Vaccinated travelers are ready to pack their bags: Here’s where they’re going first

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Debbie Dyson, a retired teacher living in Indianapolis, Indiana, got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine a few days before turning 65 and wasted no time turning her attention to travel.

“As soon as that shot was in my arm, I was online planning my first trip,” she said. Her first priority: Rebooking three trips she had to cancel last year, the first of which will be to Maui in March. She has also rescheduled a road trip out West with friends to visit Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and other national parks and monuments.

Dyson’s third canceled trip was a bucket list item, a transatlantic cruise from Spain to New York, that she’ll revisit in 2022. “That one was a bucket list trip that it just broke my heart to cancel, but I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be getting on a cruise ship again and I don’t know when Europe will be open to us so that one will take a little longer.”

Until then, she’s busy making lists. A trip to Egypt, Israel and the Middle East she was thinking about before the pandemic is back on the table, she says, and the Galápagos Islands are definitely in her future. “I want to go somewhere I can see penguins in the wild.”

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Dyson is in good company as she makes her travel plans.

More than 41 million Americans (about 12.5% of the population) have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 16 million have been fully vaccinated, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in mid-February.

And while the government now estimates it will be mid-May to June before the vaccine will become available to all age groups, the U.S. is now administering 1.8 million shots a day. Canada is now lagging behind the U.S., with close to a million Canadians having had one dose and approximately 360,000 being fully vaccinated as of Feb. 17.

Some states are far ahead of others; in Alaska, for example, 18% of the population has had one shot and close to 9% has had both. And in Connecticut, New Mexico and West Virginia, more than 14% have had their first vaccine dose.

Currently, the vaccine is available to health care workers, those working or residing in senior long-term care facilities and people over the age of 65. Some states have made the vaccine available to additional groups, such as teachers, grocery store employees and people with underlying health conditions, and these categories continue to expand.

Vaccinated travelers are raring to go

hot air balloon at Death Valley national Park
Hot air balloon at Mesquire Dunes at Death Valley National Park (Photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images)

People working with travelers to plan their trips say they’re stunned by the increase in demand from vaccinated travelers so soon into the year.

“Starting early in January, the phones have been ringing off the hook,” said Frank Marini, president of Yankee Leisure Group, which owns and operates Amtrak Vacations and Railbookers. ”It’s been amazing to me the way people have been calling as soon as they know they’re getting the vaccine,” he said. “We’re hearing, `I’ve got my date set’ or `I’ve got my first shot and I’m ready,’” he added. “People are excited, they’ve been waiting a year, and now [that] they feel safe they can’t wait to go somewhere.”

National parks are still a top trend going into the spring and summer, with people planning itineraries that include numerous national parks and monuments, he said. “Everyone wants to go a national park destination — that’s definitely where they’re headed this summer.”

Alaska is also popular with travelers replacing boat trips with overland travel.

Related: Complete guide to visiting Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park

Florida-based writer and photographer Debi Lander isn’t waiting for summer but will travel to Death Valley National Park and Valley of Fire State Park in March and hopes to visit New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia in May.

“I also need to visit family when rules allow,” she said, noting that despite having received both her shots, she would still need to quarantine to visit her daughter in Massachusetts.

Lander has also made a reservation to go to Bali at the end of October. “But, of course, everything depends on the pandemic situation and rules.”

Domestic travel is going to dominate through most of 2021, experts like Marini say, with international travel beginning to pick up in the fall and then spike in 2022.

“The rebound in international travel will be much slower and more gradual through 2021, but 2022 looks to be huge based on what we’re seeing now,” Marini said. And it’s not just the number of trips that’s notable, Marini says, but the size, with people planning to stay longer, go more places and combine different modes of travel, such as a cruise with a train trip.

“We’re seeing people extending trips, even trips they had postponed from before. They might be rebooking a river cruise, he said, “but customizing and adding on to it — like they might decide after they get off in [Basel, Switzerland] they want to take the Glacier Express.”

Trips are increasing not just in length but in price.

“People are ready to splurge a little, whether it’s upgrading to a four- or five-star room, opting for a roomette on a train or choosing luxury rail like the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” Marini said. “We’re seeing much more on the upgrade side than we have seen before.”

Related: Making up for lost time: 2021 is gearing up to be an epic year for travel

But they’re still confused about the rules

La Digue Seychelles
Anse Source d’Argent at La Digue, Seychelles (Photo by robertharding/Getty Images)

One of the biggest question marks for travelers right now is how border policies will change to accommodate people who’ve been vaccinated. Which destinations will require proof of vaccination as a sole criterion for entry, and what type of proof will be required?

