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Is it safe to travel yet? Current travel guidelines for COVID-19

Travel restrictions are still prominent across the US and other countries.

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James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Are you dreaming about getting on a plane and traveling after a year of being stuck at home during the pandemic? You're not alone. With the vaccine rolling out, we are getting closer to that reality. But whether or not you've already been vaccinated, widespread travel for everyone is going to take time.

In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that travelers boarding international flights to the US will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. This includes US citizens returning to the US after a trip, not just foreign travelers coming for a visit. 

The CDC also recommends that international travelers returning to the US test again three to five days after arrival and stay at home for seven days post-travel.

As countries keep changing and adding travel restrictions, many people with cabin fever are wondering: Is it safe to travel yet? The pandemic is not over, so the obvious answer is no, not really, but it's worth discussing the caveats in light of the CDC's recent air travel announcement. 

Is it safe to travel right now?

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Even with enhanced safety protocols, it's not 100% safe to travel.

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It's still not 100% safe to travel domestically or internationally, despite the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. While the vaccine offers a shred of hope, not enough people have been vaccinated to bring the US to herd immunity, and there's still risk of contracting the virus abroad. 

Becky Liu-Lastres, a professor of crisis management and risk management in tourism at Indiana University, explains that "the sense of perceived safety is highly subjective." 

"How an individual evaluates the situation is largely influenced by their personal experiences, their surroundings and their knowledge on the issue," Liu-Lastres says, so "people should take a look at the evidence, such as the number of cases [where they're going and coming from] and the potential health consequences of COVID-19, and then make the judgment."

Keep in mind that COVID-19 isn't the only risk of traveling right now. If you travel to an area with low ICU capacity because of high numbers of coronavirus cases and get in an accident that requires medical treatment or have some other life-threatening emergency, you may not be able to go to a hospital for treatment. Some states, including California, have issued warnings regarding ICU capacity and non-COVID-19, out-of-state travelers for those exact reasons.

When can we expect it to be safe to travel again?

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It may not be truly safe to travel again, especially internationally, until the majority of countries reach herd immunity.

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Most experts agree that it won't be 100% safe to travel domestically until the US reaches herd immunity, and that it won't be 100% safe to travel internationally until the country of origin and the destination both have herd immunity.

The vaccine rollout will help expedite the long road to herd immunity, although there's no telling when enough of the population will be vaccinated to actually reach it. (Dr. Anthony Fauci has said it could take until the end of 2021 to vaccinate all American adults, although President Joe Biden has promised vaccines for every American adult by May.)

It's not realistic, however, to ban all travel until all countries have herd immunity. That said, "as long as the situation is being managed, meaning that people are recovering and no new cases are being reported nationwide or globally, then we are probably safe to travel again," Liu-Lastres says. 

Can I travel internationally from the US?

It depends. Although the total number of international flights has been reduced during the pandemic, international travel is still happening -- but the fact that airlines are running flights doesn't automatically mean it's safe to travel out of the US. 

As with domestic travel, it's up to each traveler to weigh the risks of their situation, Liu-Lastres says, as well as check the safety protocols of the country you wish to visit.

Many countries have established their own policy on COVID-19 upon entry:

  • The UK requires travelers from the US to undertake a 14-day quarantine, unless they're an exempt traveler, which includes "high-value" travelers (e.g., elite athletes, performers), students and health care professionals. Travelers must also present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of travel. Right now, it's still illegal for people living in the UK to travel abroad for leisure. 
  • Other European countries still prohibit entry by tourists and other nonessential travelers from the US and other places. Before you travel, check the websites of US embassies and consulates in the area, as well as tourism and travel resources from the country you wish to visit. 
  • Across Asia, many countries are gradually opening to international travelers with restrictions. China, for example, requires all travelers to take COVID-19 tests and these tests have to be taken in specific labs, which are examined and approved by the Chinese authority. They are also required to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon arrival and take additional tests. Other popular destinations, such as Korea, Indonesia and Thailand, require travelers to have a negative COVID-19 test to board a plane to the country and a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. As of Jan. 15, short-term travel to Japan for tourism and other reasons is prohibited for US citizens.
  • South America is in the process of reopening to tourists, although recent fears of a new coronavirus variant originating from Brazil have sparked other countries to ban travelers from South America. For North American travelers, most destinations in South America still don't permit travel for tourism. If travelers must go, most countries require them to present negative COVID-19 test results, normally recorded within 72 hours of boarding their final flight. Some South American countries also require 10 or 14 days of self-isolation upon entry.

No matter where you go, follow the country's COVID-19 rules and guidelines upon entry, for the entire duration of your visit and upon departure. After you travel internationally, follow CDC guidelines to keep your family and community safe.

What's the safest way to travel right now?

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Consider taking trips by car instead of by train or plane.

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The absolute safest thing to do is to not travel, but if you must travel, go by car. Traveling in your own vehicle allows you to control factors that affect your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, Liu-Lastres says. For example, you can keep hand sanitizer and antimicrobial wipes in your car and travel with your own food to avoid eating at crowded restaurants. 

If you've been bitten by the travel bug and absolutely must cure cabin fever, "consider domestic destinations and carefully plan your trips," Liu-Lastres says. "You need to search for information related to your transportation as well as destinations … What self-protective measures can you take? For destination, where you are going to stay? And what attractions are you going to visit? Are there requirements for COVID-19 tests? Are the attractions still open? Is it safe to visit?" 

These are just some example questions you would need to ask yourself before you take or even plan a trip, Liu-Lastres says.

Read more10 activities that expose you to coronavirus, from most to least risky

What are the risks of traveling?

When considering travel, think about the risks posed to you and your family, as well as the risks you pose to others. 

"Sometimes, without noticing, asymptomatic travelers may spread the virus to local communities," Liu-Lastres says. "That is one of the main reasons why travel bans are in place as a direct response to manage the pandemic."

Additionally, travelers risk catching COVID-19 and bringing it back to their home country, which can have severe health repercussions for themselves, their family and friends and their community as a whole.

For the destination and its residents, being in touch with travelers may expose residents to the risks of getting infected, which may further affect the destination community and stress local health care facilities.

So, not only does traveling expose you to new people and places that could increase your risk of catching the virus, but you could expose others to the virus without knowing it or become a burden on the hospital system of a country already struggling to treat residents, Liu-Lastres explains.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.