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How will the covid-19 vaccines affect your travel?

With vaccines on the horizon, people are hopeful about returning to leisure travel in 2021.
With vaccines on the horizon, people are hopeful about returning to leisure travel in 2021. (iStock)

The news about coronavirus vaccines has given travelers hope that the pandemic will end in the foreseeable future and they’ll be able to hit the road. But how will the vaccines affect your travel next year?

In the short term, experts say, not much. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged Americans to avoid traveling for the holidays. Quarantines and other restrictions will probably last through the middle of next year as the vaccine is distributed. Leisure travel might resume later in 2021, and even then it is unlikely to return to normal.

Still, travelers are optimistic.

“The promising reports about two early covid-19 vaccines are music to travelers’ ears,” says Lisa Lee, a research professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Population Health Sciences and a former CDC official. But she doesn’t expect authorities to have fully distributed the vaccine until mid-2021 at the absolute earliest. So what to do in the meantime?

The pandemic has “weighed heavily” on travelers like Louis Brill, a retired pharmacist from Finksburg, Md.

“So far this year, my wife and I have canceled a spring trip to the Netherlands and Belgium, a June trip to Yellowstone, a September trip to Sicily and a November trip to Tahiti for a cruise,” he says. “We are both somewhat skeptical about the first covid vaccines that come out, although from what I have read about the Pfizer and Moderna ones, I am starting to feel a bit better about them.”

The Brills, both of whom are in their 60s, have put off their travel plans until late 2021, just to be safe. In September, they plan a redo of the trip to Italy, followed by a wine tour in France. They also rescheduled their Tahiti cruise for next December. This should give them time to be vaccinated.

“Realistically, it doesn’t seem like either vaccine will be scaled up to reach the general population much before May or June,” says Brill, who is both a traveler and a former health professional.

Public health experts say his timeline is about right. Karl Minges, who directs the University of New Haven’s master of public health program, warns travelers against booking a trip too soon. Although officials have suggested that some groups could receive a vaccine as early as December, he says, large-scale availability is unlikely before the second or third quarter of next year.

“So you may want to wait a month or two to make those plans, once we have a clearer idea of the true distribution time frame,” Minges says.

In the meantime, health professionals say coronavirus vaccines probably will not have much effect on travel. Expect strict mask requirements to remain on planes and in hotels and other public spaces, even for people who have been inoculated. Quarantines and similar restrictions are also likely to stay in place for months, until there’s widespread confidence in the new immune therapies. And that could take a while.

Even then, travelers may have to be vaccinated before visiting some destinations in 2021. If you’re traveling internationally, check the State Department and CDC websites, and you can verify that you have met passport, visa and other paperwork requirements through the International Air Transport Association’s website.

Bruce McIndoe, a senior adviser to WorldAware, a travel security company, says the emergence of effective vaccines is likely to open travel to limited destinations through defined travel corridors. “A travel corridor is a city pair where the governments have agreed-upon rules for travelers to move between the cities with minimal or no quarantine period versus the current 14-day requirements,” he says. Such travel corridors already exist in Europe.

Will vaccines encourage so much demand for travel next year that prices will spike? That’s unlikely, experts say. Mike McGarrity, a vice president at the security company Global Guardian, predicts a short-term surge in travel after the vaccine’s distribution gets underway.

“We will probably not see higher levels of global travel until there’s widespread vaccine distribution and confidence,” he adds. “Be mindful, any resumption of travel could be temporary, especially if we start to see the virus mutating or there is poor distribution of the vaccine.”

In other words, the bargains you see this year may last well into 2021 — and beyond.

So when is the right time to travel? It depends on your risk tolerance.

K.C. Rondello, a clinical associate professor of public health and emergency management at Adelphi University, says he would not make vacation plans until he knows that the vaccines work.

“The point at which I would feel comfortable making vacation plans for myself and my family is once the vaccines have been made available to all and the data begins to demonstrate population-level protection,” he says.

Travelers like Art Mayoff are also taking a cautious approach. Mayoff, a retired electronics company CEO from Benicia, Calif., is in a high-risk group. He says he expects to get a vaccine as soon as it is available, “but not quite trust it immediately.”

“As it stands now, my guess is we’ll wait to book nonessential and recreational travel until some point after the vaccine has been administered to a good portion of America,” he says. “We’ll watch the effectiveness for about six months or so, and if we see positive results, we’ll start booking travel again.”

But for some lower-risk travelers, tour operators expect to give the “all clear” a little earlier. Mark Whitman, founder of the adventure tour operator Mountain IQ, says he is operating under the assumption that vaccines will be widely available by March or April.

“We’re recommending travelers proceed with their spring break and summer travel plans,” Whitman says, “especially for tours that are likely to sell out, like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which requires a permit and sells out very quickly.”

Vaccines have changed the outlook for 2021, but it will be a slow and cautious return to leisure travel. It’s a process that may test your patience — but it could also save your life.

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