Vaccines could be available to all adults by May: Is it time to start booking trips?

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President Biden on Tuesday said that the United States should have enough coronavirus vaccines to vaccinate all Americans by the end of May.

This is ostensibly good news for a battered nation that has seen more than 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. Even with the vaccine, there’s still much to be done before planning travel — such as waiting two weeks after being vaccinated to hit the road.

Two of the three available vaccines in the U.S. — Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — require two shots taken within 21 days and a month apart, respectively. Current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends travelers still quarantine after traveling, regardless of whether they test negative or have been vaccinated.

And, we don’t yet have enough data to definitively say how effective each vaccine is against new variants of COVID-19 that presumably mutated in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

There are definitely questions about when travel will return in earnest but — if we’re all vaccinated by June 1 — it opens the possibility of travel plans this summer, fall and beyond. Let’s dig into some specifics.

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Domestic travel

Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. (Photo by Feng Wei Photography/Getty Images)

Even with the majority of Americans vaccinated, don’t expect your domestic travel to look like it did last March. Federal mask mandates are still in place for airports, airplanes and public transportation.

It might be a little easier to move around, but U.S. destinations with pre-travel testing requirements, like Hawaii, are unlikely to lift those restrictions for travelers who aren’t eligible. That said, Hawaii will allow you to skip its mandatory 10-day quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test result from an approved testing partner taken within 72 hours of arrival.

Related: Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Hawaii right now

Airlines like Delta Air Lines have middle seats blocked through the end of April, but it’s unclear at this time whether the policy will be extended again.

The CDC’s policy around travel hasn’t changed much, however.

Though the CDC is still recommending that people avoid travel at this time, the agency also has specific recommendations for getting tested before departure; avoiding crowds throughout the travel process; and self-quarantining for seven days after travel, even if you test negative for COVID-19 prior to returning home and again shortly thereafter.

The CDC also says that travelers should get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 once eligible and then wait two weeks after getting the second dose to travel.

But based on Biden’s announcement, should you book future travel?

Now could be a great time, especially if you want to use miles or pay cash to book future trips, as several airlines have updated their programs to allow members to cancel and deposit awards for free, or reward members for changing instead of outright canceling.

And if you have concerns about travel even after being vaccinated, you might want to consider what tons of travelers have already done: explore the great outdoors. National parks, beaches, RV travel and road trips are all solid options to avoid coming into contact with many people.

Here are some domestic trip-planning resources:

International travel

Adventures by Disney family group tours
(Photo by Chloe Rice/Adventures by Disney)

Booking international trips is still tricky since Americans aren’t allowed to visit many foreign destinations at the moment. However, that may change as more individuals across the globe are vaccinated for COVID-19.

Countries such as Iceland, Poland, the Seychelles and Thailand all plan to welcome visitors who have already been vaccinated. That’s why it’s important to keep your CDC vaccination card handy and add that information to any digital health passport apps that your destination or airline is using to vet travelers’ documentation.

Related: You finally got vaccinated: Here’s what you’ll need for a digital health passport

In the meantime, your best bet is to book travel to places that are currently allowing entry — usually with a negative COVID-19 test taken within a certain amount of time before departure. Some destinations may also require a test upon arrival and a short quarantine until a negative result is returned.

Here’s more information about traveling internationally:

Close to home, Americans can visit Bermuda, the Bahamas and many Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Barths, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Turks and Caicos and others.

Rules vary by island but most require a negative COVID-19 test taken a few days prior to departure. Other destinations, such as the Bahamas, require mandatory insurance that would cover a COVID-19 diagnosis while traveling.

Cruises

(Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

There’s been almost no cruising in the world since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic in early 2020. And it’s likely to be many more months before cruising resumes in a meaningful way — even if vaccines become widely available by May.

What that means, on a practical level, is that you should proceed cautiously when booking a cruise for the summer, even if it appears that the coronavirus crisis will be winding down by then.

For more cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s new cruise newsletter

As of now, you still can book sailings for the summer on a wide variety of ships and itineraries at most major lines. But if you do, you run the risk that those sailings will be canceled, perhaps on short notice, throwing your summer vacation plans into disarray at the last minute.

Already, most major cruise lines have canceled all or most of their departures worldwide into early June, and they have hinted that more cancellations could be coming.

