As summer comes to an end, but the delta variant’s surge does not, it’s difficult for travelers to know what options they have for safe trip planning. Travel advisories and local pandemic mandates are returning, and even Hawaii is asking visitors to stay away amid its rising coronavirus hospitalization rates. Does all of that mean we should stop traveling? “The short answer is it depends,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project.
Although much has changed since 2020, Rivera is erring on the side of caution with travel much like she did last year. For her, that means risk-reduction efforts such as choosing to drive instead of fly when possible, avoiding crowded settings and researching the vaccination and hospitalization rates of potential destinations. Rivera recommends that travelers look at the coronavirus websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or a state’s public health website.
Travelers should ask themselves questions such as “Am I going to a place that has a decent health care infrastructure so that if something goes wrong, I’m going to be taken care of?” Rivera said. “Are there enough people vaccinated in that area that’ll make me feel comfortable? Is it a hotspot for COVID transmission?”
To help guide your late-summer and fall travel planning further, we spoke with Rivera and five other health experts to compile safe trip ideas for the delta variant era. Their primary message was clear: Don’t travel until you’re fully vaccinated. Here’s their other top advice:
Unwind at a bed-and-breakfast
As long as the highly transmissible delta variant remains an active threat, it’s best to avoid crowds as much as possible. That makes smaller accommodation options preferable to sprawling hotels and resorts, experts say.
“With a bed-and-breakfast, they tend to be smaller capacity,” said Jaime C. Slaughter-Acey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. ” … With fewer guests, or traffic going in and out of a bed-and-breakfast, that’s fewer opportunities for you to come into contact with someone who maybe is COVID-positive and doesn’t know it.”
Book a beach or mountain rental
To get even more space from strangers, travelers can look for private accommodations such as a beach house, cabin in the woods or a vacation rental in a rural setting.
“I enjoy going to a nice, private, rented beach house, somewhere you can walk to the beach or barbecue in the backyard,” said Michael Urban, a professor in the school of health sciences at the University of New Haven. “Something more quiet and isolated.”
Brian Castrucci, the president and chief executive of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health charity, reminds travelers that they should still exercise caution when going to outdoor destinations like beaches if they’re crowded. Be sure to keep a healthy distance from strangers.
Opt for a drivable destination
While many of us tend to think of dreamy faraway places when we start vacation planning, Slaughter-Acey encouraged travelers to remember that great travel opportunities often lurk closer to home – saving your family from having to fly. “I would really think about places that are within a two- to five-hour drive,” she said.
Such shorter trips have become a trend, said Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We’ve seen a lot of people find really safe options who have rented or borrowed cars and had a vacation within a 60-mile radius” of where they live, she said.
Explore New York City
While most health experts interviewed encouraged trips that offered plenty of distance from strangers, there was one big exception. “I feel confident going to places like New York City because New York City is really on top of it when it comes to vaccines, mask mandates and vaccine mandates,” Rivera said.
Rivera, who visited New York in June, said she was comforted by precautions such as well-enforced mask mandates at businesses, proof-of-vaccination requirements at restaurants and reduced capacity at museums.
That being said, travelers should assess every situation as they go. If you get to a place that’s supposed to have strict coronavirus precautions but isn’t enforcing them, “I would just leave,” Rivera said. “See it for yourself and be like, ‘Do I feel safe here? Do I feel comfortable here?’ And then you make that decision.”
Hit the great outdoors
Naturally, the experts endorse trips into nature. “I think people have gotten pretty interested in the national parks, camping, being outside, and that’s wonderful to see because those are important places where you’re reducing your risk, but you’re also getting a break and a moment to recharge,” Althoff said.
Slaughter-Acey is contemplating packing her bike and driving to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with her husband for a last-minute getaway before school resumes. She also recommends considering trip ideas “that you wouldn’t necessarily make time for in everyday, normal, nonpandemic life” such as going on a kayaking or canoeing trip. “Use this as an opportunity to explore different vacation experiences,” Slaughter-Acey said.
Try a day trip
Of course, traveling doesn’t have to involve a night in a hotel or an Airbnb. Travelers can reduce their coronavirus risks further by returning home instead of sleeping elsewhere, experts said. “I can get up and go for a quick trip to Vermont for the day or something like that,” said Urban, who lives in the Northeast. Consider “maybe not taking those long trips or a week-long trip. Maybe just look in your area.”
Ultimately, what you do while you’re traveling will matter at least as much as how you get there or where you stay. “If I’m going to be traveling to go to a 200-person wedding, the problem isn’t traveling; it’s the 200-person wedding,” said Carlos del Rio, a professor of infectious diseases and global health at Emory University. “People need to be thoughtful.”