People wearing masks
People wear mask in Washington Square Park in New York City. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

It’s what so many have been waiting for: the ability to hit the road, fly the skies or sail the seas. After more than a dozen months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, millions across the country can’t wait to scratch their travel itch.

But while pandemic restrictions are mostly lifted throughout the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend that people who are unvaccinated delay travel until they are fully vaccinated, or if they must travel, take precautions.

These include COVID-19 testing before and after their trip, masking and avoiding large crowds during travel, and self-quarantining for a full 7 days upon their return. They should also self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.

This guidance comes as we are making great strides in vaccinating millions of people across the United States. However, it is important to recognize that we are not completely out of the woods.

There are still several spots where vaccination rates are lower than we’d like, and the new delta variant is leading to increased infections, which is why those who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine should consider whether it is appropriate to resume travel before they are fully vaccinated.

Have Vax, Will Travel

While those who are unvaccinated may want to cool their heels for a bit, people who are fully vaccinated have been given the green light by the CDC to travel safely without having to be tested at either end of their journey, or to self-quarantine upon their return. People are fully vaccinated when 2 weeks have passed after they received 1 dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or 2 doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Fully vaccinated people can also go mask-free throughout most of their getaway, with the exception of while on planes and other forms of public transportation, and when in airports and other travel stations or very large indoor crowds.

This ability to travel much like we used to is because the vaccines are all highly effective. However, it is still important to follow some safety measures while traveling because there is a small risk of infection, even after vaccination.

While you are not likely to experience anything more than mild illness if you do experience what is being called a ‘breakthrough infection,’ you may be able to transmit the virus to others. As a precaution, you should self-monitor for symptoms while traveling and once you return.

In Search of International Adventure

For those who are fully vaccinated and hoping to travel internationally, the CDC notes that global travel poses additional risk, even after vaccination. Travelers should pay close attention to COVID-19 conditions at their destination, including the prevalence of new variants.

The agency offers the following tips:

  • Understand and follow all airline and destination requirements related to travel, mask-wearing, testing and quarantine, which may differ from U.S. requirements.
  • Check the current COVID-19 situation at the destination.
  • Wear a mask over the nose and mouth on planes and other forms of public transportation when traveling into, within or outside of the U.S., and while indoors at U.S. transportation hubs, such as airports.
  • Follow all recommendations and requirements at the destination, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

Additionally, all international air passengers coming to the U.S., including U.S. citizens and fully vaccinated people, are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 3 days before travel, or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past 3 months before they board a flight to the U.S. People should also self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, and isolate and get tested if they develop any symptoms.

What’s in Your Wallet?

Fully vaccinated people may be wondering if they are required to carry their vaccine card with them while traveling. Although a global “vaccine passport” has not yet been created, many companies are working with local governments to build applications that will allow vaccinated people to show digital proof without having to carry the original paper vaccination card.

Until then, some destinations and travel companies, such as cruise lines, may require people to show their analog — or paper — proof. People should also take a photo of their card — both front and back — and keep that on any digital device, such as a smartphone, that they carry with them.

The world really is opening up, but particularly for people who are fully vaccinated. I strongly encourage those who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine to reconsider and get vaccinated. Not only will it provide greater options for travel and other activities, but it will also help to keep yourself, your loved ones and all those around you healthy and safe from severe illness, and finally bring the pandemic, and all the related restrictions, to an end.

Dr. David Spees is a board-certified family medicine physician and the director of travel clinics for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.