You might feel conflicted about pandemic travel right now. Some aspects of life may feel a little more like they used to before COVID-19, but variants of the virus are spreading throughout the U.S.—including the delta variant, which is significantly more transmissible than the original virus. Given this, it’s understandable that even with three vaccines effective against the most severe outcomes of COVID-19, you may feel confused about whether pandemic travel is safe or whether you are mentally prepared to travel.
With COVID-19 cases surging throughout the U.S. and in many places abroad, it’s still really important that anyone who travels right now does so as responsibly as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends traveling only within the country if you are fully vaccinated. And even then the CDC requires that everyone wear a mask on public transportation and in crowded areas. The ethics of traveling internationally are a lot more complex. When going abroad, you really have to consider the vaccination rates in a particular country, whether the country’s health care system is already strained, and how quickly the country’s cases of COVID-19 are increasing. Either way, it’s important to weigh your reasons for traveling with the risk of potentially spreading new or concerning COVID-19 during and after your trip.
This is a lot to think about, so SELF spoke to a mental health expert and an infectious disease specialist about the best ways to travel safely and how to manage travel-related anxiety right now. Having the right information can help you decide whether you can responsibly and safely take a trip that you feel comfortable with.
1. Be aware of your risk of getting the coronavirus and possibly spreading it to others.
Again, being fully vaccinated is the best precaution you can take before traveling. “Getting vaccinated is the single best thing people can do to keep themselves safe and to avoid spreading the virus,” Scott Weisenberg, M.D.,1 clinical associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, specializing in infectious diseases, and medical director of NYU Langone Health’s travel medicine program, tells SELF. Being vaccinated doesn’t mean that you cannot get the virus at all, but it may prevent you from becoming severely ill.
Keep in mind that all forms of travel can affect public health, Dr. Weisenberg says. So, when traveling, you risk not only contracting the virus yourself but giving it to other people in your party, bringing it with you to your destination, or taking it home with you at the end of the trip. All of this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t travel if you’re vaccinated (or that you can’t, say, go on a careful road trip with your unvaccinated kids), but it does mean that you should really think through your decision.
If you have any of the risk factors associated with worse outcomes from contracting COVID-19, then you may want to take a more cautious approach to travel if you can, according to Dr. Weisenberg. This is true even if you’re fully vaccinated, because it’s still not clear how vaccinated people with certain health conditions or who are immunocompromised may be affected if they get COVID-19, according to the CDC.2
Per the CDC,3 the risk factors associated with worse outcomes from contracting COVID-19 include:
- Anyone with underlying conditions including chronic lung diseases, type 1 and 2 diabetes, and heart conditions
- People who are 65 and older
- People who are immunocompromised
If you are vaccinated but have one or more of the risk factors for potentially getting really sick from COVID-19, you may want to talk to your doctor about travel. Your physician may be able to offer more personal guidance based on your medical history. After thinking through your personal risk, you might decide to take a road trip if possible, visit a destination with plenty of outdoor activities, or get a COVID-19 vaccine booster if you qualify for one. Or maybe you decide to limit your activities as much as possible before your trip as a way to reduce your exposure to other people who potentially have COVID-19.
Right now the CDC says unvaccinated people should travel only if absolutely necessary. If you or someone you are traveling with isn’t fully vaccinated, keep in mind that when traveling in the U.S., the CDC4 recommends that unvaccinated people get tested roughly three days before their trip. During their trip, unvaccinated people should wear a mask and practice physical distancing. Unvaccinated people should take another COVID-19 test about three to five days after coming home, in addition to self-isolating for seven days after their trip. Although it’s safest for your own health and best for public health to only travel when fully vaccinated, if you or someone in your group isn’t vaccinated, following these steps is really crucial.
2. Research your destination’s COVID-19 case numbers and safety rules.
Knowing the rates of transmission and rates of vaccination in the area you’re planning to visit can help you choose a destination (if that’s flexible) or help you decide on the safety boundaries you want to set for yourself. Ideally, it’s best to avoid traveling to areas that have more virus activity than where you already are, according to Dr. Weisenberg.
The CDC has an interactive map where you can check these statistics in individual counties across the U.S. (Areas that have 100 or more total new cases per day per 100,000 people are considered areas with high levels of transmission5.) The CDC also has a color-coded map comparing percentage rates of vaccination with the number of cases per 100,000 people.
If you’re planning to travel abroad, getting this information might be harder, depending on how carefully the local government is tracking COVID-19, and whether it’s sharing its data. At the very least, you should check the CDC list of high-risk countries for COVID-19 that are not recommended for travel.
Keep in mind that even if an area has a relatively low transmission rate, you might interact with other travelers from all over the country, if not the world, depending on the city you visit. If you’re visiting a popular tourist destination, such as Los Angeles, then you might decide to follow the same COVID-19 safety precautions the CDC has recommended throughout the pandemic, such as social distancing, masking, and practicing good hand hygiene, whenever possible. Or you might decide to visit popular tourist attractions during the slowest parts of the day and wear a mask during your visit even if local rules don’t require them.
3. Pinpoint the specific outcomes you’re most worried about.
It’s entirely reasonable that you might be nervous about going somewhere even if you really, really want to take a vacation and are committed to doing it as safely as possible, both for yourself and others. Before you can address the anxiety you’re feeling about traveling again, you have to identify the specific outcome you’re worried about, explains Soo Jeong Youn, Ph.D.,6 clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
To do this, think about the exact scenarios or aspects of travel that most concern you. For example, are you most worried that you could contract COVID-19 while traveling and pass it onto a loved one who is immunocompromised when you get back? In that case, you may decide not to travel at all if you aren’t able to safely self-isolate from them when you return. Or, if you can self-isolate when you get home, you might take a COVID-19 test before seeing this person (in addition to taking precautions like wearing a mask and meeting outdoors, if you don’t live with this loved one, until you’re really certain that you’re not sick) to put your mind at ease. Knowing that you have a plan to address your specific fears can be reassuring.
4. Try to focus on the things you can control.
Feelings of anxiety are often grounded in the unknown, Dr. Youn explains. When you don’t know what the future holds, you can easily get caught up worrying about what could happen—including the worst-case scenarios, which can be really scary. That explains why the pandemic has created a lot of worry for some people. Traveling can create anxiety for similar reasons because even with a lot of planning, you can’t anticipate everything that might happen during your trip.
Dr. Youn says planning for a few things that you can control can relieve some anxiety. For instance, if you need to travel and can’t avoid flying, you might travel on a slower day if possible and pack plenty of masks, hand sanitizer, and antimicrobial wipes if you need to fly. Or you might avoid indoor activities and dining if you’re planning a vacation.
If possible, Dr. Young recommends incorporating something from your normal routine on your trip. That might involve writing in your journal before you sleep, or doing your usual stretching regimen. “At least then you won’t feel like your whole life is up in the air,” Dr. Youn says.
If you’re anxious because the people you will be traveling with have different ideas about how to do so safely, then try to have an open conversation when you’re talking through details. You can explain what makes you feel comfortable—and why—and see whether there’s a compromise that works for everyone involved. Dr. Youn knows that this is easier said than done, but tells SELF, “It’s important to know where you stand and have as much of a conversation as possible with the other person.” Setting boundaries can help you feel more in control, and you might decide to do your own thing when your travel companion chooses to do activities that you’re not comfortable with.
5. Use grounding techniques before and during your trip.
Even with all your planning, you might get anxious about pandemic travel during your actual trip. After more than a year of being advised to stay six feet apart from others and avoid crowds, it can be overwhelming to be around a lot of strangers—some of whom may not be vaccinated or following CDC COVID-19 safety guidance. Practicing grounding techniques that help you stay in the present can be helpful. And doing these before you travel can make it easier to do them when you’re actually anxious, Dr. Youn says. This way, you can hopefully calm yourself when you aren’t thinking as clearly if you become panicked at any point during your trip. “What’s driving your anxiety is that your mind starts racing towards the future, coming up with what-ifs and worst-case scenarios,” Dr. Youn says.
There are many types of grounding techniques, and you may need to try several to find what works for you. Some common ones include deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, and even just moving your body. One way to practice grounding techniques is by using your senses to pay attention to your surroundings or some sort of object. You can think about what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Using your senses to bring your mind back to the here and now, helps you avoid focusing on catastrophic, future-oriented worries. For example, you might focus on a painting in your room and inspect the brush strokes, textures, and colors.
Feeling anxious about traveling right now is understandable. By assessing what’s bothering you and knowing how to travel as safely as possible, you can make the choices that feel right for you.
1. NYU Langone, Scott A. Weisenberg, M.D.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, People with Certain Medical Conditions
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Domestic Travel During COVID-19
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How CDC Determines the Level for COVID-19 Travel Health Notices
6. Harvard Catalyst, Soo Jeong Youn, Ph.D
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