Want to tiptoe back into traveling? Start out with a long weekend trip

Erica Lamberg
Special to USA TODAY

If you're ready to start traveling again but still a little stressed about the whole prospect, taking a long weekend could be the ideal way to ease back in. With the vaccine rollout well underway and restrictions loosening, three or four nights can be just the break you need.

That said, remember COVID-19 isn't over yet – in fact, depending on where you're traveling, the highly contagious delta variant could be of concern

We've asked health experts for their advice for travelers preparing to embark on their first getaways of the pandemic:

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Does your destination still have any COVID-19 restrictions? Find out

If this is your first weekend away, there is some research you must do before hitting the road or heading to the airport.

"It is important to check what the guidelines are at your destination regarding whether quarantining will be necessary, whether masks are required, and if there are COVID tests required before or during travel,” says Dr. Alaina Brinley Rajagopal, an emergency medicine physician and virologist based in Southern California.

You can find this information on the website for the American Automobile Association. Other good resources include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the airport or the state and county health departments where you'll be traveling. 

Don't discount the delta variant

The delta variant, considered the most serious COVID-19 mutation, now accounts for 14.5% of the new cases in California, prompting Los Angeles County to advise everyone to resume wearing masks – even fully vaccinated people. 

"Fortunately, it looks like the vaccines provide good protection against this variant," Rajagopal says. "If you are vaccinated, you should be able to travel according to destination guidelines and still be protected.”

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However, if you are not vaccinated, you are at risk for this disease – even if you've had COVID-19 before, she warns.

"This variant appears to spread more easily and might make you sicker than previous variants so if you aren't vaccinated and intend to travel, I would strongly urge you to get fully vaccinated prior to travel," Rajagopal adds.

The World Health Organization is also urging the return of masks. However, as of Tuesday, the CDC had not indicated any changes to its May policy update, which said fully vaccinated people no longer need to mask indoors.

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Pack a mask – even if you're vaccinated

If you are not vaccinated, nothing has changed, says Dr. Alaina Brinley Rajagopal.  “It is critical that you continue to wear a mask, social distance and avoid large gatherings.”

Other health advice from Rajagopal:

Figure out when you'll be fully vaccinated. "Try not to travel before your vaccine is fully effective,” she says, noting that regardless of brand, your vaccine will not be fully effective until about two weeks after your final dose. So plan your travel dates accordingly. 

Not vaccinated? Wear your mask, avoid groups. If you are not vaccinated, nothing has changed, she says. "It is critical that you continue to wear a mask, social distance and avoid large gatherings,” she says.

Consider wearing a mask even if you're vaccinated. Keep in mind that there are many people who cannot be vaccinated due to age or other health reasons. When vaccinated people wear masks, they help protect those vulnerable populations, Rajagopal notes.

"There are cases where vaccinated people have had positive COVID tests, so keep in mind, it may be possible to infect children or other unvaccinated people, even if you are vaccinated,” she says, though she acknowledges the likelihood is rare.

Get tested. Testing before and after travel is still a good idea regardless of vaccination status – especially if you will be around large groups of unvaccinated people, including children, Rajagopal says.

Leaving the country? You'll need a negative test to come back

Heading abroad to popular pandemic destinations like Mexico or the Caribbean? If your trip is longer than three days, you may need a new negative PCR or rapid antigen test to board your return flight to the U.S. That goes for all passengers ages 2 and up – even if you're fully vaccinated. (No test is required if you are returning from an American territory such as Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.)

Luckily for travelers, the CDC has now said that at-home COVID-19 tests will satisfy its testing requirement. Other options include on-site testing, available at many hotels and resorts in the Caribbean and Latin America (make sure that the turnaround time will work for you) and local labs, which you can usually find listed on the local U.S. embassy's COVID-19 page. 

And don't forget to check whether your own state or county requires COVID-19 test before returning home.

Keep your expectations in check

Even though tourism sites, hospitality websites, or hotel booking sites tout amazing amenities, keep in mind that not all may be available, so check for any restrictions before you go. This could include pool hours, spas, gyms, water play areas, children's clubs, breakfast buffets, sun lounging decks and more.

It would be beneficial to call the hotel to check on what may not be available during your long weekend trip. If that lodging selection doesn't match your expectations, book elsewhere.

In addition, certain regions may be off-limits to Americans traveling abroad. For instance, tourists visiting Jamaica must stick to lodging and activities inside its Resilient Zone if they wish to avoid quarantine.

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Factor in local transportation and make reservations

If you are traveling by airplane, a federal order requires you to wear your mask through all stages of travel – whether you're on the ground or in the air – until Sept. 14. The only time you can remove them is to eat or drink – briefly. The same order also extends the mask mandate on trains, buses, ferries, and other forms of public transportation until that date.

Many of these modes of transport, particularly in touristy towns in peak season, may require advance reservations, so check into that well before traveling. 

Theme park visits

If you are planning a weekend visit to a theme park, consider using the bonus Friday or Monday for your visit, where there are likely fewer guests. At Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, you can even visit for free for two hours the evening before your reservation date.

No matter when you go, be mindful of high-touch surfaces and wash or sanitize your hands often. "In theme parks, handrails are commonly touched as are buttons and just understand that while the staff may clean these items hourly or at set intervals, you may or may not touch it right after someone else touched it,” says Shanina Knighton, a clinical nurse scientist, infection preventer and faculty member at Case Western Reserve University's nursing school.

When dining in a theme park, also be aware of things like meal trays and condiment containers. "Because people's hands may have touched these items and you will then touch these items when consuming your food,” Knighton says.

Hotel safety recommendations

The television remote control at New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas now comes with a little protection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

If you're staying in a hotel or resort, most of them are very vigilant about sanitizing both rooms and public spaces and enforcing social distance policies. Their efforts have reassured the medical community.

"In hotel rooms, I generally do not worry with the exception of the remote control for the TV,” says Dr. Richard Martinello, the director of infection diseases at Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut. "I think it is a good idea to wipe it down with a disposable disinfectant wipe before you use it or wash your hands after handling the remote, just to be on the safe side.”

When possible during hotel stays, Knighton suggests travelers park at street level and stay on the main level to avoid elevators. "If you have to take an elevator or escalator look for hand sanitizer stations nearby when getting off,” she adds.

Martinello has one more piece of advice that has nothing to do with COVID-19:  "I make it a routine to take a quick look at the mattress to make sure there is no evidence for bedbugs and, instead of placing my luggage on the ground, I use the luggage rack to discourage any insects, if around, from getting in my bag.”

Remember being compassionate goes a long way 

A kind disposition, patience, understanding and adjusting expectations will help make your trip better.

"I always say, ‘Be kind.' COVID-19 has touched every person's life in ways unimaginable. Without us understanding someone's backstory, you may not know why or why not he or she chooses to wear a mask in locations where they are not required,” Knighton says. "They may be caring for a loved one that is vulnerable but cannot be vaccinated.”

Above all, stay home if you're sick. "As we are emerging from a long winter dominated by COVID, it is easy to forget that there are more threats than just COVID out there,” Martinello says. "If you're sick with a virus, you need to stay home until you are better and, of course, if it could be COVID, get tested."