As vaccination rates inch upward, Americans are beginning to travel again. More than 10 times as many passengers passed through Transportation Security Administration screenings in the first week of April compared with the same period last year, a sign that some degree of normalcy is returning.
And travel this summer could get far busier.
“Right now, we’re still awash in cheap summer flights,” says Scott Keyes, founder of travel deals newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights. “But with vaccinations accelerating quickly and interest in travel spiking, cheap summer flights may not be available much longer.”
Yet the question of whether it’s safe to travel remains. Infection rates remain high, despite accelerating vaccination efforts. Even vaccinated individuals are realizing that they may not be in the clear to return to life — and travel — as normal.
How to travel safely
Getting fully vaccinated is the first step toward travel safety, but it’s not the last. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued updated guidelines for vaccinated travelers, giving the go-ahead to domestic travel. Yet it still recommends following the familiar protective protocols: wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and avoiding crowds.
“Even with a vaccine, the fundamentals of COVID-19 still apply,” Dr. Jessica Shepherd, chief medical officer of Verywell, an online health website, said in an email. “With travel, only the scenery changes, not the reality. As we move towards more of a normal life, it is important to approach it carefully rather than abruptly in lifestyle changes.”
If the CDC recommends maintaining social distance, is it safe to fly at all?
“This risk of transmission in airplanes is relatively low as the airflow in current jet airliners is much faster than normal indoor buildings and half of it is fresh air from outside,” she said.
How to travel cheaply
Although many factors will affect the cost of your potential vacation, one looms especially large: timing.
“I’d start booking as soon as possible,” says Matthew Kepnes, founder of Nomadic Matt, a budget travel website. “There’s a lot of deals out there right now, but they won’t last long…so my advice is to book soon.”
This strategy also takes advantage of a seismic shift in airline policies.
“Many travelers may have missed the fact that all full-service U.S. airlines have permanently gotten rid of change fees if you book a ticket in main economy, premium economy or business/first class,” Keyes says.
Aside from basic economy, most fares are now far more flexible than before the pandemic. This creates an incentive to book sooner, then rebook if plans fall through.
Experts also recommend looking for deals, rather than trying to travel to popular (and expensive) destinations. Average airfares might rise, but deals will remain if you hunt for them.
Then, there are always travel rewards, which have been piling up in many accounts throughout the pandemic and can offset the costs of travel — but only if you use them.
Where to travel
Before you book a flight overseas, know that most countries are still enforcing restrictions on U.S. travelers and that the CDC and State Department have issued blanket “do not travel” advisories for most countries world-wide, even for vaccinated travelers. That doesn’t mean international travel is off the table, but it does limit the options.
“There are countries like Mexico and Costa Rica where Americans can visit today without any COVID prerequisites like testing or quarantine,” Keyes says. “(And) there are a growing number of countries like Iceland and Belize that allow fully vaccinated Americans to bypass any testing or quarantine requirements that are mandatory for unvaccinated visitors.”
And many countries remain fully off-limits to U.S. travelers for the foreseeable future. Even countries that are allowing tourists, visitors are still subject to local restrictions and curfews. Do your research beforehand to make sure you can enjoy your destination once you get there.
The U.S. will still require a negative COVID-19 test three days or less before your return flight. So even if you are vaccinated, you will need to spend time at the end of your trip obtaining a negative test.
Some of these restrictions are bound to change this summer, but it’s impossible to know which ones, or when. So many travelers, including the experts, are again opting to travel domestically this year.
“I’m about to embark on a seven-week road trip around the U.S.” Kepnes says. “I’ll be focusing on national parks and outdoor adventures.”
More From NerdWallet
- What COVID-Era Travel Changes Are Likely Here to Stay?
- 5 Key Credit Card Strategies for International Travelers
- Overrated Travel Gear That You Should (Probably) Never Pack
Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samsambutdif.