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'Travel can happen now,' doctor says, but you still have to take precautions: Here's what you need to know

"We expect that the most affordable time of the year to travel would be right now, spring 2021."

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This week, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would have enough vaccine supply for every adult by the end of May. This development, coupled with lower-than-average air fares even on first-class international tickets, is no doubt tempting Americans to start booking flights. Already, 43% of adults feel comfortable taking a vacation, according to recent data from Morning Consult.

But just because flights are more affordable and vaccines will be more widely available doesn't mean travel is going to feel normal, says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. 

"Travel can happen now," he says, "if it's allowed and if the [case] numbers look OK. If you're vaccinated, it buys you a sense of self security, but you still have to practice proper hygiene interventions." This means it's important to socially distance, wear a mask, and wash your hands often.

In short, "if you're going to travel, regardless of if you get the shot or not, you have to take the proper precautions," he says.

Spring travel is more affordable, and more risky

"We expect that the most affordable time of the year to travel would be right now, spring 2021," says Adit Damodaran, economist at Hopper. That's true even for luxury travel. For example, this spring, first-class, round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Guadalajara are $399, according to data from Hopper.

Should you choose to to take a flight soon, know that you'll have to take many of the same precautionary measures as you would have last year, Galiatsatos says, even if you've gotten the vaccine. That's because while the vaccine can keep you from contracting the virus, it is unclear whether it will keep you from transmitting the virus.

"The vaccine is like a permanent, N-95 mask," Galiatsatos says. So if you're traveling during the spring when it is likely that most people won't be vaccinated yet, you still have to take all the precautions you would have before, regardless of whether you've already gotten the shot.

The number of places you can go internationally will be limited if you fly this spring, though. "There are a number of round-trip flights to international destinations with first-class tickets under $500, and a couple under $400," he says. "Most of the international flights in this range are short-to-medium haul hops over the border to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean." And even Canada has restrictions on which U.S. citizens can visit.

Summer travel will look more normal but cost more

If you wait until summer, some more destinations will likely open up, but the deals probably won't be as good. "We expect prices to steadily increase in the coming months with growing travel demand as the vaccination rollout continues, topping out in the summer," Damodaran says.

However, if the vaccination process accelerates, it might be safer to travel this summer than in the spring. "If we get more people vaccinated, I really do think we can take those actions, like traveling, with a little more comfort," Galiatsatos says.

We expect the most affordable time of the year to travel would be right now, spring 2021.
Adit Damodaran
economist at Hopper

Once more people are vaccinated, you can socialize and move around with more confidence, which means you can more safely travel with family or friends. "If people are being vaccinated, you can bring new members into your pod," Galiatsatos says. "If people are vaccinated, you don't have to do that due diligence."

Vaccine distribution has been wildly different from state to state, though. Given that, you could wait until fall, when inoculation could be more widespread and prices are expected to drop again. "We're expecting fall travel to be 7% more affordable than summer travel," Damodaran says.

The more people who are vaccinated, and the later in the year, the more normal your trip is going to look.

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