(CNN) — The holiday season last year was a stay-at-home affair for many people who would normally have flown south for a beach break or gravitated toward the twinkling lights of a big city.
This year, with widespread vaccination in many countries, moving around the world has become safer and more accessible for many would-be travelers. But the pandemic’s constant risk-benefit analysis still very much applies: Can I travel safely? Which destinations should I consider? Who else can go? How complicated will it be?
It would be so nice to have a definitive list of DO-go-here destinations and another list of DO-NOT-go-there spots. No such luck. Once again, “it depends” figures heavily in any plan.
CNN Travel asked industry experts and CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen about how to weigh holiday destination decisions and pick places that match your risk level and risk tolerance.
Wearing a high-quality mask is key to making air travel safer.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
The No.1 consideration
Your vaccination status is the most important factor from an ease-of-travel standpoint.
Traveling with children who are unvaccinated will be a consideration for many families.
“This risk is not so much the travel itself but what you do at the destination. Travel itself can be made very safe, especially if the younger children are able to mask. If they’re unable to mask that is a major barrier,” said Wen, who is also author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
If she were traveling only with her four-year-old son, who is used to masking at preschool, Wen said she would feel very comfortable taking him on a short flight. However, she would not travel on a plane or train with her one-and-a-half year old daughter because she can’t consistently mask.
People should be wearing a high-quality mask — N95, KN95 or KF94 — anytime they’re in crowded indoor settings with people of unknown vaccination status, she said.
“The transmission rates are one guidepost,” Wen said. “Another is what precautions are required and followed in the place that you’re going and then the third is what are you planning to do once you’re there. Are you planning to visit a lot of attractions and go to indoor bars? That’s very different from you’re going somewhere where you’re planning to lie on the beach all day and not interact with anyone else. That’s very different. Those are very different levels of risk.”
And your own health history, age and comfort level — for yourself or your children — are also important considerations.
Destinations such as Turks and Caicos are popular with wintertime travelers hoping to spend a lot of time outside.
Where are travel advisers sending more risk-averse travelers?
Les sees Belize, where she is currently living, as a great option because so many of the hotels are smaller, boutique resorts with independent dwellings for each party. “So you’re not sharing hallways with other people. Your little bungalow is just yours. There might be 10 or 20 of them, so really max on the property is 30 to 40,” she said.
Back in August 2020, Les took her own first big pandemic trip to Turks and Caicos. The flight was nonstop and the islands were requiring testing, giving Les some assurance that her safety and that of the locals was a priority (now the islands require both a test and proof of vaccination for most travelers).
A nonstop flight to a destination that requires a test means nearly everyone on your flight has recently tested negative for Covid-19. Travelers won’t get that when flying domestically in the United States, she noted.
“You don’t have to test to fly to Colorado from Florida or to fly to Boston from New York … it’s not safer to be domestic,” Les said. What travelers do eliminate in staying within their home country is the risk of getting stranded in another country if they test positive before flying home and have to stay on to quarantine.
For Americans, getting stranded “is certainly a potential hazard any time you leave the country right now because of the US requirement to be tested and be negative before you come back into the country,” said Hershberger.
“If you’ve got two weeks and you can only be gone two weeks, period, that may not be a chance that I would take,” he said, adding that it’s still unlikely if you’re vaccinated and careful while you’re away.
He noted that national parks are a great, outdoor-focused option for travelers inclined to stay closer to home and Hawaii is now welcoming tourists again after asking visitors to stay away during a late-summer surge.
Hawaii (with Waikiki in Honolulu pictured here in 2018) is once again welcoming tourists.
Kat Wade/Getty Images
What about Europe?
Any place where the weather is likely to drive visitors indoors can be iffy for travelers who are uncomfortable or more at risk for bad outcomes if they get infected.
Christmastime can be a magical time in big cities like Paris, with elegant holiday decorations and unique shopping, but Paris in the winter is likely to mean a lot of time inside. “You’re putting yourself in more of a position to be around more people in sort of a stagnant inside area,” Les said, and she’s steering clients to warmer destinations instead.
Last week global Covid-19 cases and deaths increased for the first time in two months, driven by ongoing increases in Europe, according to the World Health Organization. But Europe is not off the table for many travelers.
Germany (with Leipzig pictured here in 2020) can be magical at Christmastime but cold weather means more time indoors.
Jens Schlueter/AFP via Getty Images
“For people that are not as Covid-wary as others, this is a great time to go to Europe,” Hershberger said. Travelers willing to do their homework or enlist an adviser to navigate the rules, will find it less crowded than usual, he said.
At Trailfinders in the United Kingdom, Europe is proving popular with clients for the winter holidays. The Canary Islands, Switzerland, Malta and Iceland are in demand, according to Nikki Davies, public relations manager at Trailfinders. “Plus our clients have started booking city breaks again to the likes of Paris, Amsterdam etc.”
How much weight should you give travel advisories?
Transmission rates are important to consider, but there are other factors to weigh, Wen said, calling the CDC classifications “one useful tool.” The situation is very fluid with cases rising in some countries and dropping substantially in others. She urges would-be travelers to look at what precautions are being taken in prospective destinations.
“For example, you could have a country with high transmission rates but that requires indoor masking including in public transportation or that requires proof of vaccination or testing for entering restaurants and going to sports venues. That would make it a lot safer. So just looking at the transmission rates is not enough,” Wen said. In France, for example, most public indoor spaces require a health pass showing proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test.
A health pass requirement in France helps mitigate risk in indoor spaces.
Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images
And planning for travel goes back to getting vaccinated, masking in transit and factoring in your activities. If you take other precautions, sitting on the beach in a CDC Level 4, “do not travel” country could end up being much safer than going from one crowded restaurant and museum to another in a place with a lower risk designation.
Davies said that with the US opening to vaccinated international travelers on November 8, it’s back to being the top destination for Trailfinders clients, with New York, California and Florida the most popular destinations.
“In the UK, the message is the world is open,” she said. While there aren’t as many flights, she estimated weekly bookings are back to pre-pandemic levels.
But open or not, where or whether someone travels this holiday season is a personal calculation.
“It doesn’t make any sense to go on a vacation and be stressed the whole time,” said Hershberger. “So you go someplace where you can avoid some of that stress, whatever that comfort level is for you.”
Top photo: Mudjin Harbor Beach in Middle Caicos in the Turks and Caicos; credit: Marnie Hunter/CNN