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Traveling This Summer? Here's What's Safe and What You Should Avoid

COVID illustration.

Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • Before deciding on a travel destination, look up the location's COVID-19 infection rates.
  • Outdoor activities, like camping or swimming, are generally safer than dining indoors or visiting museums.
  • The best way to stay safe during your summer vacation is to get vaccinated beforehand.

After more than a year of being cooped up indoors, many Americans are looking forward to traveling this summer. But even as states loosen restrictions, circumstances are still far from normal. During any travel in the next few months, it'll be crucial to keep minimizing your COVID-19 risk, whether you're vaccinated or not.

“Unvaccinated people need to be exceptionally careful—this includes all children under 16 years old right now—and at any point, variants could emerge, in the U.S. or around the world, that are not covered by the current vaccinations,” Karen Jubanyik, MD, emergency medicine physician at Yale Medicine, tells Verywell.

"It is likely that there will be significant infections before the variants are identified in any given community, as most routine COVID-19 testing does not test for whether any given infection is due to a variant," she adds. "I would only book refundable vacations at this point because of this."

When mapping out your travel plans, there are a few factors you need to consider before deciding on your destination and nailing down your itinerary.

Choosing Your Travel Destination

There's no doubt traveling will be far from normal for the foreseeable future. If you plan to go somewhere this summer, it's important that you choose safe destinations over popular, crowded ones.

Do Some Research Beforehand

If you plan to travel domestically, take the time to check public health advisories as well as current COVID-19 infection rates and variant spread for the destination you have in mind.

“I think the amount of cases where you are and where you are going should be a primary concern,” Justin Lessler, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “You don't want to spread the virus, so I would consider forgoing travel if cases in your home area are relatively high. You also don't want to get infected on your trip, so it is probably best not to go somewhere with a raging epidemic.”

You can look up the number of cases per state using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s COVID Data Tracker, but keep in mind these rates are affected by the availability of testing.

“If everyone traveling is vaccinated, travel within the U.S. is relatively safe now, however, this can change at any time if variants emerge that are not covered by the current vaccinations,” Jubanyik says. “This is potentially more likely to happen in communities where mask-wearing restrictions have been lifted and where many people in the community have opted not to get the vaccination.”

Think Twice About International Travel

Even though fully vaccinated people do not need to get tested before leaving the U.S. (unless the destination requires it) or self-quarantine after arriving back in the country, they are still at an increased risk for getting and spreading COVID-19, including new variants. Unvaccinated people should not travel internationally until they are able to get fully vaccinated.

“Be careful about traveling anywhere there has low vaccination uptake,” Jubanyik says. “This includes many international locations, including Canada right now. One only has to see what is happening in India and Brazil to know that travel to international locations could be very risky.”

Many countries outside the U.S. have been unable to obtain enough vaccines to distribute them among their residents, or they may not be in a position to know their infection rates due to a low availability of COVID-19 tests. You can visit the CDC's COVID-19 Travel Recommendations to view their risk assessment of countries outside the US.

“This is probably not a year to go on an international journey on a whim,” Jubanyik says. “If there are compelling reasons to travel outside the U.S. now—visit relatives, work-related travel, medical mission—I encourage one to do significant research about the prevalence, including variants, if known, as well as vaccination rates.”

Be Strategic with Your Transportation

When choosing a location, you should also consider how you’ll get there. While viruses don't spread easily on flights, the number of stops or layovers during air travel does increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. According to the CDC, short road trips with members of the same household or fully vaccinated people tend to be a lot safer than cruise ships or long-distance train or bus trips.

“Most trains and buses suffer from a lack of circulation, and being in any closed space would be risky, especially for those unvaccinated," Jubanyik says. "I would recommend only traveling by train or bus with a double-mask that does not come off at all, especially if unvaccinated."

Aside from evaluating the safety of your travel destination and mode of transportation, you should assess the activities you plan on doing once you get there.

“Perhaps more important though is what type of activities you will do," Lessler says. "A trip to spend a lot of time outdoors away from others is probably fine regardless of conditions, while one where you will be spending a lot of time inside with strangers is the least safe."

What This Means For You

If you're thinking of traveling this summer, plan thoroughly. When choosing a travel destination, consider the location's current infection rates and the mode of transportation you'll need to take to get there. To err on the side of caution, choose outdoor travel activities over indoor ones.

Ranking Travel Activities Based on COVID-19 Risk

Right now, planning ahead is crucial since a lack of foresight might risk your safety. Before you go on your trip, take the time to figure out which travel activities increase your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.