Among the first to welcome vaccinated visitors of all nationalities are Cyprus, Georgia and the Seychelles, and more are joining the list. But with the European Union still closed to Americans, countries such as Romania, Estonia and Poland, now open with proof of vaccine, remain off-limits. It’s a complicated process to determine which countries you can go to if you’re vaccinated.

Some cruise lines are also beginning to announce plans to require proof of vaccination.

Coming to the rescue are several apps currently under development that’ll help you create a so-called immunity or health passport by inputting vaccination records and tests.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is in the process of launching the IATA Travel Pass, designed to help travelers research the requirements of their chosen destination as well as share their tests and vaccination results. It’s currently being tested by various airlines, including British Airways, Singapore Airlines and Emirates.

Another such app, Common Pass, is being supported by the World Economic Forum and JetBlue and United Airlines. It promises to be available in the iTunes and Google Play app stores by the end of April.

And some destinations are already creating their own proof-of-vaccine entry programs for travelers who’ve had their shots. Denmark, for example, announced in mid-February that plans were well underway to launch a coronavirus digital passport by the end of the month.

Also, though being vaccinated means you may no longer need to quarantine after exposure to the virus, according to a recent CDC announcement, it doesn’t currently exempt you from having to present a negative COVID-19 test to return to the U.S. after traveling abroad.

Looking ahead to more certain times

Disney Castaway Cay
Disney’s private island Castaway Cay (Photo by David Roark/Disney Cruise Line)

With so much about international travel still in flux, many people are still in a holding pattern when it comes to making concrete arrangements or choosing dates for long-distance trips.

But some are getting close, like Anne Marie Panoringan of Orange County, California, who has had her first shot of the Moderna vaccine and will get the second in early March. Panoringan is putting plans in place for a cruise in the Western Caribbean with her parents next fall.

This will be Panoringan and her husband’s second cruise with her parents — they went on their first, an “insanely cool” 16-night voyage from Rome to Dubai, in December 2019, just before the start of the pandemic.

“It was my very first cruise, and for a first experience, especially given the circumstances, it was fantastic,” Panoringan said, noting that the safety precautions that were in place even back then gave her confidence in cruising. “My mom was a nurse for 35 years, and I personally feel like if she and my dad, who are in their 70s, are comfortable enough, then I am too.”

Panoringan hasn’t seen her parents, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, since that trip more than a year ago and may not see them until the Caribbean cruise. While she and her husband miss going to Las Vegas, a favorite destination, she says they probably won’t venture far before fall.

“We’ll be cautious no matter what happens,” she said. “Just the fact that we got the vaccine doesn’t mean we’ll be dancing around, but we do feel much safer.”

Like Panoringan, Debbi Landsberger says she’s “still a little nervous” about resuming travel, but is beginning to make plans with an understanding that things can change at any time.

After getting vaccinated with her husband, a physician, and her daughter, a third-year medical student, Landsberger says she was “ready to get out of Los Angeles” and happy to spend a week in Mammoth Lakes. “We were wearing two masks and a balaclava while skiing,” she said.

While the Landsbergers are eager to travel internationally, they still feel worried about getting sick abroad. “We’re talking about going to Hawaii or the Maldives at some point and my husband is going to Chile in August with a group of guys to ski,” Landsberger said. “But of course, everything may change if the virus mutates and the vaccine doesn’t work.”

Not everyone travels just for fun, of course.

Laboratory clinician Monette Rockymore was happy when her status as a health care worker allowed her to get the vaccine early and resume her travels in the U.S. and abroad as an ambassador for United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), raising awareness about the importance of organ donation. “Traveling feels important for these worthwhile projects,” she said. “I take next-level precautions and am grateful that being safe to travel allows me to continue this good work.”

An opportunity to celebrate

(Photo by Brett HemmingsCity of Sydney/Getty Images)

Getting vaccinated may be cause for celebration in itself, but people are planning trips to celebrate a host of other occasions, too — like all those anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, weddings and other celebrations postponed from last year.

“Reunion travel, special occasion trips, these are big this year,” said Frank Marini of Yankee Leisure Group. “We’re seeing a lot of people traveling for delayed celebrations.”

But even when there’s no occasion to mark, the timing feels special.

“When people call to book trips now, you can feel the enthusiasm,” he said. “They’ve cleared that hurdle and they’re so relieved, it’s like they won something.”

Featured image by Mirko Vitali/EyeEm/Getty Images

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