Is It Safe to Travel With Unvaccinated Kids in the Era of the Delta Variant?

With the Delta variant having changed the pandemic risk calculus, families with unvaccinated kids are left trying to figure out how to travel safely and whether they even should right now.

Is It Safe to Travel With Unvaccinated Kids in the Era of the Delta Variant?

While a growing number of adults are getting vaccinated for COVID-19, many kids are still waiting to be eligible.

Photo by Shutterstock

It was smack-dab in the middle of the summer travel season when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hit us with the news that the war against COVID-19 had changed considerably due to the now-dominant Delta variant. Many families, including those with unvaccinated kids, were already on the road or planning to head out in the coming days and weeks just as new data emerged indicating that the Delta variant is much more transmissible than previous coronavirus strains (up to two to three times as transmissible, according to infectious disease experts) and that vaccinated individuals can get and spread it.

All of this while there is still no sign of exactly when COVID-19 vaccines will be available to children under 12 (right now it’s available to kids 12 and older) and as many families are preparing to have their kids return to in-person school for the first time in more than a year, heightening concerns and anxieties about how to protect unvaccinated children in the era of new variants. This spring, Pfizer had signaled that a vaccine could be ready for children ages 5 to 11 by September. Now, it looks like that age group will be lucky if they will be eligible by the end of the year. For kids under 5, the timeline is even murkier.

For families, the Delta variant “does change the risk calculation equation,” says Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious disease at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. The Delta variant itself increases the risk of getting infected, and with more people who are infected due to the current surge in COVID-19 cases, that also increases the risk of getting infected, says Dr. Blumberg.

With the Delta variant being two to three times more transmissible, “that means that all the things we talked about before”—vaccination, masking, social distancing—“are basically two to three times more important to do in order to prevent infection.”

But, he adds, “There are a lot of benefits to travel. . . . A family with no comorbidities, everybody’s healthy, they really want to see grandma or grandpa, it’s been a long time, they feel really cooped up—they might make a reasonable decision that, ‘We’re going to travel—it’s worth it to us.’ And then you have another family, maybe with a kid who’s obese or has asthma, or maybe other family members might have comorbidities that put them at risk for serious disease, and for that family, they may say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t feel right. This feels too risky. We’re going to postpone.’”

When asked if it’s safe for vaccinated parents to travel with unvaccinated children, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says, “I think it’s relatively safe to do. Children tend to be spared from the severe consequences of disease and they tend not to be major spreaders.”

He adds that due to strict masking policies and proper ventilation on airplanes, “I don’t necessarily think that an unvaccinated child has to forgo flying on an airplane because of COVID risk—planes have become relatively safe places when it comes to COVID-19.”

Indeed, one of the unique bright spots of the pandemic has been that children are generally less likely to have a COVID-19 infection result in severe illness or death.

“Kids just have less doors, they’re called ACE2 receptors, that the virus can enter, than adults do. So, the opportunity for severe infection is so much lower because there’s just less opportunities for that virus to enter the organs and enter the cells,” explains Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas. “With almost all viruses, the most vulnerable are the youngest, because they just don’t have strong immune systems, and the oldest, because they don’t have strong immune systems. And that’s just not the case with COVID, and we’re incredibly lucky.”

Dr. Blumberg adds that another reason kids tend to be spared from severe disease is that they are typically healthier than adults because most have not yet developed the comorbidities that make older adults more vulnerable.

But the question on many parents’ and caregivers’ minds is whether that lower risk factor for kids will or could change as newer variants enter the picture.

“There’s concern for that,” says Dr. Blumberg. “But I haven’t seen any data that has shown that Delta causes more severe disease in children. There is some data in adults that is very suggestive that there is more hospitalizations with Delta and that there is more severe disease with Delta compared with previous strains, but I just haven’t seen that data in children.”

Another concern is that kids can contribute to community spread, which is why, according to Jetelina, families should carefully consider where they are going and returning to and whether they could bring infections to a destination or back home and introduce the more dangerous Delta variant into a community, including without realizing it due to asymptomatic infection.

According to Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, how safe or unsafe it is to travel with unvaccinated children will depend on several factors. They include:

  • Any underlying health conditions children may have: These may increase the risk of having more serious illness due to COVID-19.
  • Where you are traveling to and from: For example, traveling anywhere that is experiencing a large outbreak would not be recommended, says Dr. Rajapakse.
  • How you are traveling: You are likely to come into contact with fewer people if you travel by road versus traveling through a busy airport or on a full airplane, she notes.
  • What you plan to do at your destination: “For example, doing a lot of outdoor activities like camping or hiking is much lower risk than traveling to attend a wedding or other large gathering,” Dr. Rajapakse says.

But, she also adds, “It has been a really difficult year for kids and families as they have missed out on a lot of things that are not only enjoyable but important contributors to the social, emotional, and physical health of kids like attending school, playing sports, and spending time with friends and loved ones—so each family needs to weigh the risks and benefits of travel during this time.”

