2-week self-quarantine for out-of-state travelers, so definitely look up what public health regulations are in effect at your destination.
One bit of good news about airline travel and coronavirus: The likelihood of getting sick as a result of filtered and circulated cabin air is low. That's because most planes use the same kind of HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters that are used in hospital operating rooms to remove infectious particles and viruses from the air. Airborne viral infection on a plane is only likely if you're stuck sitting near a sick person—not just if a sick person happens to be somewhere on the plane.
Is it safe to fly internationally right now?
Nonessential international travel to or from most destinations is strongly discouraged by the CDC and by the State Department right now. Restrictions still apply to international travel to and from many countries, and the CDC asks all international travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from any trip abroad.
Airlines have reduced international service to and from many countries, but it's still possible to fly internationally if you need to. If you do need to fly abroad this summer, be sure to follow local and national public health and travel guidelines for your destination, and during the flight, follow the suggestions above.
Is it safe to stay at a hotel right now?
Hotels are, by definition, full of other people you don't know (who come from all over the place) staying indoors for lengthy periods of time, so they definitely don't meet the optimal "time, space, people, place" criteria for lowering the risk of transmission.
That said if your family strictly limits time spent in public areas like the lobby, elevators, restaurant or an indoor pool, that can reduce your risk. Wearing masks and maintaining distance outside your room are also must-dos.
Send one person from the family to the lobby to check-in, ride the elevator with as few other people as possible (in some hotels, lobby waits may be long as elevators are restricted to one family unit per ride), wash hands as soon as you enter your room or touch any high-contact surfaces, wipe down high-touch surfaces in your room with disinfectant and ask that housekeeping be suspended during your stay in order to minimize the number of people entering your room.
Is it safe to take a road trip right now?
Driving in a car with members of your family that you've already been in daily close contact with is safe, experts say. That said, states' travel restrictions vary, so if you're crossing state lines and staying for longer than it takes to refill your gas tank, you will want to be aware of where self-quarantine is expected from out-of-staters.
Is going camping safe?
Camping is one of the great joys of summer—for some families, anyway—and it's relatively low risk in terms of coronavirus transmission. So if campgrounds have reopened in your area (check your state's Department of Natural Resources website for the latest status) and if sleeping outdoors and cooking meals over a campfire are your idea of summer fun, get out the tent.
Camping at an uncrowded campground with only your family members is the lowest-risk version of this activity. Adding other variables to the mix such as camping with another family or using busy common restrooms and facilities will layer on some additional risk of exposure.
Is renting a vacation house with another family safe?
If both families have been limiting their exposure and observing stay-at-home restrictions, and can agree on certain safety considerations without damaging a valuable relationship, vacationing with another family can be a safe family travel option this summer.
In the best-case scenario, according to experts, both families have been quarantining and limiting their exposure to others, both families agree in advance about what constitutes safety precautions before and during the trip—and, crucially, both families keep to themselves and limit exposure beyond their "bubble" while they are vacationing together.
Choosing a vacation home in an area with low local transmission is key, too. "In vacation areas that have high community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 or in areas that will get a lot of visitor foot traffic from different areas, the risk of viral transmission could be significant and could lead to new viral hot spots in vacation towns," Jill Weatherhead, MD, an assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine tells Health magazine.
The upshot: As Dr. Mark Gendreau, chief medical officer at Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts and a professor of emergency medicine at Tufts University, recently put it to NPR: "If you're going for a vacation, it might be a good idea to postpone it for a little longer and by a little longer I would say another couple of months. We still have a lot of [viral] activity out there."
[This was originally published June 4, 2020. It has been updated.]
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