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Stay or go? Even with vaccines, travel planning this year remains complicated

by Lauren Sloss, The New York Times | March 16, 2021 at 1:52 a.m.
(The New York Times)

Kristin Botuchis booked the tickets last month, almost on impulse: two round-trip seats to London from Seattle for $1,200 in July — the perfect start to a dreamy European vacation that would include France, Italy and Greece. She found herself clicking through the Icelandic Air website and entering her information, "just to see what would happen."

"My husband was definitely caught off guard. He would never pick this time to travel," she said, admitting she hadn't done much research beforehand. "It was a little impulsive on my part."

Botuchis lives in Everett, Wash., with her husband and two children. She is turning 50 this year and celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary. She is also one of millions of Americans who, after a 2020 full of lockdowns and anxiety, is eager to get back to normal and back out into the world. But since that initial flush of possibility, of those daydreams of the French Riviera, Botuchis now worries that the pandemic realities of closed borders, quarantine requirements, uncertain vaccine access and her husband's uneasiness will derail the trip from happening at all.

"I was trying to make this leap and make this dream trip happen," she said. "But I started to realize that this may not be the trip I envisioned."

Welcome to the next phase of travel in a pandemic world: the post-vaccine era. Or maybe the mid-vaccine era is more accurate.

Vaccine rollouts are giving hope to travelers antsy to explore, as are scattered liftings of pandemic lockdowns nationally and around the world. But travel planning remains far from simple. Vaccine distribution is confusing and questions remain regarding its efficacy in preventing transmission. Family members and friends may have different timelines for receiving a vaccine.

On top of all that, news about the spread of variants is worrisome, and international travel remains head-scratchingly confusing with restrictions and testing requirements. (If Botuchis left tomorrow, she would not be able to enter France or Italy without proving an essential reason for her visit. Even if she opted to fly only to London, she would be required to quarantine for at least five days upon arrival.) And don't forget that your favorite travel partner may have a different level of comfort regarding travel than you.

Botuchis, who works with special-needs children, has already been vaccinated. Her husband, an industrial project manager, is not currently eligible. Taking a trip of any kind this summer might require her persuading him to take the risk, she said.

"We both had covid in November, but his case was much worse than mine," she said. "He's definitely more scared of the virus than I am. And he's a little more cautious in general." That, coupled with uncertainty around when he will receive a vaccine, makes her European trip a harder case for her to make.

VACCINATED BUT UNCERTAIN

If the uncertainty of 2020 has taught us anything, it's the unlikelihood that any travel that happens this year will be similar to the "normal" of pre-pandemic times.

"Many of my colleagues in the travel industry are looking at the vaccine as a silver bullet to the situation," said James Ferrara, president and co-founder of InteleTravel, a global host travel agency. "I don't think that the science backs that yet."

Indeed, travel planning isn't necessarily more straightforward for those who have already been vaccinated. Loren Riskin, an anesthesiologist based in San Francisco, was vaccinated in January. Riskin, 37, is largely basing her willingness to travel on the current state of the pandemic in California.

"There's some data to suggest that, if you're vaccinated, you can still be an infectious carrier. And here in the Bay Area, we are still in a pretty dire place," she said. "My travel plans, which right now are mostly daydreams, are much more based on what public health officials and leadership have said our system can tolerate, rather than my own direct risk." (Currently, California's state directives encourage residents to avoid nonessential travel and to self-quarantine for 10 days upon returning home.)

Bill Jirsa and his wife, of Georgetown, Texas, are both fully vaccinated. Last fall, optimistic about the announcement of viable vaccines, Jirsa, 79, rebooked a land tour of Sicily, originally scheduled in 2020, for May. He also booked a cruise around the Caribbean and Brazil in the fall. Plus, there was an annual golf trip in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his brother and two friends. But receiving his second shot late last month didn't provide the feeling of confidence and safety he had hoped for.

'WHAT THE SHOTS DO'

"We're just not comfortable with the current situation. Nobody can tell us that we can't carry the virus and give it to someone else; no one knows for sure what the shots do with these new variants," he said. "Nobody likes the unknown. So how can you plan when there's so much you can't plan for?"

The couple has decided to, again, cancel all of their international travel plans, and received refunds for flights from Delta and Alitalia. Jirsa feels more comfortable with the idea of the Arizona golf trip, but his brother and friends are facing resistance from their families who have young children and are concerned about transmission of the virus. But the golf group is determined to play next year, if not this fall.

"We don't have that many years left when we are ambulatory, when we can do the kind of traveling that we like to do," Jirsa said. "In 2022, we're going to be 80 years old. I just don't know what we're going to be up for."