Indeed, after more than a year when many families have opted to stay closer to home due to the pandemic, the desire to get back out into the world and reconnect with people and places is stronger than ever.

“COVID-19 was a trauma-inducing experience for most people. Not seeing grandparents and loved ones is very hard on people,” says Rainer Jenss, founder of the Family Travel Association. He adds that the pandemic has “created a strong desire to reconnect [in person] with loved ones.”

How families can reduce their COVID risks when traveling

For families who do plan to travel, Dr. Rajapakse says there are ways that they can reduce their risk, “though it is generally difficult to completely eliminate risk at a time when we are still seeing a lot of virus circulating.”

Whether vaccinated or not, everyone in the family should continue to wear a mask that properly covers their nose and mouth in public places, including in airports, on airplanes, trains, buses, and in common areas in hotels, advises Dr. Rajapakse. Travelers should try to avoid crowds and keep six feet of distance from others when possible. Washing hands frequently with soap and water, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces—for example, around your seats on an airplane—continue to be important tools in the battle against COVID-19.

“You may wish to consider [a] lower risk mode of travel like by car or RV instead of by airplane. You can also plan to do lower-risk activities like camping, hiking, or any activity that takes place outdoors rather than indoor activities where you may be exposed to crowds like visiting a museum or theater. Mealtimes are a particularly high-risk time as you will have to be unmasked while eating—it is important to plan ahead and ensure any restaurants or places you are planning eating [at] have adequate distancing and that staff are masked and following appropriate precautions,” says Dr. Rajapakse.

For families with smaller kids who are considering getting back into the skies, one big area of concern is whether their unpredictable toddlers and smaller children will properly comply with air travel mask mandates. (The major U.S. airlines all have strict mask policies in places for all passengers, including kids ages two and older, and it is also required by the federal government.)

“Parents are definitely concerned about children wearing masks and how [smaller kids are] going to handle it,” says Jenss.

One popular piece of advice circulating in parenting groups regarding the mask issue is: Practice makes perfect. Parents and caretakers who know they have an upcoming flight with the wee ones can work on troublesome toddlers in environments such as playgrounds where they can practice getting them to wear their masks—and keep them on.

Dr. Rajapakse also reminds family travelers that the CDC recommends unvaccinated travelers get a COVID-19 test 1 to 3 days before their trip and 3 to 5 days after travel and to stay home for 7 days after travel (if they get tested) or 10 days (if they don’t).

“You should cancel any travel plans if anyone in the family is sick, was exposed to COVID-19, or tests positive for COVID-19,” says Dr. Rajapakse.

University of Texas’s Jetelina says she is more concerned about getting to and from the airplane than actually on the plane where everyone is masked and high-quality air filtration systems are in place. She suggests that if there are large crowds at the luggage carousel in baggage claim, for instance, families can divide and conquer and perhaps one parent or guardian can take younger, unvaccinated kids outside while the other waits inside for the luggage.

Where can families travel in 2021?

In addition to the public health concerns that traveling with unvaccinated children may present, there is also the issue of logistics. Some countries that have begun to open back up to international travelers are asking that those travelers present proof of COVID-19 vaccination. There are cruise lines and tour operators that have begun implementing mandatory vaccination policies as well. Where does that leave kids who don’t even have access to vaccines yet?

When it comes to official government policies regarding travel restrictions for kids amid the pandemic, often “there is no clear guidance,” says Marta Conte, editor in chief of online family travel community Bébé Voyage. “This is why everyone is asking, ‘What’s happening with the kids? What documents do we need?’ A lot of time there is no information at all. Kids are very much left behind.”

Additionally, all international passengers age two and older flying into the U.S. (including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents) must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test procured within three days before boarding their flight to the United States.

Amid surges like the current Delta variant-fueled one, and with kids who are unvaccinated (and thus less protected), there is also the concern that international travel could result in positive COVID-19 test results that could derail the entire trip.

Lidiya Ivanova, founder and travel concierge of Grand Cayman–based Barefoot Journeys, says that the fact that each destination has a different set of rules, not just in general but also as they apply to children, makes planning travel for families extremely complicated.

“Currently, age [requirements] for testing are different for different destinations, which brings out a lot of extra stress and panic onto travelers, [especially for those] that have to transit or enter multiple countries,” says Ivanova, adding that her role as a travel advisor has become increasingly important and relevant for this very reason as she helps families navigate all the complexities.

Even if countries with vaccine and testing requirements make some exceptions for younger or unvaccinated children, constantly changing international travel restrictions and the confusion and concerns they create mean that many families who feel confident traveling are simply opting for domestic vacations instead this year, according to Jenss.

“That’s why international [travel] isn’t really going to rebound until next year,” says Jenss.

Travel within the U.S. is less of a challenge because there are currently almost no domestic COVID-related entry rules in place—although even domestic destinations such as New York City and San Francisco are beginning to require proof of vaccination to enter certain venues. One exception is Hawai‘i, which has a pretravel COVID-19 testing requirement for unvaccinated domestic arrivals (vaccinated individuals can skip the pretravel COVID-19 test) with kids age four and under exempt.

