What the Vaccine Distribution Timeline Means for Travel

When will we be able to take international trips again? Medical and travel experts weigh in.

Woman With Mask Leaving Her Suitcase In The Airport.

Megan Michelson

Megan Michelson

Dec 17, 2020

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency approval of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine on December 11 and the imminent authorization of Moderna’s vaccine, it seems that international trips may be a realistic thing to start thinking about again.

“Generally, the vaccine gives promise to travel. People are feeling more optimistic,” says Julia Pirrung, founder and president of JetSet World Travel, an agency based in Aspen, Colorado, that plans custom trips. “For people who have a longing to get to places like Europe or elsewhere, there’s definitely some hope for the latter half of 2021.”

The CEO of Australian airlines Qantas has said that all international travelers boarding its flights will be required to demonstrate proof that they’ve taken the vaccine, something no other airline has announced yet. Delta CEO Ed Bastian told Today that the vaccine could be required for international travel, but it will likely be the government rather than the airline that mandates it. So far no countries have stated that a vaccine will be required for entry, but some infectious-disease experts reference the yellow fever vaccine, which is required or recommended for entry into over 100 countries, as an example of what could happen with COVID-19.

“Similar to the yellow fever vaccine, we may see countries that allow people with the vaccine in without meeting quarantine or testing requirements,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease physician and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade organization, is currently at work developing a digital vaccine passport that will allow passengers to share their testing results and vaccination information with authorities.

Of course, many questions remain about the vaccine itself, including when the general population will receive it. While frontline workers and high-risk individuals are already receiving the first doses, the average person likely won’t have access until late spring or early summer 2021. The Pfizer vaccine currently requires two doses, separated by three weeks, and Adalja says that at least full week must pass after the second dose to allow for the full benefits. Only then should you have sufficient immunity to travel relatively safely. But whether the vaccine provides sterilizing immunity—meaning you can’t infect others—is still being determined. “Pharmaceutical companies are in the midst of trying to understand if the vaccine provides sterilizing immunity. Can you still infect other individuals? That’s always a risk, but hopefully we’ll have more information on that soon,” says Adalja.

Lisa M. Lee, who is associate vice president for research and a professor of population health at Virginia Tech, as well as a former leader at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there are still some important considerations for anyone anxious to travel. “Where are you headed? What is the risk at the place you’re going? Until the vaccine is available worldwide, there will still be a risk for transmission, so we need to ensure that we continue to engage in those public-health mitigation strategies we’ve been talking about for the past ten months: wearing a mask, keeping distance, washing hands,” she says.

Lee says that while we know that the current vaccines prevent people from getting very sick from the virus, we don’t know if that’s because they’re not getting infected at all or because it reduces symptoms, so there could still be a risk of transmission. 

“One of the things we’ve seen from COVID-19 is that it has made worse, and also made visible, the disparities and inequities in our country,” says Lee. “We want to make sure that any policy that’s rolled out, like requiring a vaccine for travel, is equitable and doesn’t make inequities larger.”

While there are still risks to consider, travelers are feeling optimistic about being able to travel soon. When news of the vaccine was first reported on November 9, the flight-search platform Skyscanner saw a 9 percent increase in bookings for economy round-trip flights, while Kayak saw a 27 percent jump in U.S. searches compared with the week before.

Outfitters are also seeing renewed interest in 2021 trips. According to Alpenglow Expeditions, which is based in Tahoe City, California, and leads mountaineering trips in destinations ranging from the Himalayas to Ecuador, clients are starting to plan.

In 2019, Alpenglow Expeditions led 38 international trips; in 2020, it led just eight trips overseas before shutting down in March. “We’ve been looking month by month: Can we reopen? How can we do it safely?” says Adrian Ballinger, its owner and a mountain guide. “The phone is ringing a lot lately, and the pent-up demand for travel is strong. We have stronger than normal bookings for the second half of 2021. People are saying, ‘I’m going to get a vaccine, and I’ll travel after that.’ We’re not saying that’s a requirement for trips, but it certainly makes things easier.”

Whether or not a typical Mount Everest climbing season can take place in spring 2021, Ballinger says, is still to be determined. However, one major thing has changed in travel and is likely to continue well into next year: cancellation policies. Alpenglow Expeditions used to have a 90-day cancellation policy. Now, with the exception of a trip to Mount Everest, you can cancel a booking with the company up to 14 days before departure and receive a full refund.

“The world of international travel and guiding has changed,” Ballinger says. “We’re nimbler and more flexible now. If we want international travel to come back, we know some things need to change.”

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