The recent approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children means families had to act fast to get their offspring fully vaccinated before the holidays. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recipients are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine — the only vaccine currently available to children under 12 years old.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in October found that 27% of parents of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 planned to get their children vaccinated right away. Meanwhile, 33% of parents said they would “wait and see,” and another 30% said they definitely would not get their children vaccinated.
If your child won’t be fully vaccinated in time for holiday travel — or if you have children who are too young to get the vaccine — you may be hesitant to book flights or hotels this season. Should you plan holiday travel if your kids aren’t yet fully in the clear? Here are some considerations when planning your holiday travel with unvaccinated kids.
Questions to consider before booking your holiday travel
Planning travel with unvaccinated family members is all about managing the risk. Before you book your family holiday travel, think about your answers to these questions:
Does anyone you're planning to spend the holidays with have an underlying health condition?
Having an underlying health condition is a red flag for a potentially bad outcome for children and adults who catch COVID-19, according to the CDC. If any family member you'd be traveling with has a condition that puts them at increased risk, you might be better off skipping holiday travel this year.
If you're visiting relatives or friends for the holidays, consider their health conditions as well. While the people you're traveling with may be healthy, if you (or your not-fully-vaccinated children) come down with COVID-19 during your trip, you may expose others to it; anyone who is immunocompromised could get very sick.
Where are you traveling to?
Some parts of the country have been hit harder than others by COVID-19. Picking a destination that has fewer active cases and stronger preventive measures can reduce your overall risk.
Is there a mask mandate in the state you're traveling to? And do locals and tourists follow mask rules? Our family has often felt safer traveling abroad than within the U.S. due to strict mask mandates, frequent temperature checks and access to hand sanitizer every time we enter a hotel or restaurant — not to mention the COVID testing requirements that many countries mandate before you can board your plane.
You hope that no one gets sick while traveling, but destinations that have ICU bed availability provide more opportunities for care if someone falls ill. And having a travel insurance policy that covers treatment for COVID is a must in today's travel environment.
If you're visiting a destination outside the country and you catch COVID-19, you'll be required to isolate for 10 days before being eligible to return to the U.S. Some hotels offer free stays for quarantine if you come down with COVID during your stay, but many do not. In that case, you'll be stuck paying those extra costs out-of-pocket.
Lee Huffman and his daughter Scarlett flying home from The Bahamas. Photo by Lee Huffman
How are you traveling?
The method you use to travel has a direct effect on your potential exposure to COVID. Road trips in your own vehicle tend to have the least risk since you can minimize contact with other people. By comparison, when you fly or travel by train, you're in a confined space with other travelers for hours at a time. Plus, you're often waiting in common areas before departure and touching items (like armrests and bathroom sinks) that may not be as clean as you'd like.
While flying to a far-off destination sounds enticing, many travelers are settling for road trips so they can control the experience better.
What activities do you have planned?
When planning your activities for a family-friendly holiday vacation in the COVID era (yes, we’re still in it), select options that have a lower risk of exposure. Outdoor activities, where you have plenty of space and minimal interaction with others, reduce your chances of catching not only COVID, but other illnesses too. Waiting in lines for amusement park rides and sitting in a theater generally pose a higher risk than hiking, skiing and other nature activities.
Last winter, my kids and I took a road trip to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to visit Mammoth Cave National Park and other local attractions. While we did tour the cave with a group, we were able to keep our distance from other visitors.
Timothy and Scarlett at the entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park. Photo by Lee Huffman
Tips to keep your family safe during holiday travel
The CDC recommends that people delay travel until they are fully vaccinated. If you do decide to travel during the holidays with children under 5 or ones who won't yet be fully vaccinated, follow these tips to reduce the risk of catching or spreading COVID:
- Test for COVID before AND after your trip. CDC guidelines for unvaccinated travelers recommend getting a viral test one to three days before your trip, even if you don't feel sick; asymptomatic people can still spread COVID-19 to others. Take another viral test three to five days after you return from your trip, and self-quarantine for a full seven days; it may take a few days for symptoms to appear after exposure.
- Bring extra masks and hand sanitizer. When you're traveling with kids, masks break or get lost on a regular basis. Keep extra masks in your carry-on bag so you're prepared for the inevitable. Having hand sanitizer in your bag makes it easier to stay germ-free in between hand washing.
- Have a backup plan. Situations can change drastically between your booking date and your departure date. Stay informed and be willing to switch to another destination as Plan B (or even Plan C) if your preferred destination becomes a COVID transmission hot spot.
- Use airport lounges in between flights. If you are traveling by air, use your credit card benefits to gain access to a lounge. Airport lounges have limited crowds and generally allow travelers to spread out. This extra space allows for social distancing, with the added benefit of complimentary food, drinks, Wi-Fi and more.
- Get the flu shot. Even though some children are not eligible for the COVID vaccine, the flu shot is widely available for people of all ages. Getting the flu shot will reduce your chances of getting ill. The healthier your body is, the better it can be at fighting off other infections.
Should you plan family holiday travel if your kids aren’t yet fully vaccinated?
Many families will be traveling this holiday season. Traveling with children who are not fully vaccinated is a personal choice. While nothing is 100% effective, you can take steps to minimize your risks of catching or spreading the virus. Get tested before you travel and upon your return, and stay flexible with your travel plans. You might consider buying travel insurance to cover medical costs and transportation home if you or your kids get sick during your trip.