What’s the safest way to travel if you’re vaccinated? Driving or flying?

is it safer to fly or drive
Photo via Jorge Diaz/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Summer vacations are looking like a possibility again for vaccinated individuals. Domestic travel and quarantine restrictions are lightening up for those who have gotten the jab, and the U.S. is likely to see an increase in travel in the summer of 2021. But even if you are vaccinated, what is the safest way to travel? Is it safer to fly or drive? Experts say the answer isn’t clear cut.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends avoiding nonessential travel, even if you are vaccinated. Many experts fear an increase in travel, even among those who are vaccinated, could lead to a surge in COVID cases. 

However, many Americans are still planning on traveling this spring and summer. Bookings for flights and hotels have surged, and a survey from research company Toluna found that 42% of Americans said they would feel comfortable traveling by July, according to CNBC. In 2020, it was probably safer to drive instead of fly. But in the summer of 2021, the opposite could be true: Travelers and experts seem to believe flying is safer than previously thought.

Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious-disease specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina, told the Washington Post that flying and driving present different risks, and travelers will have to weigh the risks of flying and driving against each other on their trip. 

Is it safer to fly or drive on your trip?

Flying is still considered risky because you are in close proximity to strangers on flights and because you spend time in an airport. However, if your other option is a long road trip with stops in public places, possibly through areas with high rates of COVID, flying might be safer than driving.

Paul Sax, clinical director of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told the newspaper that flying isn’t as dangerous as originally thought. And compared to other everyday activities people have resumed, it’s less risky.

“When you compare it to some other activities that people are doing pretty regularly, like going to restaurants or even places of worship, flying isn’t so bad because there’s a lot of ventilation in the flight,” Sax said. “Most of the people on the flight are wearing masks and not talking, and not singing and shouting.”

However, travelers have more control over their trip if they drive. If it is a relatively short drive, they may choose to not stop at any unnecessary public places along the way. When flying, there is less guarantee of how many people you may come in contact with. Some flights are almost empty whereas others are as packed as can be. 

No matter how you travel, it’s important to wear a mask and social distance so you don’t spread COVID. The CDC recommends even people who have been fully vaccinated still take these precautions in public. However, if you are with others who are also fully vaccinated, the CDC says it is safe to gather privately indoors without masks.

“This whole game is just reducing your risk at every point that you can,” Kristin Bratton Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University, told Afar. “Once you are vaccinated it does not mean that you can go to a party with 100 people without a mask…but it does mean that the risk-benefit sort of changes for a lot of these questions that we have been thinking about over the last year—that balance shifts once you’re vaccinated. It’s not that you don’t take precautions, it’s just that you feel a lot safer doing something that maybe nine months ago you wouldn’t have done. And I think that that’s perfectly reasonable.”

Nelson told Afar she urges people to only take essential trips in the coming months and to put off non-essential trips and vacations until at least the fall of 2021.

After you get the vaccine, is it safe to …

Sources: Washington Post, Afar, CNBC, CDC

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