Yes, You Can Travel With Unvaccinated Children—Here's How

mom disinfecting tv screen for child on an airplane

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Key Takeaways

  • Choose a destination where COVID-19 is not rampant.
  • Drive rather than fly, if possible, to reduce possible COVID-19 exposure.
  • Vaccinate all members of your family who are eligible.
  • Follow safety measures like wearing masks and washing hands, regardless of vaccination status.

The increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccinations for kids may inspire you to finally book a family vacation. But travel is still tricky, especially if you have children ages 5 or under who have not been able to get the vaccine yet. And as new variants like Omicron crop up and cause new case surges worldwide, your choices for safe travel destinations may be limited.

That said, if you think ahead, plan wisely, and take appropriate precautions, your family can safely venture out to enjoy a long-awaited getaway.

Where Can You Go?

Keeping your kids protected during a family vacation starts with picking the right destination. Leaving the U.S. may be too complicated for your family right now.

International Destinations

International travel is still risky, particularly for the unvaccinated. While many countries have open borders, some have high COVID-19 rates and so-so safety policies. In other countries, you'll need to follow complex entry rules requiring vaccination, testing, and/or quarantining requirements that may end up being quite cumbersome. These may apply upon returning to the U.S., as well.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studies travel risk factors and provides guidance about where it's safest to travel. The agency regularly updates its COVID-19 Travel Recommendations page with a color-coded map to show which destinations are Level 4, or red (very high COVID levels); Level 3, or dark orange (high COVID levels); Level 2, or light orange (moderate COVID levels); and Level 1, or yellow (low COVID levels).

At the end of 2021, many countries were at the higher risk red and orange levels. Those in the yellow or low COVID levels included the British Virgin Islands, China, India, Morocco, Paraguay, and Japan. The CDC does not recommend against traveling to these low-risk level countries for vacation. But it does advise against any recreational travel to Level 4 countries.

The CDC recommends against international travel until you are fully vaccinated. So, your safest bet is for anyone eligible to receive the vaccine and/or booster before taking a trip abroad.

Note, however, that in some cases, particularly in large countries, outbreaks move quickly and may be limited to specific areas. For example, in 2021, when the United States was routinely designated a level 4 risk, only parts of the country were experiencing surges at various times. So, it's worth looking at the case counts in the local area you are considering traveling in when making your plans.

Regardless of where you're headed, the CDC recommends that everyone who is eligible for the vaccine get it before traveling. Everyone ages 5 and up can (and according to the CDC, should) get the Pfizer vaccine. If your child is younger than 5, you may want to hold off on international travel until they can get their shots (perhaps by spring 2022, says Anthony Fauci, MD).

Vaccination status aside, as of December 6, 2021, anyone ages 2 or older who's traveling internationally must show proof of a negative COVID test no more than 24 hours before they return to the states. All air travelers ages 2 or older are also required to wear face masks for the duration of their flights (and within American and many international airports), except when actively eating and drinking.

If you are traveling abroad, you and your family members will need to arrange to have COVID-19 tests taken no more than 24 hours before you board your airplane home. Check with the hotel and local health department at your destination to learn where you can be tested in that time frame, or pack CDC-approved self-test kits that are affiliated with a telehealth service, like Abbott's BinaxNOW Ag Card Home Test.

Domestic Destinations

Domestic travel is safer than international travel, advises Andi Shane, MD, MPH, MSc, system medical director for infectious disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and professor of pediatrics at Emory University. It's also easier, since U.S. citizens typically don't need proof of vaccination or a negative test result when coming or going within the continental United States. (Your airline or hotel may have a requirement, however, so check before traveling.)

Official requirements aside, the CDC does recommend that all people taking an out-of-state vacation get fully vaccinated if they are eligible to do so. If you or your child is unvaccinated, you should have a COVID test one to three days before traveling (or attending a large gathering) and three to five days after returning.

How Will You Get There?

Using a mode of transportation that gives you the most privacy and control allows you to set the safety rules. “Driving in your own car is least risky, taking into consideration that you’ll have to stop,” Dr. Shane notes. Try to avoid crowded rest stops and be sure your kids are masked up, wash their hands, and don't linger when they use a public bathroom or are in any inside space with numerous other people.

