The COVID Conundrum

People are traveling now in numbers on par with pre-COVID days as most destinations have eliminated many or all of the restrictions they enacted during the peak of the pandemic. So how is that working out? I’ve gained some insight from our own travels into how COVID continues to impact leisure travel in all its forms…air, land, and sea…and I want to share some of that. It is anecdotal, but I’ve seen enough to offer some conclusions and suggestions.

Prior to this spring Janet and I knew hardly anyone who tested positive for COVID either during or immediately following travel. In the past month it seems like just about everybody we know who is traveling has tested positive. It isn’t really that bad…that’s a perception driven by a cognitive phenomenon known as the availability heuristic…something seems to be more common than it really is when it happens to people you know. The actual number of travelers that we know contracting COVID is very small, but even as small as it is, the number is noticeably higher than it was over the winter. Mostly because so many more people are traveling. Mostly.

With mandatory testing and masking now a thing of the past for most destinations, people aren’t taking the same precautions as they did when traveling earlier in the pandemic. They aren’t wearing masks, even on crowded airplanes or in busy airport terminals. And with most flights full these days all airplanes are crowded. As are the airport departure gate areas, restaurants, and bars. I’m talking shoulder to shoulder wherever you go…travel has become a contact sport as people increasingly get frustrated by flight delays and cancellations. Does that make a difference? I think so.

But here’s the thing…none of the people we know who contracted COVID while traveling got really sick. They’ve been asymptomatic or experienced what they described as a mild to bad cold, similar to what they used to get when the traveled before COVID. The only reason many of them are even aware they have COVID instead of a cold is they get tested after hearing of someone else on their trip testing positive, or in response to their own cold symptoms. Because that’s what you do these days when you have the sniffles…you get tested. Nobody has required hospitalization. One or two have taken Paxlovid, but most haven’t. They’ve had mild symptoms for a few days and then get better on their own. I’m sure that’s because anybody we know who has tested positive for COVID in connection with travel has been vaccinated and most have also had at least one booster shot.

Even as COVID restrictions have been relaxed for most travel destinations, and in many cases eliminated altogether, there are three things you should still do to mitigate your COVID risk. The first of course is to get vaccinated and boosted. Second, you can mitigate the risk of getting COVID by wearing an N95 mask when you fly, on any bus or train, and anytime you are in a confined environment with other people. That means transportation terminals, restaurants when you aren’t eating, and bars when you aren’t drinking. Even though it isn’t required, masking along with vaccination is still your best defense against getting COVID.

The third thing you should do is purchase a good trip insurance policy to mitigate the financial risk you face if you do contract COVID when you travel. It will provide protection against the cost of changing flights and paying for a hotel if you have to stay at your destination for a few extra days because of quarantine requirements. If you are one of the very few who get seriously ill, trip insurance provides you with financial protection against the cost of expensive medical treatment in a foreign country, or evacuation if that becomes necessary.

Increasingly people have adjusted to living with COVID and are no longer willing to go to the same lengths to avoid it as we did during the first two years of the pandemic. Many of our friends are going to major concerts, often several in a short span of time, which would have been unthinkable last year. Large family gatherings that had been put on hold are going forward. I can’t tell you the number of people we encountered on our recent trip to the Dominican Republic who were celebrating the destination weddings they put on hold for the past two years, or the celebration of milestone birthdays, anniversaries, and retirements now up to two years late.

Secrets Cap Cana, the resort we stayed at in the DR, is usually a place for couples, but it was full of groups both large and small who have put their COVID worries aside and come together to celebrate life. I know from following the Secrets Cap Cana Facebook group that some of those people came home with COVID. A negative COVID test prior to returning to the U.S. was still required during that trip, and the resort tested all departing guests. None of the people I noticed on the Facebook group tested positive for COVID at the resort…it was only after they returned home which suggests that they contracted the virus on their return trip, either in an airport or more likely on a plane.

My takeaway from the collective experience of people who travel and test positive for COVID is this: COVID still presents risks, but it is not the same dreaded unknown that it was when the pandemic first hit us back in the spring of 2020. Those risks are no longer stopping people from traveling, and most who end up testing positive feel their trip was worth it, in spite of COVID.

We continue to encourage travelers to consider your personal risk tolerance when it comes to deciding whether and how to travel, just as we have throughout the pandemic. Wear an N95 mask when you fly and anytime you are in crowded and confined spaces and purchase a quality trip insurance policy that will limit your financial risk if you come down with COVID while traveling. Make contingency plans for travel delays like packing extra prescription medications and making sure whatever arrangements you’ve made to have your kids, pets, and house looked after can be extended for a few days if needed. Even without COVID, flight disruptions can make those contingency plans useful.

Janet and I have resumed a busy travel schedule since this past winter, and we do all the things I’ve recommended here. So far, neither of us has tested positive for COVID. I don’t believe it is inevitable that we will, even with our busy travel schedule, because we continue to mask up and get booster shots when recommended. Even so, we are prepared for it if it happens. The one thing we are not doing is changing any of our travel plans. If anything we’ll be adding to them.

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