Since January, Alan Fyall has twice rebooked a trip to visit his 82-year-old mother in England. Even though they’re both fully vaccinated, Fyall can’t get over his deep-seated worry about traveling abroad and potentially spreading COVID-19 to her—or someone else.
“It’s nerves. It’s a feeling I’ve never had before,” says Fyall, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Central Florida. “It’s just complicated. Even though you think, ‘OK, everything should be fine and we’ve done everything by the book,’ there’s still that nervousness and a real inherent fear. I’m just feeling very insecure.”
Fyall is not alone in his uneasiness about visiting family abroad. As more people become vaccinated and some countries re-open for international travel, planning a trip abroad to visit family members still requires careful consideration.
Below, we’ve outlined a few thought-starter questions for travelers hoping to reunite with family members in another country soon. In the meantime, review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel recommendations and bookmark your destination country’s guidelines, which continue to change. Travelers may also want to consider buying travel insurance.
Is the country making exceptions for immediate family members?
Even as travel bans remain in place around the world, some countries are making exceptions for family members. Those with dual citizenship also have more options.
Travelers can enter Canada, for example, if they are immediate family members of Canadian citizens, planning to stay in the country for at least 15 days, and can show a 14-day quarantine plan plus two documents that prove their relationship. Extended family members must follow those same rules, but also get written authorization from Canadian authorities. Canada defines immediate family members as spouses or common-law partners, dependent children, dependent grandchildren, parents or step-parents, and guardians or tutors.
These guidelines are always subject to change. Every country’s rules and definitions of family members are different, so check the destination country’s official government websites—as well as the CDC website and U.S. Embassy website for the country—before and during any trip. “Travelers just need to know that there’s some possibility that the situation could change and they may have to alter their plans,” says Karen Edwards, professor and chair of the epidemiology department at the University of California Irvine. “We’ve all learned to be a bit more flexible these days.”
Do I need to be fully vaccinated?
The first question to research is whether Americans are currently allowed to visit the country. More and more nations are reopening (or announcing plans for re-opening) to fully vaccinated travelers, regardless of their reason for visiting. Typically, these countries allow inoculated travelers to arrive no sooner than two weeks after their final shot. In addition to requiring proof of vaccination, many of these countries have additional quarantine and testing requirements in place. Iceland, for example, requires fully vaccinated or previously infected visitors to take a COVID-19 test when they arrive, then wait for the result to come back negative before moving around the country freely.
Also consider your own comfort level with traveling, even after you become fully vaccinated. Check the CDC’s country-by-country risk assessment map while planning the trip. Though countries like France, Germany, and Italy are rapidly vaccinating their citizens, the CDC notes that even fully vaccinated travelers are still at risk of getting and spreading new COVID-19 variants.
“There is always a small risk, as with any vaccine,” says Edwards. “Just because you’re vaccinated, that doesn’t mean you’re 100 percent protected. People shouldn’t be super paranoid, but they do need to be aware that there are new variants developing. If you’re really nervous, I would probably hold off on international travel unless it’s a really low-risk country.”
How vaccinated is the country you’re visiting?
While your own vaccination status is an important factor in deciding to visit family abroad, it’s just as important to consider the vaccination status of your family members, as well as their local region. “I would think carefully about making sure that everybody’s vaccinated on both sides,” says Edwards.
Though we know fully vaccinated travelers are themselves mostly protected from the virus, it’s still murky as to whether they can transmit COVID-19 to other people. Vaccination rates and medical infrastructure continue to vary widely around the world, with wealthier countries vaccinating higher numbers of people than lower-income countries. If you require medical care while you’re visiting family abroad, for COVID-19 or otherwise, you may be adding extra strain to an already overwhelmed health care system. Similarly, consider the possibility that you could cause harm by transmitting the virus to a community where most residents remain unvaccinated.
India, for example, is battling a devastating second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks; roughly three percent of the country’s population is fully vaccinated and hospitals are completely overwhelmed.
Will I have to quarantine?
Some countries are requiring visitors to quarantine after arrival, especially those traveling through regions with COVID-19 variants. Factor in the length of the destination’s quarantine requirement when considering the logistics of your trip, including your work, school, pet, or other obligations back home. The United Kingdom, for example, has varying quarantine requirements, depending on which country you’re visiting from. For now, all travelers arriving from mid-risk, “amber list” countries like the U.S. must quarantine for 10 days after arrival, in addition to taking three total COVID-19 tests—one before traveling and two after arriving.
Unless you’re coming from an approved “quarantine-free” country, you’ll have to spend 14 days in a government-managed isolation facility upon arrival in New Zealand. The country is allowing entry for family members who are partners, parents, or children of New Zealand residents. Australia also requires a 14-day quarantine and has opened its borders only to immediate family members, which includes spouses, partners, dependent children, and parents/legal guardians.
All air passengers arriving in the U.S., regardless of their vaccination status, must also present a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours or show proof of COVID-19 recovery within the past three months. The CDC is not requiring fully vaccinated travelers to quarantine after they return to the U.S., but is recommending that they get tested three to five days after travel.
To what extent has the country reopened?
In addition to the country’s willingness to accept visitors, consider the extent to which it has reopened more broadly. If the country is still on lockdown, with nightly curfews and closed businesses, then your visit will be largely limited to spending time at your family’s home or your hotel. That may not be a deal breaker, but it’s still worth considering.
“Yes, you can travel, but do you really understand the dynamic of the country you’re going to?” says Fyall. “It’s like, ‘Hold on folks, we’ve still got people in lockdown.’ You can get on a flight to Paris, but that doesn’t mean everything’s open.”
We’re reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find our latest coronavirus coverage here, or visit our complete guide to COVID-19 and travel.
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