How Safe Is It to Travel With Unvaccinated Children?

As of March 2022, kids under 5 weren't able to get any COVID-19 vaccine in the US—here's what that means for your travel plans.

When the COVID-19 risk in your community and your dream destination is lowered, it's understandable that you'd want to travel—so long as you're following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel guidelines.

But, as of March 2022, children under the age of 5 weren't eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the US, making them more vulnerable than others to getting the virus. That should absolutely factor into your vacation plan-making.

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And it raises important questions, including whether traveling with an unvaccinated child is safe. Here's what pediatricians and infectious disease experts had to say.

Is It Safe To Travel With an Unvaccinated Child?

A lot of it comes down to personal risk tolerance, Mark Hicar, MD, PhD, associate professor of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Health. "The amount of risk one tolerates on a day-to-day basis varies by person, so something that one considers 'safe,' others may think is risky," pointed out Dr. Hicar.

Still, there are some other factors to consider. "If the location you are planning to travel is experiencing high rates, I would consider canceling the trip or making sure the location you are staying in, and the people you will interact with have been practicing social distancing and optimal safety measures," said Dr. Hicar.

COVID-19 research is your friend here if you're planning on vacationing with unvaccinated children. In the US, the CDC maintains a tool to determine COVID-19 levels by county. "I strongly recommend doing extensive research on what is going on locally with COVID-19," Rosemary Olivero, MD, pediatric infectious disease physician at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told Health. "I generally would not recommend this unless you have a healthy family with plenty of flexibility—both in terms of finances and time—regarding your trip, as this could get derailed should someone in your family test positive for COVID-19."

According to Dr. Hicar, the type of vacation you're planning on taking matters, too. "There are big differences in taking a vacation to a city where you are going to museums, ballgames, and visiting amusement parks, and going on a family camping or hiking vacation, or going to visit and solely spending time with extended family," pointed out Dr. Hicar.

Robert Hamilton, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and host of the podcast The Hamilton Review: Where Kids and Culture Collide, told Health that it's largely OK to travel with unvaccinated kids—if the proper precautions are followed.

However, note that any unvaccinated person poses a transmission risk to older, ill, or otherwise immunocompromised people. This, of course, includes unvaccinated kids.

If You Do Choose To Travel, What Are Your Safest Options?

In general, experts recommend traveling by car, when possible. "A road trip is safer," Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Health. Dr. Hamilton agreed. "It's like traveling in your living room," said Dr. Hamilton.

But driving isn't always the best option. "If you are going to drive through 'hotspots' of spreading [the] virus, it may be better to fly," said Dr. Hicar. "Choosing a driving vacation that necessitates hotel stays and a large number of stops adds measurable risk as well."

Flying can be OK, said Dr. Hamilton—you just need to make sure that you and your children are following the right precautions. "Flying on a plane presents challenges," said Dr. Hamilton, "but airlines are doing a wonderful job of keeping people healthy. They are not the focal point of super spreader events."

If you choose to fly, Dr. Hicar recommended trying to get a direct flight to "cut down on extra crowd exposure."

And of course, that's only for domestic travel within the US—international travel will have its own set of complications and issues. "International travel will be much more complex with unvaccinated persons," said Dr. Olivero.

If for some reason you do have to travel internationally with unvaccinated children, know this: Things will be "wildly different" outside of the US, depending on where you go, said Dr. Olivero. "From a very general view, traveling internationally with unvaccinated persons means potential quarantines, frequent testing before boarding flights, and subjecting yourself to highly contagious variants," said Dr. Olivero.

If you're traveling by air and are 2 years of age or older, as of April 2022, the CDC required proof of a negative COVID-19 test no more than one day before you enter the US. If you'd recently recovered from COVID-19, documentation of recovery would be required. The CDC provided a helpful guide to international travel for nationals of all countries.

If someone in your party does test positive, the quality of care at local health care facilities may vary. If the appropriate medical care is not available at your local facility, the CDC published guidelines for air evacuations of COVID-19 patients. But note it's not an easy trip to arrange. And, without emergency medical evacuation insurance, depending on where you're flying from, emergency medical transportation back into the US could cost you over $100,000.

Overall, experts said it's OK to travel with unvaccinated kids—you just need to be on high alert. "It's certainly reasonable to travel," said Dr. Hamilton. "You just need to follow the right precautions."

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