Jessica Griscavage, CEO of Runway Travel, says her family travel clients are not shunning international travel completely, having recently opted for vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Travelers to Mexico from the United States do not need to present a negative COVID-19 test result, proof of vaccination, or quarantine. They are subject to a health screening upon arrival and must submit to the U.S. international travel requirement of providing a negative COVID-19 PCR test result procured no more than three days prior to boarding their flight back to the U.S.—kids under two years of age are exempt.

For the Caribbean, requirements vary depending on the destination.

“Our clients are comfortable in destinations where they can spread out on a beach and have the opportunity to dine outdoors. Travelers are looking for wide open spaces,” says Griscavage. Domestically, her clients are booking Hawai‘i and U.S. national parks. She adds that many dude ranches are already fully booked for the 2021 season.

With many families traveling domestically instead of abroad this year, Jenss notes that is why, “You can’t get a vacation rental on Cape Cod or in the Carolinas.” The pent-up demand for travel means that many domestic vacation options booked up quickly over the summer—and the same phenomenon could very well repeat itself over the forthcoming holiday breaks.

The best trip ideas for families in 2021 and beyond

Families can get the classic dude ranch experience in California at Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort.

Families can get the classic dude ranch experience in California at Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort.

Courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

For families who are ready to hit the road for a safe and socially distant getaway, there are plenty of inspiring options. While very popular U.S. destinations (think national parks, dude ranches, and sought-after coastal escapes) booked up fast during this summer, there may be more availability into the fall and beyond. For families who have decided to stay put for the time being with the start of school and with the Delta variant surging, perhaps these can offer some inspiration for future travel later this year, next year, or beyond.

Here are some ideas for how and where to go with your brood.

Dude ranches

As if we didn’t love a dude ranch reunion enough prepandemic, spending time with our crew on these sprawling properties with a mix of options to relax and unwind or embark on heart-pumping hikes and horseback rides is even more appealing these days. The scenic landscapes and luxurious cabins at the Resort at Paws Up in Montana top our list of places to get off the grid.

For a ranch experience on the West Coast, Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in California’s Santa Ynez Valley features multi-room cottages on 10,500 acres of land. Families can reconnect with nature (and each other) on miles of horseback-riding trails and while fly fishing, canoeing, and kayaking on the property’s spring-fed lake. The property also hosts cookouts, rodeos, live music, and other special events that give stays here a festive spirit.

Vacation rentals

For some of us, the best and easiest way to get away with our family will be to book a tricked-out vacation rental, whether it’s these U.S.-based Airbnbs we’ve bumped to the top of our lists, remote cabins, or our favorite beach house rentals. Maybe you have your eye on the Hawaiian Islands for a vacation rental–fueled family getaway. You could also head to the Oregon coast, get some sun in San Diego, or hit the hiking trails in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We’ve compiled our favorite options for vacation rental offerings that aren’t Airbnb (because more choices are always better) and recently reviewed Homes and Villas by Marriott International as well as vacation rental startup AvantStay (which caters its homes to larger groups).

Resort residences

For the best of both worlds, where the space and amenities of vacation homes (full kitchen, anyone?) are combined with the services and indulgence of resort properties, it’s all about resort residences. These multi-bedroom homes and villas located within luxury hotel and resort settings make for the ultimate family vacation. A perennial favorite is Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa, which features 100 stand-alone cottages, including nine private homes (with up to three bedrooms, as well as a kitchen and rooftop deck), on 28 acres of vineyard-adorned land, complete with pools, restaurants, and spa facilities.

If Hawai‘i is calling, Timbers Kaua‘i Ocean Club and Residences features two- to four-bedroom residences on 450 acres of the island’s south shore between Līhu‘e and Po‘ipū. Guests have access to the pool, beach, spa, fitness center, and oceanfront dining venues. Nearby is Kukui‘ula, where one- to four-bedroom cottages (many with a separate guesthouse for added privacy and space) are perfect for family get-togethers in paradise. You (or a private chef) can cook meals in your home or be served island fare at the clubhouse and in nearby Po‘ipū. There are pools, a spa, a fitness center, a farm, and water activities aplenty to keep everyone in the clan as busy or relaxed as they would like to be.

In Mexico, check out the chic and colorful one-, two-, and three-bedroom residences at the Montage Los Cabos, an oasis tucked into the Santa Maria Bay on the Baja peninsula. Or rent out a multi-bedroom private casa in San Miguel de Allende at the Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada, a stylish property laced with history and elegance.

For a standout Caribbean reunion, for $5,000 per night you can rent the entire 11-room Golden Rock Inn on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where you and your crew will be surrounded by verdant gardens and have exclusive access to the pool and on-site restaurant in this artfully restored 18th-century sugar mill.

This story was originally published on May 7, 2021, and has been updated to include current information.

>> Next: How the Delta Variant Might Change Your Travel Plans

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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