If you are using any sort of public transportation—airplane, train, or, bus—masks are still a must. They are required by the CDC in airports and transit stations, too.

What Vacation Activities Are Safe?

Avoiding crowds and large indoor gatherings minimizes your child’s chance of exposure to COVID. The fewer people (particularly those that are unvaccinated) that you interact with, the better.

Activities that are outdoors like camping, the beach, and playing outside are less risky than those that involve large groups of people being indoors. Visiting a zoo or a botanical garden or something like that where you can maintain distance outside is probably optimal,” says Dr. Shane.

National parks can be a great choice, but they've gotten very popular during the pandemic. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Zion National Park were the three most visited national parks in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. When COVID numbers remain high, it's a good idea to choose a park that's off the beaten path.

Theme parks have reopened for the most part, but still may not be the best choice for unvaccinated kids. If you do go, be sure to read up on and follow specific safety measures. Disney requires masks for guests ages 2 and older in indoor areas and Six Flags requires masks for visitors ages 3 and older in indoor areas.

When staying at hotels with pools or hot tubs, it's key to remind kids is to keep a safe distance from other swimmers. There is no evidence that COVID-19 spreads via water. Breathing in the virus exhaled by fellow swimmers is the biggest threat. So outdoor and less crowded pools are safer. That means waiting to take turns on the water slide until the line trickles down or taking kids to the pool on the early or late side when crowds are smaller.

How Else Can You Keep Kids Safe When Traveling?

No matter where you go or what you do, there are things you can do to make your family vacation safer and less stressful.

In crowded public areas, particularly indoors, it's a good idea to wear a mask, whether vaccinated or not. "Often children mimic their parents, so if you’re in a situation where you don’t need to wear a mask but you want your child to wear a mask, then modeling is optimal," says Dr. Shane.

Pair masking with good hygiene. Lainey Conroy, dietary nutrition supervisor at Piedmont Fayette Hospital, explains, "The number one thing that I feel is important to communicate with kids is the 'three W’s': Wear your mask. Watch your distance. Wash your hands."

Additionally, even though it's tempting on vacation, try not to relax your own and your kids' nutrition standards completely. “You need to stay super hydrated, and drink a lot of water,” Conroy notes. “All of your veggies, all of your fruits, things like that need to be constantly taken into your system.” She adds that taking any doctor-recommended vitamins and getting appropriate rest also help fight against sickness.

How Comfortable Are You?

Ultimately, the decision to travel with your children is a personal one. What is your comfort level with the precautions you are taking? Consider if waiting to travel until everyone in your family can be vaccinated would make everyone less stressed and more ready for fun.

Forcing someone to go along with the program when they are uneasy might do more harm than good, However, feeling overwhelmed with worry about COVID-19 also causes stress.

Vacations can have big mental health benefits for you and your kids. Shelter-in-place orders were designed to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and keep us physically healthy. But isolation and social distancing came at a cost, with spiking numbers of people experiencing depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

“Everything is a risk and a benefit,” Dr. Shane notes. That can mean weighing a child’s need to get out with reasonable safety measures. “A parent knows their child best. Maybe there is a less risky outdoor activity nearby that would at least get everybody out of the house to explore.”

Finally, if your child can be vaccinated, doing so can help lower risk and make everyone more comfortable about a getaway. "Vaccination is a tremendous tool, and it’s the way we’re going to get this virus under control and try to get us out of this pandemic,” says Dr. Shane. “Everybody who’s eligible to get vaccinated should do so as soon as possible.”

What This Means For You

Travel is not off the table at this point of the pandemic, but it's important to make smart choices to keep your family safe. The means choosing a destination where COVID-19 rates are manageable, following federal and local mask requirements and other safety measures, and making sure that every family member who is eligible for vaccination gets their full set of shots well before your trip.

Balancing the desire for some sense of normalcy while taking precautions is key. Help your children to understand why it's important to still abide by safety measures, without instilling fear in them. Often, when children know that a reward of fun or adventure is waiting, it's easier to do what is necessary. And you can all enjoy a healthy, happy trip full of memories.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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