If you’re a fully vaccinated adult, odds are you’ve started making travel plans for this summer or later in 2021. But for those with children, it’s not quite so simple.
As of now, there are no COVID-19 vaccines approved for children under 12, which means families are left wondering if it’s safe to travel with their little ones and how to do so while minimizing risk.
“The answer to these questions ultimately comes down to parents’ overall risk tolerance and level of comfort; however, there are factors that should be considered when making a decision to take a trip with your children if they are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Vivek Cherian, an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System.
So what exactly should parents know about traveling with their unvaccinated kids? Below, Cherian and other experts share their advice.
Assess Underlying Health Risks
“I think every family will have to weigh the risks and the benefits of traveling with their unvaccinated children,” said Dr. Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. “A family that has a child with underlying health conditions may not feel as comfortable traveling as compared to a family who has children that do not currently have medical conditions.”
While the risk of developing serious illness and complications from COVID-19 is generally lower in children than in adults, it’s still a major concern for those with underlying health conditions.
“Early evidence suggests children with diabetes, obesity, lung diseases or who are immunosuppressed may be at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” said Dr. Diane Kantaros, an internist and chief quality officer at Nuvance Health. “We are also still learning if there are any potential long-term complications from having COVID-19, regardless of severity of illness.”
If your child has an underlying health condition, you may consider taking a more cautious approach to travel for now. Their risk level can affect the type of trip you plan, accommodations, timing and other variables.
“Read the updated CDC guidelines, and talk with your child’s pediatrician to discuss any concerns,” recommended Cheryl Nelson, a travel preparedness expert and founder of Prepare with Cher. “The pediatrician can address any underlying health conditions that your child may have and the risks associated with traveling with certain conditions.”
Research Your Destination’s COVID-19 Situation
“I would ask what exactly is going on with the virus at your destination,” Cherian advised. “You can view various locations on the CDC’s website to get an idea of the risk assessment level for COVID-19 at your destination. This is also an important step to learn any specific requirements or local regulations at your destination regarding quarantine or testing.”
You’ll want to avoid vacation spots with notably high COVID-19 case numbers and variant rates. This is especially true for places with limited health care infrastructure, which may become easily overwhelmed amid big outbreaks. Look with a critical eye.
“The case rates may look like they are declining, but that is because when you take the number of cases and divide by the population (vaccinated and unvaccinated), the numbers look good,” said Robin L. Dillon-Merrill, a professor of information management specializing in decision and risk analysis at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “However, if you take the number of cases and divide by only the unvaccinated population, the rates are as bad as ever. I would advise that the first thing you consider is how much virus is circulating in the community of the travel destination, and if it is still high, don’t travel there.”
Looking at the vaccination rates in your potential destinations can also be a helpful way to compare vacation spots.
“The more people who are vaccinated, the lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” Nelson noted.
Consider Your Mode Of Travel
“Driving is always ideal, as it’s a contained environment. And with younger unvaccinated kids, it may be difficult to keep masks on for longer flights ― or if they’re under the age of 2, they can’t be wearing masks in the first place,” Cherian said, noting that you come into contact with fewer people by traveling in your personal vehicle.
If driving isn’t a practical option, he suggested opting for shorter plane rides to limit possible issues with kids keeping their masks on for long stretches of time. Keeping extra masks in your carry-on can also provide a good backup option in case they wind up lost or broken.
“If taking public transportation is necessary for your trip, check with the airline, bus or train company about their specific COVID-19 testing requirements and choose a company that is adhering to cleanliness and social distancing protocols,” advised Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, a family physician and regional clinical director at Carbon Health. She also offered health tips for road trips in your own car.
“When making a stop along your drive to eat or use the restroom, wipe down surfaces with disinfectant wipes and make sure your whole family washes their hands or uses hand sanitizer regularly,” she said.
The type of lodging you select can also reduce the COVID-19 risk for your unvaccinated little ones.
“With unvaccinated children, the safest thing you can ultimately do (short of not traveling) is to choose a vacation where you limit as many variables as possible. Going to a beach and choosing to rent a home instead of staying at a hotel for example will limit contact with other individuals with an unknown vaccination status,” Cherian said.
“When it comes to lodging, renting a house for your family rather than staying at a hotel, where you may run into others in the lobby and shared spaces, tends to be the safer option,” echoed Curry-Winchell. “If you will be gathering with your extended family, consider the vaccination status of your loved ones, especially those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, before visiting.”
Determine The Activities Involved
“Another factor to consider is what activities you will be doing at your destination that will affect your exposure level,” Cherian noted. “For example, will there be mostly outdoor activities, and will you need to eat in large, crowded restaurants, or can you cook in a kitchen in a rental house.”
Hiking or sitting outside at an uncrowded beach carry much less risk than doing indoor activities like going to the movies or other entertainment venues inside. If you must dine out, look for a restaurant with outdoor seating. The idea is to minimize the number of potentially unvaccinated and COVID-19-positive people you’re exposing your family to.
“During your trip, I recommend opting for outdoor activities like going on hikes or bike rides, organizing a scavenger hunt in the garden, or planning a picnic,” Curry-Winchell said. “If the weather calls for staying indoors, activities like cookie decorating, reading or watching movies are a great way to keep your kids busy. Lastly, if going to a public or shared space where you won’t know others’ vaccination status, it’s a good idea to bring your mask.”
If you decide to go forward with your trip with your unvaccinated children, it’s still important to take the proper health and safety precautions, like masking up and practicing good hygiene.
“As a mother myself, I feel confident and safe traveling with my unvaccinated children,” Curry-Winchell said. “We have an open dialogue about abiding by health guidelines like social distancing, wearing a mask, avoiding spending time with people who aren’t feeling well, and most importantly, implementing diligent hand washing habits.”
Try to stay away from large groups of people and keep exposure to others outdoors when possible. Carry hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes to clean high-touch surfaces in airplanes or rental cars.
“We’ve all now been living through a pandemic for well over a year, so my last piece of advice would be to remember your lifestyle prior to being vaccinated, and keep that in mind, because though you may have the level of protection by being vaccinated, your unvaccinated children do not,” Cherian said.
Considering health and taking precautions will allow your family to maximize the joy and relaxation of a trip away from home, even if it’s just a short car ride away.
“While being mindful of safety is critical this summer, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to have fun,” Curry-Winchell said. “After more than a year of the pandemic, taking some time off and having a change of scenery is beneficial for you and your kids’ mental health. If you have any doubts about the safety of your travel plans, don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care providers or pediatrician.”