Related: This small line is the first to cancel all 2021 sailings

In North America, at least, most major cruise lines can’t restart operations until they get approval from the CDC — something that is unlikely to happen for at least three more months, maybe longer. The agency has laid out a roadmap for a return to cruising that requires cruise lines to conduct test cruises and apply for a Conditional Sailing Certificate before returning to operations — a process that could take about 90 days and has yet to begin.

MSC Grandiosa
A small number of cruise vessels have resumed sailings in Europe in recent months, including the MSC Cruises ship MSC Grandiosa. But, for now, the trips aren’t open to Americans. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)

But even if the CDC gives approval to cruise lines to restart operations over the summer, major cruise lines are unlikely to bring back all their ships at once. Top executives at all the major cruise brands catering to North Americans, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have said they initially will resume cruising with just a few ships. They then will add back more vessels to operations slowly over several months.

The bottom line is that cruising is unlikely to resume in earnest until at least the fall or even the winter. Indeed, some cruise line executives have said recently that, even if all goes right, they don’t expect to have all their ships back in operation until the end of the year or even early 2022.

One exception to this timetable is in the market for very small vessels that sail on U.S. rivers and along U.S. coastal waterways. Small cruise operators such as American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company that operate small riverboats and coastal vessels in U.S. waters are not subject to CDC regulation. They’re free to restart operations as soon as they get approval from the port towns that they visit and state regulatory agencies.

Some of these smaller lines hope to restart operations as early as this month.

When cruising does resume, it is likely to be with a long list of new safety measures, including a mask-wearing requirement, new social distancing rules and restrictions on passenger movements in ports. Some lines have announced they’ll require all passengers to have been vaccinated for COVID-19. But it’s unclear how long some of the safety measures will remain in place. Cruise executives have said their response plan will evolve with the course of the virus itself.

Booking a group tour isn’t as risky as you may think

Adventures by Disney river cruise
(Photo courtesy of Adventures by Disney)

Sometimes, an intimate guided tour or group trip is the best way to explore a particular destination. Leaning on the expertise of a tour packager can be exactly what you need for your first safari, trip down the Amazon or visits to hard-to-reach destinations like Western Australia’s Kimberley region.

You benefit from long-term relationships with the best local guides, museums, attractions, restaurants and hotels. Extra perks are often part of the package, from room upgrades to VIP access to special collections at the hottest museums to Champagne tastings at the most exclusive vineyard in the country.

But, booking a tour can be a big financial commitment and one that usually means making a hefty deposit and paying in full long before your departure date. That’s how it used to be, but the pandemic has caused a sea change in the industry.

Tour companies have instituted terms that give you more flexibility in terms of postponing or canceling your trip. Kensington Tours, for example, now lets you change or cancel your plans up to seven days before departure. If you book with Trafalgar, all you need to do is put down a $200 deposit. If you change those plans within 30 days of booking, you get that money back. And, you can change your travel plans — move the departure date or even the destination — within 30 days of your trip.

Today’s tour packages can also help facilitate necessary COVID-19 testing in some instances when it’s an entry requirement of the destination(s) you’re visiting.

But, customer service and support are, perhaps, the most compelling reasons to book a tour in a mid- to post-pandemic world though. When things do come up, you’re not on your own trying to amend plans or fix something mid-catastrophe. Your tour company — with the might of many customers behind it — is there to jump into action to correct problems and rescue a trip that might have gone very bad otherwise.

If you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 (or have an upcoming appointment), you may feel comfortable booking a trip further out in 2021, when more destinations may be open to Americans. And, if something changes, you’ll have the flexibility to amend your plans.

Closer to home destinations, such as Costa Rica or Western Europe, may be better gambles than places like Australia, which has signaled it plans to keep its borders closed for a while longer, or South Africa, where a new COVID-19 variant that we don’t yet know enough about is still a big problem.

Bottom line

More of us are getting vaccinated each and every day. Now may be the time to book flexible/changeable travel plans. Some of us will still stick close to home, while others will have the desire to go the distance. No matter where you travel in 2021, it’s important to do so responsibly. Check out these steps to keep yourself and others safe while traveling during the age of coronavirus.

Featured image by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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