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Seven Tips to Travel Safely in the Pandemic

A view of LAX airport with planes docked in the runway.
As vaccines become more available, traveling could be on the table for many looking to finally leave home. | Sandi Hemmerlein
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After over a year of travel restrictions, health guidelines and safety protocols, it finally may seem like a good time to get out of the house to visit somewhere else. But as things open up, and the risk of travel takes a nosedive, it's also a good time to brush up on your travel savvy. After all, we're living in a new world now — not quite a post-COVID world, but one that's certainly still evolving.

Travel might not be quite like the "Before Times" quite yet — or ever — but it's entirely doable. And it can still be wonderful.

Whether you're ready for a day trip, a weekend getaway or your first bona fide vacation in forever, here are seven tips for getting back out there and exploring the world beyond your own backyard.

If you're not ready to travel quite yet — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against non-essential travel, even if it's currently allowed — it's not too early to start planning that first trip for the summer, fall or even the holidays.

1. Evaluate Everyone's Vaccination Status on the Trip

A car pulls into a tent as the driver preps to receive a dose of the vaccine in the parking lot of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California.
With both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson, the CDC made domestic travel simpler by no longer having to quarantine after reaching your destination. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Traveling has become much easier if you're fully vaccinated — meaning two weeks have passed since your final shot (the second shot if it was Pfizer or Moderna, or the single shot of Johnson & Johnson). For domestic travel, the CDC says you won't have to quarantine upon reaching your destination out of the county or state, and you won't have to test negative for COVID-19 either before departing or after arriving.

Vaccinated U.S. citizens returning to the country from elsewhere still need a negative COVID-19 test result (or documentation of recovery from a COVID-19 infection) in order to board the plane at their point of origin.

And if you're not fully vaccinated — even if you've gotten your first shot or if it's within the two weeks after your second shot — those old travel rules still apply to you, too. That includes a seven-day self-quarantine upon your return from another country. Although not all states are following that federal mandate, it's currently what the State of California requires.

You'll especially want to consider who you'll be visiting on your trip — because an unvaccinated traveler visiting someone who's also unvaccinated, after potentially being surrounded by other unvaccinated travelers, means the risk could be just as high as it ever was.

Experts don't think there's much risk to a vaccinated person visiting an unvaccinated person — unless who's being visited is at high risk for severe COVID-19 infection or death.

But you should know that the science on this isn't definitive yet — and throughout this pandemic we've seen how quickly recommendations can change.

2. Decide Where to Roam

People stand in land as they await entry in at the U.S and Mexico border.
While the CDC is strongly advising against crossing the border to Canada, which is facing a third wave of COVID-19, going to Mexico looks to be easier as travel restrictions are lifted. | Sandi Hemmerlein

You may be looking to re-visit a past favorite — or maybe you'd like to take this opportunity to cross someplace off your bucket list. But while the CDC says it's OK for vaccinated Americans to travel, that doesn't give you carte blanche if you've gotten your shots.

The CDC strongly recommends against crossing the border to visit Canada, which is currently battling its "Third Wave" as well as multiple COVID-19 variants. Besides, Canada's federal government stipulates that you're only eligible to travel there from the U.S. (by either plane or car) if you're a Canadian citizen, have dual citizenship with Canada or are an immediate family member of someone with that eligibility who's staying in Canada for 15 days or more — and mandatory testing and quarantine still apply. You can take the Government of Canada's online quiz to help determine your eligibility.

Going "south of the border" may be easier — especially if you're traveling to Mexico by car or on foot — especially after April 21, when certain travel restrictions put in place in March 2020 in a joint agreement between the U.S. and Mexico governments are scheduled to be lifted. But, as with Canada, the CDC highly advises U.S. travelers to stay away until the threat level goes down.

Throughout the rest of the world, each country has its own rules for inbound passengers from the U.S. You can view travel recommendations by international destination, sorted by threat level (if it's known), on the CDC website and the U.S. State Department website.

But regardless of where you've gone internationally, vaccinated or not, you'll need a negative COVID-19 test result (or documentation of recovery from a COVID-19 infection) to board a flight back to the U.S. and get tested with a viral test three to five days after your return.

There's something else you should consider before deciding where to go, whether near or far: the availability of healthcare. Even if you're fully vaccinated and in perfect health, accidents still can happen. And if you twist an ankle or crack a rib on some outdoor adventure in a remote area, you might find yourself adding to an already stressed-out healthcare system with fewer resources than you may be used to. You also might find yourself surrounded by COVID-19 patients at whichever healthcare facility you wind up in.

3. Choose Your Mode of Transportation

The Los Angeles Union Station square during the day.
With both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson, the CDC made domestic travel simpler by no longer having to quarantine after reaching your destination. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Wherever you'd like to go, you've got to figure out how you're going to get there. And while you may be inclined to take your own car for the sake of avoiding contact with other passengers, it may not necessarily be the safest mode of transportation.

Experts told us for years that, statistically speaking, flying was safer than driving because of higher road accident rates. But what happens when you mix infection rates in?

You'll need to decide how much you'll be able to control your environment while traveling. A quick plane ride to a destination that might take you a half-day or longer to reach by car might be a more attractive option — especially if you can fly via private terminals on public charters offered by companies like JSX, which can get you from L.A. or San Diego to Vegas without much fuss.

In contrast, long car rides might also put you in other geographic regions with higher infection rates, fewer safety protocols in place (or less compliance) and other factors that could pose some danger — especially if you need to stop for a meal or an overnight stay. On a flight, you can just sail right over those troublesome areas.

But for cross-country trips — say, to the East Coast — being trapped on an airplane for five or more hours with re-circulated air may not sound like your cup of tea, particularly with airlines no longer leaving middle seats empty. While face coverings are required on planes, enforcement can be an issue.