HOT SPOTS, QUARANTINES

Vaccines are just one piece of the puzzle. Shifting hot spots and regularly changing state and country restrictions and testing requirements remain a concern for many would-be travelers.

Stacey Burkert, who lives in Durham, N.C., her husband and their three teenage children traveled to Costa Rica in January — their first time flying since spring — in part because she felt less safe at home with the state's rising case numbers. In Costa Rica, she and her family stayed in a villa that allowed them to be relatively isolated. Her children were able to continue remote schooling while away, too.

The Burkerts are considering a family hiking trip in Europe this summer, but she'd like the vaccine and more information before committing to those plans.

"Even when I'm vaccinated, I'd still rather avoid areas that are a hot spot," she said. "Our plans this summer will depend a lot on how Europe handles the virus."

Rebecca Williams, who lives in New York, hopes to travel to Italy in August with her husband, daughter and newborn son. The trip had been canceled last year. Williams is 34 and her husband is 35; both are low-risk and will probably be one of the last groups vaccinated. While she is hopeful that they'll be vaccinated by later this summer, she does not see the vaccine as a panacea.

'HAVE OUR OWN SPACE'

"Hopefully, we'll be vaccinated. We'll get a negative covid test before we fly, and we'll get one when we land if we need to," she said. "We'll rent a house so we have our own space; I imagine we'll interact with the community less than we normally would." For now, she's looking at house rentals, but she plans on holding off on booking flights until this summer.

With or without the vaccine, external factors mean that her long-awaited plans are far from certain. "We would have to cancel if a variant came out that was really dangerous for kids. Or if New York was in a state of lockdown. Or if a two-week quarantine was required at our destination; I'd have to re-evaluate our timing."

It's a lot. Not to mention that nonessential travel to Italy from the United States is currently prohibited. Changing rules around testing and mandatory quarantines have become something of a constant over the past year; now, there's a possibility that either proof of vaccine or a vaccine passport could become a necessity.

If travel planners learned anything in 2020, it is that the rapidity with which requirements can change — state by state and country by country — can be dizzying. Botuchis expressed concern that, come summer, Americans will still be barred from entering much of the European Union without an essential reason. Even if she and her husband can enter the country, will quarantine requirements prevent them from actually seeing the place they're visiting? And then there are changing requirements for re-entering the United States.

QUICKLY LOSE APPEAL

The latest virus hot spots seem to emerge just as quickly. An August trip to Italy — which is currently reporting tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases a day — might sound somewhat feasible now, but would quickly lose appeal if the country saw an even further surge. It's a feeling of whiplash that Williams remembers all too well from 2020.

"I remember saying last March, 'Over my dead body will we cancel this trip! This will be over by Memorial Day!'" she said, referring to her 2020 travel plans. "Now, looking back on it, I can't help but think, 'Oh, Rebecca. Nope.'"

Botuchis has a map pinned to her wall and guidebooks full of highlighted passages, but in the face of so much uncertainty, she has only booked that one round-trip flight to London. She hasn't been able to bring herself to dig too deeply into cancellation and change policies.

"If I'm not allowed in the country, they've got to give me my money back, right?" she said. "Or if they would give me a voucher so I could reschedule to next year ... that would be OK."

SUBJECT TO CHANGE

More flexible change policies could make it easier for some to pull the trigger and book, but it doesn't change the fact that it's difficult to imagine what this summer will look like for travel. While it cannot be compared with the overwhelming loss of life and economic despair in the United States and elsewhere, the loss of travel over the past year has left a void for many.

"We're in a weird inflection point between the physical risks of a deadly disease and the mental risks of not being able to pursue the things you love," Riskin said.

The possibility of missing out on more adventures for an undefined period is a hard reality to consider.

"I'm realizing how important travel, socializing and community really are," Williams said.

For Burkert, that uncertainty makes it incredibly difficult for her to even think too far ahead.

"We used to plan our travel two years out. But I just have to keep the blinders on right now, because I can't stand the letdown," she said. "Even this Europe trip. It makes me nervous to talk about July. There's this possible disappointment that I don't want to deal with."

Riskin is heartened that numbers in California are steadily improving. The possibility of traveling farther afield is a promise she's holding onto to continue getting through a particularly challenging year. Her dream trip is a multiday scuba-diving trip on a boat, something that the vaccine at least allows her to consider again.

But she's not booking anything yet.

"We need to rely on public health experts and epidemiologists and the people who have access to the bigger picture," she said. "But as soon as they give me the go-ahead, I am going to go see some fish."

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