After a year in lockdown, it's time to start traveling again. Here's how to make the most of your first trip.

woman traveling alone waling in airport
Credit: Virojt Changyencham / Getty Images

With the CDC's announcement that individuals vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus can travel safely, it's time to start planning your summer vacations. Though many countries are still off limits for American tourists, vacation options abound in Europe, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and some countries in Africa. Meanwhile, stateside destinations are preparing for an almost-normal summer, so there's plenty of fun to be had without leaving the country. And while the prospect of travel is exciting, it can also be daunting. Ahead, how to ease back into travel and plan a safe, stress-free vacation.

Vet destinations before you book.

Choosing a safe destination can be tricky: Some countries that are technically open to American visitors may still have high daily case rates or low vaccination rates. Per the CDC, post-vaccination transmission is unlikely, but possible, so you still want to avoid places with active COVID-19 outbreaks. Dr. Keri Althoff, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, notes that traveling internationally to places with a high transmission rate is risky. "More transmission means more opportunities for mutations, which means more opportunities for variants that may reduce-but likely not eliminate-the protection from the vaccine," she says. In order to determine which destinations are safe, "look at the level of community transmission (cases per 100K population) and use the CDC's guidance for the thresholds of transmission (e.g. low, moderate, substantial, high, etc.), as well as the proportion of people vaccinated at the destination," notes Dr. Althoff. The gist? You want to see low transmission rates and high vaccination rates.

Consider the comfort levels of your travel companions.

It's important to take your travel group's individual comfort levels into consideration before selecting a destination or planning the trip. What might feel perfectly safe to you could be uncomfortable for your mother or spouse, for example, so it's best to have those conversations ahead of booking a hotel or flight. For cautious travelers, Dr. Amanda Simanek, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the founding member of Dear Pandemic, recommends "trips that involve fewer interactions with people en route to or at your final destination." This might mean driving to a vacation rental in a remote area instead of flying to a relatively crowded international resort. Dr. Simanek also recommends choosing a locale that allows for outdoor exploration: "Opting for outdoor dining and visits to parks, gardens, and beaches is going to be safer than dining in, visiting poorly ventilated museums, or crowding up at densely packed tourist attractions."

Keep it short and sweet.

It's tempting to book a bucket list trip (perhaps a tour of Egypt's ancient temples or a sailing excursion through the Mediterranean) to mark your vaccinated status, but it's better to take a "wait and see" approach (or better yet, begin planning those dream trips for 2022 or 2023). Instead, opt for something low-stress and low-key: a few days at a remote island resort, a house rental in a nearby beach town, or a weekend visit to a city full of outdoor cafés and parks. While the vaccine rollout continues to unfold around the world, keeping the stakes low with shorter trips to destinations eager to host American travelers, where getting around and communicating any restrictions is easy, is preferable.

Revisit your favorite places.

It has been a particularly challenging year for the tourism industry, and the best way to help out is to spend. Visiting a place you already know and love is a great way to show your support and ensure that your favorite (preferably local) bars, restaurants, and hotels will stay open for years to come. Plus, after a year in quarantine, a brand-new and entirely unfamiliar destination might feel jarring or stressful. Ultimately, some of the greatest pleasures of traveling are the simple ones: a perfectly cold beer on the beach, a stroll through a beautiful park, or a long, lingering lunch with good food and friends.

Make sure to read the fine print.

Though vaccination programs are underway across the globe, we can't fully eliminate the possibility of future variants and outbreaks that might lead to future travel restrictions. With that being said, when booking hotels and flights, make sure to read every cancellation policy carefully. In addition, do your homework and read up on individual destinations: Just because a destination is technically open to tourists doesn't mean that attractions, museums, and restaurants are operating on a business as usual schedule. And if you are traveling internationally? Don't forget to have your testing and vaccination records in order.

Be sensitive on social media.

Sharing joy is as important as ever these days, but it's important to think before you post. If you're planning on taking a vacation this year, even if it's just a local camping trip or a weekend at the beach, remember to take a moment to appreciate your good fortune (you survived a global pandemic with enough funds to take a break and explore). There's no need to feel guilty about celebrating your vacation on social media, but remember to consider what's happening in the world before you post. Ultimately, posting about eating in restaurants and going to tourist attractions in places where locals are still unvaccinated and confined to their homes is tough to reconcile.

Be patient and generous.

Businesses that have been closed for the better part of a year, especially in popular domestic summer spots, are gearing up for what could be their busiest season yet. So, if service is slow or your favorite menu items aren't available, be flexible with and considerate of the bartenders, waiters, concierges, tour guides, and flight attendants you come across on your trip. And it goes without saying, but it's important to tip well!

Listen to the locals.

Travel is a privilege and with that privilege comes the responsibility to be ethical consumers and respectful visitors. "It's important to pay attention to what the locals are saying-not just the government," says Dr. Nadeen White, a pediatrician and travel writer. Dr. White urges travelers to do some "research prior to jetting off to any destination," noting that the early push for tourism to resume in Mexico and the Caribbean, in particular, was at odds with what was best for the local community. This cautious return to travel is a worldwide experiment. In order for it to work, we all need to play by the rules; that means you should wear your mask when asked to, adhere to any and all regulations, and, as always, respect the locals who are so generously sharing their world with you. And remember: Just because you can go somewhere doesn't necessarily mean you should.


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