Finally getting your COVID vaccine (shots one and two) is definitely a reason to celebrate — especially because you might finally be able to see your long-distance bestie after more than a year. Going anywhere that's not the inside of your own bedroom/office/gym is a top priority right now, so you're probably wondering if vaccinated people can travel. The answer — like everything else during this last decade of a year — is complicated.
When Should You Not Travel After Vaccination?
"Since there are still many people who are unvaccinated at this time, caution should still be taken with travel," says Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., a doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine at Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic.
Just because you've gotten both of your shots doesn't mean you should book a flight for the next day. Dr. Jain says you need to wait at least a couple of weeks after vaccination before you even consider traveling — otherwise, your body won't have the time it needs to generate immunity.
After immunity sets in, the vaccine protects you from getting sick, but that doesn't mean you can't potentially still spread the virus. "It is important to continue to social distance, wear masks, and perform good hand hygiene because you could, in theory, be a vector and still spread the virus to those around you, similar to how asymptomatic carriers have been responsible for infecting other people they have interacted with," Dr. Jain says.
What does that mean for your travel plans? Postpone your next trip if your community, or the neighborhoods you're traveling to or through, have high rates of infection. "It would be best to avoid places that have low ICU bed capacity and high rates of new COVID-19 cases," Dr. Jain says. Even if you're vaccinated, if any of the places you're traveling to or from have a percent positive approaching or above 5%, keep Zooming until further notice.
When Can You Travel After Being Vaccinated?
Once you've waited the few weeks after your second shot to ensure your own immunity, you might start thinking about packing up your car. When you're planning your trip, make sure you're checking in first with anyone you're heading out to see. "Take into consideration whether or not they have also received the vaccine," Dr. Jain says. This is to ensure they won't get sick, or spread COVID to you.
While you're in transit, mask up and keep your distance as much as possible. "If you do choose to travel by plane or public transit, it is still recommended that you wear a mask appropriately covering your mouth and nose; to avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose; and to wash your hands after touching anything, especially before eating or drinking," Dr. Jain advises.
If you're hoping to head farther than a few states away, you might be able to travel outside of the United States once you're fully vaccinated. For example, Hungary and Iceland are permitting travelers with proven immunity (via vaccination or antibody testing), though U.S. residents are otherwise banned. If you can prove immunity, you're exempt from quarantining in Iceland. Just because you can, though, doesn't mean you should buy plane tickets just yet — even after you're vaccinated, you could still possibly spread it to folks wherever you travel, which is even more of an issue if your destination doesn't have a robust vaccination rollout in place yet.
What Are Best Practices For Traveling Post-Vaccine?
Before you pack your bags, remember that just because you're vaccinated doesn't mean the people around you can't get sick. "Consider the effect your travel could have on the community you plan to visit," Dr. Jain says, including — but not limited to — the person or people you're planning to see. That means basing your plans around current COVID rates in your own county and those that you're heading to, regardless of the vaccination status of you and your friends.
If you and your vaccinated buddies decide the rates are low enough to make travel an acceptable risk, it's still better to road trip it rather than hopping onto public transit or a plane. "The safest way to travel at this time continues to be by car, with only members of the same household in the vehicle," Dr. Jain says. And if anyone on your to-see list hasn't been vaccinated, it's safest to save the trip for next time. Not planning to see anyone except your travel buddies and the inside of your hotel or Airbnb? As long as you verify the lodging's COVID safety practices and mask whenever you're not in your hotel room, you should be alright to book a vacation spot after vaccination.
While on the road, keep up the practices you've been using for the past year or so, Dr. Jain advises. "Remember that you can potentially still spread the virus to others, so act in a respectful manner and continue to take proper precautions such as maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and performing good hand hygiene." In other words, keep doing everything you've been doing — but you can consider dusting off your wheelie suitcase.
Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine, Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic