Omicron and Holiday Travel: 12 of the Most Pressing Questions

Holiday travel suddenly feels more fraught as the world waits for emerging information on the transmissibility and virulence of the new coronavirus variant. Scientists are racing to see if the current vaccines offer protection against Omicron, but many families and other travelers may need to consider a variety of factors now before embarking to see relatives or to experience a change of scenery.

“Once again they will have to make informed decisions,” said Kathy Risse, a pediatrician in Seattle. But unlike last year’s holiday period, Dr. Risse said, “we know so much more about stopping transmission, and widespread testing is up and running.”

For those planning to travel, the basics for protection — vaccinations, masks and social distancing — will help make the trip safer. Here are answers to 12 of the most pressing travel questions for now.

Currently there are no vaccine, testing or quarantine requirements to travel within the 50 United States, whether you fly, drive or go by rail — except Hawaii. Hawaii requires a 10-day quarantine for domestic travelers if they do not show proof of a full vaccination against the coronavirus or negative results from a test taken no more than 72 hours before their flight’s arrival.

Masks are still required by the Transportation Security Administration for passengers age 2 and up on planes, trains and buses. Different states, and even cities within states, may have their own mask, testing or vaccine requirements for activities such as indoor dining. Local health department sites or the AARP website are good starting places to research a state’s coronavirus rules.

Again no, but C.D.C. guidelines recommend people delay travel until they are fully vaccinated.

Current C.D.C. guidance does not recommend international travel if you are not vaccinated. If you choose to travel overseas, it can be complicated: Your desired destination may have rules and guidelines that differ from those of the United States. Take Mexico, one of the most popular destinations for U.S. travelers. The country does not require vaccinations or testing for entry, regardless of the traveler’s nationality, while other countries, like Japan, Israel and Morocco, have recently closed their borders to noncitizens. To visit Canada, foreign visitors must show proof of vaccination and the negative results of a PCR or nucleic acid test. (Unvaccinated children can accompany vaccinated adults into Canada but must follow a specific set of protocols including health questionnaires and a virus test.)

Rules for these and other countries can change at any time, so it’s best to keep checking official government websites as your travel date approaches. The Times updates a list of countries open to U.S. citizens and the C.D.C. maintains a list of global Covid hot spots.

Again, it’s complicated. For outbound travel from the United States, vaccination requirements depend on your destination. U.S. embassy sites are good sources of information, as are countries’ tourist and health sites for your desired destination. Age requirements can also vary by destination.

The United States recently changed the timing of its testing requirement to re-enter the country. Travelers must now submit a negative virus test result taken within one day of the flight’s departure, instead of the previous three-day requirement for vaccinated fliers. This applies to all travelers age 2 and up, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.

It is important to note that the requirement is “one day” rather than “24 hours.” For example, for a flight leaving on Sunday at 3 p.m., the test needs to be taken anytime on Saturday or anytime on Sunday. This gives fliers more flexibility in scheduling their test for any time the day before the flight, or the day of, rather than timing a nighttime test for a flight the next evening.

Not a bad idea. The Food and Drug Administration has approved 13 home-based Covid tests, and families may want to bring some on the trip to use if anyone comes down with the sniffles or a cough, or to take just before getting to Grandma’s. They may be hard to find in stores or limited to one or two per customer, so don’t leave this errand to the last minute.

Family members may have varying risk tolerances, and at-home tests can help people relax and enjoy each other’s company, Dr. Risse said, “because even though it is imperfect, it adds another layer of protection.”

The C.D.C. specifies which tests are allowed for entry into the United States. Self-tests for the virus are OK if there is an accompanying telehealth service providing “real-time supervision remotely through an audio and video connection.” Your hotel or local family members may be able to point you to other testing options in the country — like at medical clinics or pharmacies.

Rules vary by cruise line. On Disney cruises, passengers 12 and up must be vaccinated, but that age is moving to 5 beginning Jan. 13. Children under 5 must have a negative virus test taken within three days of departure. Princess Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are only welcoming vaccinated travelers ages 5 and up. Currently, children under 5 are not allowed on board. Royal Caribbean requires guests age 12 and up to be vaccinated.

There may be additional requirements for cruises docking at other countries. Travelers boarding a cruise in Barbados, for example, need to download the BIMsafe app and follow its directions. It’s best to check with each cruise line for a specific sailing’s current rules and protocols.

Cruise lines have reason to worry, as “their whole image as a sector hangs in the balance,” said Lynn Minnaert, a clinical associate professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University. “They are taking vaccinations and testing seriously, so passengers who bear in mind the risks and take common sense precautions should have a safe experience.”

The C.D.C. still recommends that people who are unvaccinated or at risk of severe illness (regardless of vaccination status) avoid traveling on cruise ships worldwide, including river cruises.

Theme parks are required to follow state rules. Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida require guests 2 and older to wear masks in indoor locations, lines and enclosed transportation except when actively eating or drinking. Universal Studios in Florida recommends masking indoors but has no coronavirus-focused guest requirements.

Fully vaccinated, as defined by the C.D.C. as two weeks after the second dose, is not the same as fully protected. Breakthrough cases occur but they are generally mild. Scientists are still examining incoming data to determine if the vaccines will protect against the Omicron variant. In the meantime, the advice from the C.D.C. still stands: children 5 and older should get the vaccine to protect them and those around them from getting Covid-19 disease.

Keeping a mask on a young child while traveling can be challenging for children and parents. Here are some ideas to help your child comply with the rule: Practice wearing a mask together days or weeks before the flight so they get used to the feel. Go slow and don’t make it a fight. Try out different masks for comfort and fit. You may bring different ones to “change into” to make things fun or have a matching mask for a stuffed animal. If your child gets agitated on the flight stay as calm as you can because they will take their emotional cues from you. And consider resorting to bribery — more screen time, or bring small wrapped gifts they can open each time they have kept the mask on for some period of time.

It couldn’t hurt, especially if you are traveling to see older or immune-compromised relatives, no matter their vaccination status.

“Families come to me asking for a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer on if they should travel, because they are so tired of making the day-to-day risk assessments,” said Dr. Risse, the pediatrician. But every family needs to make its own decision to travel, based on the importance of their trip, how protected family members are and how much they trust fellow travelers to abide by the masking and social distancing rules that keep people safer. They also need to be aware of the levels of cases at their destination and the level of exposure their potential activities present. That is, eating at a restaurant indoors or staying at a hotel instead of a private residence.

Vivek Garg, chief medical officer for the health insurer Humana’s senior-focused primary care business, encourages travel when C.D.C. guidelines are followed. “It’s important for everyone’s mental health, especially that of older adults, that we socialize with friends and family,” Dr. Garg said.

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