When possible, choose off-peak days and times for air travel — and you can minimize your interactions with airport crowds by booking non-stop flights instead of connecting along the way.

If you've got a little extra time, one option for a trip of any length is to book an Amtrak train with a private room option, available on some sleeper car routes. Solo travelers and couples can book roomettes, if available, for any length of trip — even if they don't take advantage of the bunk-style sleeping quarters and shared shower facilities. Multiple travelers in a group can book a full-on bedroom, bedroom suite or family bedroom with its own private toilet and shower. Accessible options may also be available.

Plus, sometimes you can experience some pretty cool train stations either upon your departure or arrival. Some local architectural gems where you can ride the rails include Los Angeles Union Station, Glendale Transportation Center, San Bernardino's Santa Fe Depot and San Diego's Santa Fe Depot.

4. Sleep Without Worry

Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo rests its white unique exterior with visible stairwells.
Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo offers exterior rooms for visitors looking for their own space. | Sandi Hemmerlein

During the peak of the pandemic, some travelers sought refuge in the great outdoors by camping — particularly at primitive sites or in the backcountry, far from other travelers. That's, of course, still an option — and even more so now, as more developed campsites and RV parks begin to open up.

If you're looking to sleep on a proper bed — and in a room with a door that closes — there are some ways to ensure you can maintain your social distance. While you might not be ready to stay in a large hotel — one that requires taking an elevator, walking down long hallways past lots of rooms and relying on central air conditioning — fortunately, that's not your only option.

Aside from the sleeper car option (#3, above), look for accommodations that provide exterior access directly to the rooms. That's generally a standard feature of motels — but it can also be available at some more upscale hotels and resorts.

The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is one such destination that offers plenty of exterior room access; and family-friendly resorts like Paradise Point and the Best Western Plus Island Palms in San Diego offer freestanding cottages and casitas.

And in those cases, being able to control your own ventilation is pretty much guaranteed.

You can also look for listings of "entire homes" on vacation rental sites like Airbnb, Hipcamp and VRBO — but keep in mind that COVID-19 safety protocols and sanitizing may be less regulated there than at a major hotel chain. Of course, you can always bring your own bedding and do a little wipe-down with your own cleaning supplies upon arrival.

5. Be Ready to Bail (Or Be Bailed On)

An American Airlines plane sitting in the runway at LAX.
With COVID-19 information constantly changing, it may be important to keep backup plans if a trip is cancelled or postponed. | Sandi Hemmerlein

It's always taken a lot of patience to travel — by any means — but getting back into traveling will test our patience like never before. Even as we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the pandemic, situations can turn on a dime — which means you must be prepared to cancel the trip, or have the trip canceled, for any reason.

That means non-refundable rooms and pricey change fees will have to become a thing of the past, at least for now. Before you commit to and pay for anything, make sure you're aware of the company's cancellation policy and whether there are any special restrictions related to COVID-19. Some airlines are waiving their fees to change a flight — but only for the time being (although you may still have to pay the difference in price for the new flight).

Conceivably, certain businesses could temporarily shut down because of a COVID-19 infection among their staff. They could buckle under the financial pressure of the last 13 months and close for good.

Airlines could cancel under-booked flights. Tour operators or concessionaires could thin out their schedule because of lack of interest. Or, on the other hand, limited capacity may mean you can't get tickets to the events or activities you were hoping for.

Plan ahead, but try to embrace flexibility. Have a Plan B or even a Plan C. Be ready to say "No thank you" if anything doesn't feel safe to you — or if the safety protocols turn out to be not as promised. What's fine or acceptable to other people may be very different than what you can accept — and that's OK. Especially now.

6. To Insure or Not to Insure?

The reflection of a red sun can be seen on a car's side mirror.
Insurance for your trip or vacation may be important now more than ever during the pandemic as certain policies could fall short. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Given how quickly things can change at home or at your destination, you may have to reevaluate what you've done before when it comes to travel insurance. You may have never insured a trip before — but current circumstances may warrant it now. Or, you may have your "standard" travel insurance policy that could now fall short when it comes to travel changes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Check and make sure your policy will cover cancelation of your trip because of an unexpected illness (including COVID-19), medical expenses if you fall ill while you're away and a possible extension of your trip if you're too sick to return as scheduled. Some countries even require you carry medical insurance for COVID-19 if you plan on traveling there.

But unfortunately, that only applies to the traveler's health — and doesn't cover you if the person you're planning to visit gets sick.

If you're worried about governments changing the testing and quarantine rules after you've booked, you can opt for the "cancel for any reason" upgrade to your policy — if it's available. That option is, of course, more expensive; and yet it still won't get you a 100% refund. And it may not protect you if a country closes its borders before you manage to get in and get out.

Forbes magazine has an up-to-date roundup of the "Best Pandemic Travel Insurance Plans 2021," or you can consult with your travel agent or insurer of choice.

7. Value Your Time

A roadside camp in a desert set up under some shade from local trees.
Planning far ahead could be helpful in getting a low cost and less hassle vacation or getaway. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Surely you deserve a vacation — even if it's just a weekend away. But regardless of the monetary cost of taking a trip — that is, how much it'll drain your bank account — you should also consider how much time you'll need to invest in booking it (and potentially canceling it).

Anything that requires a phone call to customer service — earning or redeeming membership/loyalty points, cashing in a voucher, canceling or even just asking questions — may result in long wait times and interactions with frazzled representatives.

This might be the time to take the path of least resistance — a trip with the fewest number of variables and the least amount you need to depend on third parties.

And, of course, remember that you don't actually have to travel right now.

But it might be fun to start planning sooner rather than later, as you determine your comfort level and threshold for uncertainty.

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