This story is part of the In-Between, Slate’s series on how life is slowly getting back to normal.
JL Johnson is the managing correspondent for Airline Reporter, a magazine focused entirely on flying. It’s his side gig (he has a day job in tech), but between work and fun, he usually averages 50 flights a year. In a normal year, that is—he hasn’t taken a single one since February of 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, he’s been skeptical that getting on a plane is as flawlessly safe as the industry has made it out to be. “The airlines are like ‘HEPA filters!,’ ” says Johnson. “If the jerk in the middle seat takes his mask off—I don’t care how many HEPA filters you have.”
Getting on a plane is just the first step of travel, of course. Vacations also often involve friends, restaurants, and generally milling around a new place. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing to do during a pandemic, as much as our brains might crave it. As Johnson says: “Gee, I would love to get in on that, but I’m trying to do the right thing.”
Perhaps you’ve felt similarly. Airline travel fell 60 percent last year according to a recent report from the International Civil Aviation Organization. While coronavirus experts differ in their willingness to engage in air travel for not-strictly-essential purposes (like visiting family), it’s clear that getting on a plane during a pandemic does involve some level of risk. But as vaccines roll out, it may have crossed your mind: When is a realistic time to finally book tickets to fly somewhere?
The answer is pretty simple: Book the trip.
The question of whether you can safely travel right now, even if you are vaccinated, is a downer. Experts are still urging caution. “I encourage people to hold off on vacations,” says Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University. She’s vaccinated herself but lives with someone who isn’t. “I’m content taking a road trip to an Airbnb with my husband if and when I get a weekend off.” We still don’t have good, replicated data on whether the new vaccines reduce the chances that a vaccinated person will spread the disease, which she says means that nonessential travel should be kept to a minimum, for everyone.
But she’s optimistic about the future: “I think it’s great to start considering plans later this year for travel,” says Popescu. We’ll have more data on the transmission question within the next few months; experts have said that they do expect that the data will be favorable. The more people who are vaccinated, the lower cases will be, in general. Biden announced Tuesday that there should be enough vaccines for everyone by May (though it could take longer to get those doses into arms).
Some public health experts are already planning trips themselves. Virologist and Slate contributor Angela Rasmussen has a trip to Italy booked with her parents and spouse for November, which she’d already had to put off once because of the pandemic. She won’t go unless she’s vaccinated, but she suspects she’ll be vaccinated by then. And: “If I end up having to go to Italy in the dead of winter, I will.” Lindsey Leininger, a public health educator at Dartmouth, has scheduled flights to visit her family at the end of the year. “This is not based on some sort of fancy empirical calculation. I’m a human being too. I’m desperate to go back to Texas for Christmas.” She’s hoping that by then not only will everyone involved be vaccinated, but that enough people in the country will have chosen to take the vaccine so that community spread will be slow enough that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have lifted their recommendation against travel. “My gut is telling me it’s so far out it’s pretty safe,” Leininger says, emphasizing that she’s not certain. ”As a scientist, I look at the data. … We just can’t say.”
Johnson personally tried to keep erring on the side of caution when making his travel plans—even after he got a first dose of the vaccine much sooner than he expected (February). “I told myself, ‘I’m not going to book anything,’ ” he said. But then he caved that very night, scheduling a trip to visit his wife’s family in Connecticut and another family trip to Florida for spring break. While he had a plan to get the next dose when we spoke, he knew that supply chain issues meant there was no guarantee that he’d get it in time for the trip. “I may fly on one dose; I don’t advocate for that,” he told me. “But my wife hasn’t seen her family in over a year.” (He emailed me the next week to say that everything had gone according to plan: “my second [dose] was this morning. Yayyyyy!”)
The other reason you should book your trip now is that there is still a ton of flexibility. Should you not wind up getting a vaccine in time for your trip—or if things change for whatever virus-hell-reason—if you book by the end of March or April, you’ll definitely be able to change it without a penalty. Zach Honig, an editor at large at the Points Guy keeps a running list of pandemic change policies for major airlines, all of which have windows extending at least a month out from now. At some point, they will surely stop extending this date. “What I would recommend is go to your airline’s website and start throwing pins at the map,” says Honig, who has trips to Tel Aviv, Johannesburg, California, Hawaii, Peru, Japan, and French Polynesia currently on his 2021 schedule. While he flew to the Southwest and Dubai during the pandemic, he says he’s staying grounded now that there’s a vaccine in sight, and very willing to move things around or cancel depending on what international travel restrictions are in place. “I imagine there’s a decent chance that that trip could get pushed back,” he says of the Johannesburg trip, which is scheduled for the beginning of June. “I don’t know if I’ll end up taking it at all.”
Flexible but very hopeful—that’s what it is to plan travel right now. Let me tell you, doing so feels good: As I finished this piece, I got a good deal on a round-trip ticket to Denver. There are scenarios where the trip happens but is still a socially distanced endeavor. I’m texting with a friend about spending that weekend camping. But it’s better to book now than when everyone’s scrambling. “The thing that I’m really worried about and I know the airlines are going to do it—guaranteed—is that demand is going to surge, and airlines are going to jack prices through the roof,” said Johnson. “Folks are going to get left out I think.”
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