Traveling while unvaccinated: Here’s what could happen

traveling while unvaccinated

If you’re traveling while unvaccinated this summer, mind the vaccine gap.

As the summer vacation season comes into focus and doses become widely available, people are grappling with their vaccine status could affect their next trip.

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R. Anne Miller and her husband are in one camp. They were vaccinated in February. “We’ve observed all precautions and quarantined for the last year,” says Miller, a retired lawyer from Tucson. “We desperately want to travel.”

Katy Kassian, a business consultant and frequent traveler from Regan, N.D., is in another camp. She is unvaccinated and plans to stay that way. “I don’t feel the need to get vaccinated,” she says. “And I’m comfortable with that choice.”

What will happen if you travel while unvaccinated

So how to accommodate those with and without shots? We’re about to find out.

Categorizing travelers based on their vaccination status makes some sense from a public health perspective. Already, some travel companies are requiring proof of vaccination. The travel industry, particularly airlines, has a lot of experience with partitioning customers based on elite status or ticket prices. But separating them based on whether they have been vaccinated is new territory.

This year, as doses became more widely distributed, a handful of countries began to admit vaccinated travelers, often without requiring quarantines. Those countries included Cyprus, Iceland and Poland.

Traveling while unvaccinated might be difficult

Some destinations might flip the script. Instead of making travel easier for the vaccinated, they could make it impossible for the unvaccinated.

David Hosking, director of the Travel Corp.’s Australia division, says Australia and New Zealand could follow that path when they reopen their borders.

“Currently, you can only visit with a special permit and must quarantine for 14 days on arrival at your own expense,” Hosking says. Additionally, Australia’s regulations stipulate that visitors be tested twice during the quarantine period, first near the beginning and again near the end; refusal can prolong the quarantine. Clearly, being vaccinated could save inbound visitors lots of hassle.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine hotels reserving floors for vaccinated travelers, airlines operating flights that are for vaccinated passengers only or restaurants creating special areas for inoculated patrons.

Keeping them separated is a travel tradition

Categorizing travelers is a tradition in the travel industry. Virendra Jain, CEO of the rating site Safe Travel Barometer, says there is a framework already in place to support segmentation by vaccination status.

“In the coming months, we will no doubt see travelers being compartmentalized based on the type of tests conducted and the vaccine type they had access to,” he adds.

But Kassian, the unvaccinated traveler from North Dakota, says the biggest problem is not how travel companies treat their customers; it’s how travelers treat one another. She recently witnessed two restaurant patrons arguing about their immunity status.

“A vaccinated patron was berating an unvaccinated patron for entering the establishment,” she recalls. Kassian expects to see more such arguments as the summer travel season draws closer. “The gap between vaccinated and unvaccinated is indeed widening,” she adds.

Issues raised by traveling while unvaccinated

John Niser, director of the school of hospitality and tourism management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, says the vaccine chasm raises two issues for travelers.

“First is the fact that for many, this is a fundamental question of personal choices and freedom,” he says. “I can’t see any democracy having the desire or capacity to mandate vaccines.”

The second issue is the perception of safety, he says. Experts say there is an assumption that vaccines will eliminate travel-related risks of infection by the coronavirus. But they won’t.

“Vaccines are not a silver bullet that will simply switch off the pandemic overnight,” explains Tom Kenyon, chief health officer at Project HOPE, an international health-care organization. “It will take time before we see the impact of the vaccine and life returns to normal.”

In other words, your risk of infection does not depend entirely on whether the people you encounter on your travels are vaccinated or not. There are other factors at play, including your age, behavior and medical history.

Should the vaccine gap exist?

Some people, such as Ed Campobenedetto of Cleveland, say the vaccine gap shouldn’t exist — that if you travel, you should get vaccinated. Campobenedetto, a retired chemical engineer, recalls all the mandatory shots he received before going to Africa and Asia for his work.

“The coronavirus,” he says, “is highly contagious and can be deadly. There are too many people that are asymptomatic and could expose others without even being aware that they are carrying the virus.”

Jessica Smith Bobadilla, a human rights lawyer in Fresno, Calif., says it’s not that simple. “This undeniably raises complex issues about an individual’s right to choose the vaccine,” she says.

For some travelers, it is a deeply personal problem. That includes me. I’m fortunate enough to have been vaccinated, but my kids haven’t. My sons, 16 and 18, are in the age group at the end of the line for vaccination. My daughter is too young to get a shot.

If we travel this spring and summer, we’ll take all the recommended precautions. But I’m concerned about the potential for discrimination — by the travel industry and by other travelers.