How to Keep Safe During Holiday Travel in 2021, According to the CDC and Health Professionals

The holidays are a huge time to travel and, if you’re planning to venture out, you probably have some questions about what things will look like this year. With the Omicron variant slowly spreading around the world, officials have already announced some tighter restrictions on travel that you should know about.

If it’s been a while since you’ve traveled, experts say it’s important to brush up on what will be expected of you and what you should bring to be as prepared and safe as possible. Here’s everything you need to know.

What are the current rules and recommendations for international travel?

There are a few important things to keep in mind if you’ll be traveling internationally this holiday season:

  • You need to get tested before you come home. The Biden administration just announced that it is implementing stricter international testing protocols, starting early next week. That includes requiring all in-bound international travelers (including Americans and those who are fully vaccinated) to get tested for COVID-19 within one day of your trip back to the U.S. “This tighter testing timeline provides an added degree of public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant,” a fact sheet from the White House says.
  • You’ll need to wear a mask. The Biden administration has extended the requirement for masking on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, both domestically and internationally, as well as in transportation hubs like airports. That mandate will continue through at least March 18. Failure to comply will result in a $500 fine and fines of up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.
  • You should be fully vaccinated. This isn’t a requirement, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly urges people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before traveling.
  • The area you’re traveling to will have its own COVID protocols. Every country will have its own set of rules and regulations around COVID-19. It’s important to know what they are in advance to make your travel experience as seamless as possible.

    What are the current rules and recommendations for domestic travel?

    Here’s what you need to know about traveling domestically this holiday season:

    • You will need to mask up on public transportation. Again, the Biden administration has extended a mask mandate for public transportation through March 18. That means you’ll need to wear a mask if you’re traveling by bus, plane, or train, and in all transportation hubs, like train stations, bus terminals, and airports.
    • You should be fully vaccinated. Same as with international travel: The CDC recommends that you “delay” travel until you’re fully vaccinated.
    • You’ll need to know the COVID protocols of the area you’ll be traveling to. Some states have mask mandates in place for entering public spaces and some cities, like New York and San Francisco, require that you be vaccinated before entering certain public spaces like bars and restaurants.

      What do doctors think of holiday travel?

      In general, they’re supportive of holiday travel—as long as you’re safe about it. “Keep your plans, but proceed carefully,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

      “The safest way to travel is to be fully vaccinated,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The rest is up to your individual risk tolerance.”

      Dr. Adalja recommends having your vaccine card with you, as well as a picture of it, just in case you misplace or lose it. “Having masks on hand makes sense as well because you may not find them in certain areas and they may be different rules depending upon where you’re going,” he says.

      If you’re planning to eat in a public space, like an airplane, it’s a good idea to try to staggering the time you’ll eat around those around you, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “When they deliver meals on planes, people have their masks down,” he points out. “Keep your mask up, wait until everyone eats, and then eat.” He also suggests pulling your mask back up between sips of your drink and mouthfuls of food, just to be safe.

      And, if you’re traveling internationally, Dr. Russo suggests figuring out now where you’ll get tested before your return flight home, just to make sure you’re not scrambling the day of or stuck waiting to get a test.

      Dr. Schaffner suggests being mindful of what you’ll do once you arrive at your destination, too. “If you’re meeting with family, do advance telephone calls or emails with relatives to make sure everyone five and over is vaccinated and that everyone who is eligible for a booster has received it,” he says. If you’ll have immunocompromised people with you, he recommends doing rapid tests on the day of your gathering as an added layer of protection.

      Dr. Russo stresses the importance of being fully vaccinated before you travel, especially if you’re traveling internationally. “If you test positive for COVID before flying home, you’ll be in an isolation situation for 10 days,” he says. “The likelihood of you testing positive is much higher if you’re unvaccinated or haven’t gotten your booster.”

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