For travelers anxious to get back into the world, things are finally starting to look up.
In the U.S., the U.K., and a few other lucky places, the number of fully vaccinated adults is quickly rising. Though some countries are still being ravaged by Covid, others with encouraging numbers have been opening their borders to tourism.
If you live in one of these fortunate places, it might sound like a good time to book a bucket-list summer vacation. Except that one big question remains: What about the kids?
No vaccines have been cleared yet for children under 16, though pediatric trials are taking place. (The Pfizer vaccine is approved for kids 16 and up.) Experts don’t expect kids to be widely vaccinated until the fall, at earliest—and possibly not until 2022.
Many travel-loving parents are suddenly realizing that vaccination isn’t quite the game-changer they expected. Some countries are fully open to vaccinated adults—but not their un-inoculated kids. And though a recent article in The Atlantic suggested that parents think of kids as “vaccinated grandparents” and go on vacation, when we published this article, the C.D.C. was still recommending that people avoid all non-essential travel.
Other experts say it’s not that simple. On the one hand, it’s important to be responsible. On the other, there are ways to travel with little risk. Here’s their advice for making decisions for your family.
The Risks for Kids
Needless to say, Covid is out there. Though numbers have been on a downward trajectory, in the U.S. there were nearly 70,000 new cases and 1,270 deaths on the day we published this story.
And kids are not immune, though statistics do show that they’re far less likely to get seriously ill. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children have made up less than 14% of positive Covid tests in the U.S., and under 4% of hospitalizations. Long Covid and serious inflammatory issues can take hold, but they’re very rare.
Still, a number of Covid variants and mutations have sprung up, and some seem to be spread more quickly and easily among children, said Dr. Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University.
Unvaccinated kids “may end up becoming the key viral hosts,” she said. There could be pediatric outbreaks among children, especially in environments where masks aren’t being worn.
What does that mean when it comes to travel decisions?
In part, it comes down to your family’s tolerance for risk, as well as your personal circumstances, said Dr. Davidson Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at Boston University and director of the Boston Medical Center Travel Clinic.
Children with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk from Covid, and their parents should err on the side of caution. There’s evidence that infants and newborns are more vulnerable, too. “ Their immune systems are not really well formed,” Dr. Hamer said.
But your family’s health isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the only factor at play. Children can still contract Covid and pass it on to others, sometimes without showing any symptoms themselves.
Unvaccinated adults are the most at risk around unvaccinated kids, Dr. Smith said. There’s no way of knowing who’s protected or not. And scientists are still learning about how long vaccines are good for.
“We’d expect to see some cases in vaccinated adults as well,” Dr. Smith said, “as the vaccines are very good but not perfect.”
When, Where and How
Experts say it’s not just a question of whether to travel, but when you go, where you go, and how you get there.
Dr. Hamer expects that Covid transmission rates in the U.S. will decline substantially over the next few months, as more adults get vaccinated and people spend time outdoors. “It may make travel a lot safer,” he said. Consider scratching that travel itch by planning your trip now, but taking it later.
Regardless of timing, choose your destination with care. Countries and states with lower Covid rates are less risky, Dr. Hamer said. Ditto for places with strict entry requirements and safety precautions. Your holiday may not feel as liberating, but kids will be less likely to get sick.
It’s safest to travel by car with only your immediate family, Dr. Hamer said. But it’s also possible to take public forms of transportation, including trains and planes, he said, “and reduce the risk to very low, if not zero.”
Wear effective masks that adequately cover your mouth and nose, he advised. Especially after boarding, keep your mask on as much as possible.
“Honestly, for shorter flights, the best thing is to minimize or avoid eating or drinking,” he said.
More and more countries, including Iceland, Slovenia, and Belize, are opening their borders to people to have been vaccinated. These policies are rife with complications (does the type of vaccine matter? the passport app? time elapsed since vaccination?) as well as larger ethical questions. Letting only vaccinated people freely travel creates—or, more accurately, exacerbates—a class system that advantages citizens of wealthier countries.
It also poses a logistical challenge to families who have their hearts set on certain destinations. With a few exceptions—like Slovenia and Greece—countries that are welcoming vaccinated travelers aren’t lifting restrictions for unvaccinated children. So your 10-year-old may be able to accompany you to Iceland, but they’ll be tested twice and have to quarantine for several days.
Hardly a recipe for a relaxing holiday. Still, travel rules are constantly changing, and more countries may start making exceptions for kids. But if you’re planning to travel internationally, the first thing you should do is make sure the rules are crystal-clear.
You Can—But Should You?
Being unvaccinated isn’t a barrier to entering some countries. Mexico is open to all travelers, as is Costa Rica; neither require even a negative Covid test. Jamaica, Rwanda, and Serbia are a few of the countries allowing U.S. travelers—kids included—to enter with a recent negative Covid test.
But just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
“Acceptance isn’t the same thing as safety,” Dr. Smith said. “Many restaurants and bars are open across the country right now, but it doesn’t mean they’re safe. Unfortunately, economic issues and public health best practices can clash, as we’ve seen all year.”
Rainer Jenns, founder of the Family Travel Association, advises families to stick to domestic travel for now—and book soon. Some options, such as vacation rentals, dude ranches, beach houses, and certain all-inclusives, are selling out.
This might be a good time to work with a travel advisor or agent. “Advisors can help navigate all the new and different protocols, restrictions, and cancelation and change policies,” Jenns said. “Travel insurance has also changed quite a bit, so advisors can be an invaluable resource in figuring all of that out.”
For families that do decide to travel sooner, epidemiologist Smith advises they take trips where they will remain somewhat removed from the general public, “either solo as a family or with perhaps another family as your ‘pod.’”
When in public, it’s also important to wear masks—including the kids—even if they’re not required.
“We do not know which adults have been vaccinated or not,” said Dr. Geoffrey Mount Varner, a Johns Hopkins emergency room physician. “It is extremely important, especially given the fact that the main route of transmission is by the mouth and nose.”
Dr. Smith is hoping to take part in a two-family vacation this year, staying in a beach cottage with plenty of room for social distancing. There will be no restaurant meals, and the plan is for the kids from both families to quarantine before and after the trip.
“We’ll also be keeping an eye on local transmission levels in the weeks before traveling,” she adds. “If there is a lot of local transmission at our destination, or they’re a hotspot for variants, we may switch plans and do a staycation instead.”