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Is it safe to travel as the delta variant spreads? Here's what the experts say

Aug. 16, 2021
8 min read
Woman listening to music while flying on an airplane wearing a facemask
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After more than a year, it seemed the coronavirus crisis was taking a turn: The number of COVID-19 cases was dropping, and countries were reopening to droves of Americans eager to travel this summer.

According to AAA Travel, bookings increased at least 11% over 2019, and more people were planning trips for Labor Day through 2022.

But with the resurgence of COVID-19 cases, due in part to the emergence of the delta variant, many travelers are wondering if they need to cancel their travel plans. So, TPG consulted several experts to find out exactly what people need to know if they're traveling as the delta variant continues to spread.

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Why is the delta variant so dangerous?

The delta variant is roughly twice as infectious as earlier COVID-19 variants. So, vaccination rates that would have previously been sufficient to stop the spread of COVID-19 are not enough anymore. And, because delta is twice as transmissible, far more young people, low-risk individuals and children can develop severe symptoms.

By far, the greatest risk is individuals who aren't vaccinated. This is because they are far more likely to catch the delta variant, and they spread it more frequently and with much higher viral loads.

That means they're much more likely to catch delta, and then make others sick.

"Current trends suggest that anyone not vaccinated will catch delta," said Dr. Brad Bowman, chief medical officer of Healthgrades (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures). "And fully vaccinated people may catch and spread Delta. So, people need to be very careful to minimize all exposure."

Vaccination greatly reduces the risk

Although vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the delta variant, the vaccine is extremely effective (around 95%, according to Dr. Julie Fischer, associate research professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University) at protecting against severe illness.

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This means vaccinated travelers can move about with significantly reduced risk, especially if other preventative measures, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, are being used.

But vaccination status is important for several other reasons when it comes to travel.

To start, many destinations -- especially international -- require proof of vaccination to enter. And more domestic cities are requiring the same documentation to enter indoor establishments. So, logistically, it's much more difficult to travel if you're not vaccinated.

And specific destinations (both domestic and international) may be riskier due to the vaccination rates in those areas.

"It doesn't mean across the board we need to cancel all travel," Fischer told TPG. "But it does mean we need to be cognizant of what transmission levels are at our communities and our risk of being exposed, especially in indoor spaces."

It's important to note that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says fully vaccinated people can travel domestically with little risk. For unvaccinated individuals, however, they advise delaying travel.

Lastly, since vaccinated individuals can still be asymptomatically infected and transmit the virus to others, they need to consider who might be exposed. If you're going to be in a location with unvaccinated people without the same protections, you could get them sick.

This is true for your destination and when you return home, which is why proper testing is key.

What to know about COVID-19 testing and travel

Logistically speaking, many international destinations will require a negative COVID-19 test from 72 hours (or sooner) before arrival. This is true even if you're vaccinated for some places — something we're seeing more of as the delta variant spreads.

Plus, all travelers flying to the U.S. from abroad are still required to have a negative COVID-19 test result taken no more than three days before travel, or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past three months, before they're allowed to board their flight.

With all of this testing, you might think you're safe to travel. But, you still have to think about the life cycle of the virus.

"Testing is helpful because it can identify someone infected and capable of transmitting the virus to others before they get on the flight," said Fischer. "But, if you were exposed within those 72 hours before getting on the plane, you could transmit the virus to others three to five days later."

That's why the CDC recommends that even fully vaccinated travelers get tested three to five days after traveling internationally. Fischer recommends getting tested in that period even if traveling domestically in crowded locations or COVID-19 hot spots.

Current mask guidance for travelers

While planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation and transportation hubs such as airports in the U.S. require masks, many locations have removed mask mandates.

But the experts agreed it's a good idea to wear one anyway when indoors or in crowded locations. The CDC even recently updated its recommendation on mask-wearing, advising people to wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates.

"Masks should be at the top of your packing list since guidelines and requirements will vary from place to place," Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, told TPG in a statement. "Also, bring along disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and a thermometer to help protect and monitor your health."

Fischer noted that N95 masks are highly effective at protecting people against catching and transmitting the virus to others. If you don't have an N95, cloth masks with filters or double masking significantly reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Dr. David Edwards, FEND inventor (a drug-free nasal hygiene spray) and pioneering aerosol scientist, told us that travelers should ask a series of questions to characterize the risk and need for a mask.

"Is there good air circulation in cars, buses, trains, planes and stations where you will be traveling?" Edwards asked. "Is the social environment a vaccine-only and/or mask-mandate environment? The same question relates to duration and proximity to strangers — close and long duration is much worse than close, short duration ... Answers to these questions characterize the risk."

He added, "Avoid anything that enhances the risk that [a] virus in the air will enter your lungs."

The CDC has said that universal masking during travel, in addition to the airflow and filtration on airplanes, means most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights.

Traveling with children

Families with kids who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine face additional challenges.

According to the CDC, children should follow the same recommendations as unvaccinated people. That means choosing safer travel options such as a road trip or direct flight. Additionally, families should avoid crowds and close contact with unvaccinated people who are in their households.

"I would still recommend masking children indoors and encourage outdoor activities for all unvaccinated kids," Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director at Gramercy Pediatrics, told TPG. "If you are traveling with children, check to see what your school's policy is regarding travel and re-entry to school. Plus, make sure you pack masks and have good quality surgical masks or even N95s for flights."

Remember that everyone over the age of 2 is required to wear masks on airplanes and in airports.

Top tips for traveling safely

Since the delta variant is so contagious and even vaccinated individuals can spread the virus, it's impossible to have zero risk when traveling. But there are several ways to reduce that risk, according to the experts.

Consider alternative transportation methods

Can you drive instead of fly? If you have to fly, is there any way to choose lightly traveled routes?

Avoid crowded locations

Large crowds are known to spread the virus. So, try to stay away from large gatherings both indoors and outdoors. Basic social distancing measures are key.

Opt for outdoor activities

Generally, being outside reduces your risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 thanks to natural airflow and easier social distancing. If you can, choose activities that take place in the open air.

Mask up

By now, experts know that masking is incredibly effective at reducing the spread of the virus. Even if locations don't have a mask mandate, it's best to wear one indoors and in crowded places. If you're unvaccinated or have unvaccinated children, regular mask usage should be the norm.

Get tested

Even if you're vaccinated and at low risk of getting sick, you could still spread the virus to unvaccinated people. That's why it's recommended that you get tested three to five days after traveling if you're planning to be around a higher-risk individual.

Bottom line

"Ultimately, whether and how to travel is a very personal decision," said Hall. "In light of the delta variant, Americans are still traveling and can do so safely if they take proper precautions. Travelers should follow CDC guidance related to vaccines, mask-wearing and other recommendations to help protect themselves and others."

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.