“Basically, being outside is always going to be the safest, and unmasked in a crowded area the least safe,” Lessler says. Camping, hiking, and swimming are likely the safest travel activities as long as you maintain your distance, he adds.

We asked experts to rank typical vacation activities based on the risk they pose to travelers. 

Indoor Dining

Experts say that indoor dining is the riskiest activity you can do while traveling. A South Korean study showed that COVID-19 transmission can occur even with a distance greater than 2 meters when it is combined with airflow. Although the risk of infection is lower for fully vaccinated people, transmission risk is still high due to the closed space, poor ventilation, and the need to remove masks when eating and drinking.

Visiting a Museum

Going to a museum is risky because it's a closed space where plenty of people come in from outside the community. Although that usually adds to the experience, during this pandemic, it increases potential dangers, Jubanyik says.

“Wear a mask. Use sanitizer," she adds. "I would be careful with taking young children who are not able to adhere to perfect mask-wearing and are also not vaccinated."

Remember to check a museum’s guidelines before going. They often require online reservations or advanced ticket purchases, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Art Institute of Chicago

Safety also depends on how crowded and well-ventilated the museum is, Lessler says. Many museums now have timed-entry tickets limiting capacity, and some have spacing markers to help people maintain physical distancing. 

Going to an Amusement Park

Visiting an amusement park is “mostly okay, but one would not want to be on an enclosed ride with people outside [their] household bubble,” Jubanyik says. 

Before you go, make sure masks are required. “I would be careful to avoid rides where you are packed in close with others while waiting in line or on the ride, particularly if indoors,” he says.

Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park officially open on April 30, but only to California residents. Meanwhile, Universal Studios Hollywood admits fully vaccinated out-of-state visitors. It might be safer to go to a local park rather than bigger theme parks where people come from many places, Jubanyik says.

Taking a Guided Tour of the City

“An outdoor walking tour would be pretty safe, one in an enclosed bus less so,” Lessler says. According to Jubanyik, if the travel group and the tour guide are fully vaccinated, there is little risk of infection, but remember to wear a mask anytime you’re indoors. 

Swimming In Pools

Outdoor pools are relatively safer than indoor ones, Lessler says. Either way, it’s important to avoid really crowded pools.

“There has been little evidence that swimming in pools leads to transmission,” Jubanyik says. “Chlorine and other pool chemicals seem to kill the virus. However, if people are standing in the pool and are packed in closely without masks, there is a possibility of transmission, especially if unvaccinated. We saw that last summer around the big holidays, where people were standing in pools, maskless, packed in like sardines. Many cases were traced to these situations.”

The CDC recommends social distancing both in and out of the water.

Going to the Beach

Similar to indoor pools, you should avoid crowded locations where you cannot maintain physical distance. “As long as people are not crowded together, outdoor activities like going to the beach and swimming in the ocean are going to be relatively safe," Jubanyik says. "Vaccinated people should feel free to do this."

Camping or Hiking

Experts say that camping or hiking is likely the safest activity you can do because it is mostly outdoors. The CDC recommends going with the people in your household, but in general, it's safe to be with fully vaccinated individuals.

“If you are vaccinated, [the] newest CDC guidelines say no mask is needed unless in a large crowd of strangers,” Jubanyik says. “Even unvaccinated people will be at very low risk, especially if one travels with their household bubble. I would caution against staying in tents or cabins with other families if there are unvaccinated people in the group.”

You can visit Recreation.gov to search for campsites, reserve them months in advance, and access other important location details.

Getting Vaccinated Is the Best Safety Measure

It’s best to delay travel—both domestic and international—until you are fully vaccinated.

“Social distancing appears to not be enough, particularly for indoor activities, to prevent transmission of the virus,” Jubanyik says. “Masking is absolutely still essential, for indoor activities with people outside of your household bubble, even if, for political reasons, the state government has lifted mask restrictions. This is especially true for unvaccinated people.”

All Americans aged 16 years old and above are now eligible to get vaccinated. According to a White House press briefing, there is a 9 out of 10 chance you are within five miles of a vaccination site. Getting vaccinated makes you less likely to get and spread COVID-19 during travels.

“Overall, I would avoid traveling to crowded locations or situations that will put travelers in crowded conditions," Jubanyik says. "Outdoor activities are largely much safer than indoor activities. If one is not yet vaccinated and is eligible, people should get vaccinated now. This will help make all travelers safer.”

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