The holiday season last year was a stay-at-home affair for many people who would normally have flown south for a beach break or gravitated toward the twinkling lights of a big city.
This year, with widespread vaccination in many countries, moving around the world has become safer and more accessible for many would-be travelers. But the pandemic’s constant risk-benefit analysis still very much applies: Can I travel safely? Which destinations should I consider? Who else can go? How complicated will it be?
It would be so nice to have a definitive list of DO-go-here destinations and another list of DO-NOT-go-there spots. No such luck. Once again, “it depends” figures heavily in any plan.
CNN Travel asked industry experts and CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen about how to weigh holiday destination decisions and pick places that match your risk level and risk tolerance.
The No.1 consideration
Your vaccination status is the most important factor from an ease-of-travel standpoint.
“The No. 1 thing you can do to make travel easier for yourself and a little bit smoother is to be vaccinated,” said Dave Hershberger, owner of Prestige Travel in Cincinnati, Ohio. “And I know not everybody wants to do that or can’t do that for whatever reason, but that will expedite pretty much any travel that you’re looking at right now, and I think that’s only going to become more and more important as time goes on.”
Vaccination is also the most significant safety factor since unvaccinated travelers are more likely to become ill and transmit Covid-19 to others, said Dr. Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated.
Some countries won’t let unvaccinated visitors in. Only vaccinated travelers are allowed to go to Canada for tourism purposes. And as of November 8, the United States will permit only vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the country, with exceptions for children who are not yet eligible.
Traveling with children who are unvaccinated will be a consideration for many families.
“This risk is not so much the travel itself but what you do at the destination. Travel itself can be made very safe, especially if the younger children are able to mask. If they’re unable to mask that is a major barrier,” said Wen, who is also author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
If she were traveling only with her four-year-old son, who is used to masking at preschool, Wen said she would feel very comfortable taking him on a short flight. However, she would not travel on a plane or train with her one-and-a-half year old daughter because she can’t consistently mask.
People should be wearing a high-quality mask – N95, KN95 or KF94 – anytime they’re in crowded indoor settings with people of unknown vaccination status, she said.
“The transmission rates are one guidepost,” Wen said. “Another is what precautions are required and followed in the place that you’re going and then the third is what are you planning to do once you’re there. Are you planning to visit a lot of attractions and go to indoor bars? That’s very different from you’re going somewhere where you’re planning to lie on the beach all day and not interact with anyone else. That’s very different. Those are very different levels of risk.”
And your own health history, age and comfort level – for yourself or your children – are also important considerations.
Where are travel advisers sending more risk-averse travelers?
Ashley Les, a travel adviser with Protravel International, is sending a lot of people to warm-weather destinations where most of the activity is outdoors.
Les sees Belize, where she is currently living, as a great option because so many of the hotels are smaller, boutique resorts with independent dwellings for each party. “So you’re not sharing hallways with other people. Your little bungalow is just yours. There might be 10 or 20 of them, so really max on the property is 30 to 40,” she said.
Costa Rica, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and some Caribbean islands have a lot of properties with the same type of setup. Les has booked a lot of stays at Hammock Cove in Antigua, an exclusive adults-only resort that requires vaccination.
Back in August 2020, Les took her own first big pandemic trip to Turks and Caicos. The flight was nonstop and the islands were requiring testing, giving Les some assurance that her safety and that of the locals was a priority (now the islands require both a test and proof of vaccination for most travelers).
A nonstop flight to a destination that requires a test means nearly everyone on your flight has recently tested negative for Covid-19. Travelers won’t get that when flying domestically in the United States, she noted.
“You don’t have to test to fly to Colorado from Florida or to fly to Boston from New York … it’s not safer to be domestic,” Les said. What travelers do eliminate in staying within their home country is the risk of getting stranded in another country if they test positive before flying home and have to stay on to quarantine.
For Americans, getting stranded “is certainly a potential hazard any time you leave the country right now because of the US requirement to be tested and be negative before you come back into the country,” said Hershberger.
“If you’ve got two weeks and you can only be gone two weeks, period, that may not be a chance that I would take,” he said, adding that it’s still unlikely if you’re vaccinated and careful while you’re away.
He noted that national parks are a great, outdoor-focused option for travelers inclined to stay closer to home and Hawaii is now welcoming tourists again after asking visitors to stay away during a late-summer surge.
What about Europe?
Any place where the weather is likely to drive visitors indoors can be iffy for travelers who are uncomfortable or more at risk for bad outcomes if they get infected.
Christmastime can be a magical time in big cities like Paris, with elegant holiday decorations and unique shopping, but Paris in the winter is likely to mean a lot of time inside. “You’re putting yourself in more of a position to be around more people in sort of a stagnant inside area,” Les said, and she’s steering clients to warmer destinations instead.
Last week global Covid-19 cases and deaths increased for the first time in two months, driven by ongoing increases in Europe, according to the World Health Organization. But Europe is not off the table for many travelers.
“For people that are not as Covid-wary as others, this is a great time to go to Europe,” Hershberger said. Travelers willing to do their homework or enlist an adviser to navigate the rules, will find it less crowded than usual, he said.
At Trailfinders in the United Kingdom, Europe is proving popular with clients for the winter holidays. The Canary Islands, Switzerland, Malta and Iceland are in demand, according to Nikki Davies, public relations manager at Trailfinders. “Plus our clients have started booking city breaks again to the likes of Paris, Amsterdam etc.”
How much weight should you give travel advisories?
Cross-reference any of the destinations above in Europe, the Caribbean and beyond against a map overlaid with Covid transmission data and things look very bleak indeed. The CDC’s color-coded risk map shows that much of the world is “high” or “very high” risk based largely on Covid-19 incidence rates and the trajectory of new cases – including many of the destinations travel advisers are booking heavily in November and December.
Transmission rates are important to consider, but there are other factors to weigh, Wen said, calling the CDC classifications “one useful tool.” The situation is very fluid with cases rising in some countries and dropping substantially in others. She urges would-be travelers to look at what precautions are being taken in prospective destinations.
“For example, you could have a country with high transmission rates but that requires indoor masking including in public transportation or that requires proof of vaccination or testing for entering restaurants and going to sports venues. That would make it a lot safer. So just looking at the transmission rates is not enough,” Wen said. In France, for example, most public indoor spaces require a health pass showing proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test.
And planning for travel goes back to getting vaccinated, masking in transit and factoring in your activities. If you take other precautions, sitting on the beach in a CDC Level 4, “do not travel” country could end up being much safer than going from one crowded restaurant and museum to another in a place with a lower risk designation.
While the CDC doesn’t break out the United States in its more detailed travel notices, it is currently “very high” risk – or Level 4 – on the agency’s travel map, as is the United Kingdom, where “travel is definitely back on the agenda,” according to Trailfinders’ Davies.
Davies said that with the US opening to vaccinated international travelers on November 8, it’s back to being the top destination for Trailfinders clients, with New York, California and Florida the most popular destinations.
“In the UK, the message is the world is open,” she said. While there aren’t as many flights, she estimated weekly bookings are back to pre-pandemic levels.
But open or not, where or whether someone travels this holiday season is a personal calculation.
“It doesn’t make any sense to go on a vacation and be stressed the whole time,” said Hershberger. “So you go someplace where you can avoid some of that stress, whatever that comfort level is for you.”
Top photo: Mudjin Harbor Beach in Middle Caicos in the Turks and Caicos; credit: Marnie Hunter/CNN