In the US, children ages 5 to 11 are now eligible to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and across the country, the rollout is in full swing.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced its recommendation on November 2, expanding eligibility to some 28 million kids and paving the way for lower-risk family vacations to return—just in time for the winter holiday season. Here’s what the news could mean for your travel plans.

How will this affect travel? 

For both domestic and international travel, the CDC suggests delaying until you’re fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been a minimum of two weeks since you received your second dose. As children need to get their second shot three weeks after their first, Thanksgiving will come too soon for those unwilling to travel without full vaccination, but by December, plenty of fully vaccinated families could be hitting the road.  

Multiple travel agents told the industry site Skift they expect to see an increase in family travel, especially by plane, as more kids become vaccinated, though they emphasized change wouldn’t happen overnight. “Certainly the vaccine has opened up the door for families to travel again, but it will very much subjective and based on personal comfort—it’s not an automatic ‘everyone’s good to go’,” Family Travel Association founder Rainer Jenss told Skift. “There is this built in hesitancy and caution that doesn’t just suddenly go away.” 

Boy and girl in the back seat of a car using a tablet and smartphone.
Travel agents predict that families will stay fairly local this holiday season © Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

“The approval comes too close to winter break, knowing that people are only considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose,” added Jennifer Hardy of Cruise Planners. “I do foresee more local family gatherings, but when it comes to international travel, cruises, and other destination-focused vacations, parents are more cautious and want to wait it out.”

And for good reason. Like adults, kids can suffer long-term effects and spread the virus to others, though they don’t usually get as severely sick. But it does happen: as of October 26, in the US’s 5-to-11 age bracket, there were more than 8,300 hospitalizations (a third involving the ICU) and 94 deaths due to COVID-19, per data from the CDC

Still, just knowing the shot offers some measure of protection may put parents more at ease, whether or not it provides full immunity by the time they travel. 

A mother with two kids overlooking a scenic mountain vista, seen from the back
Limiting activities in crowded places is important for those too young to be vaccinated © Nadezhda1906 / Getty Images

What about traveling with kids under 5 years old? 

For families with kids too young to get vaccinated, especially those too young to mask up, certain precautions may keep everyone safer, including taking COVID-19 tests and quarantining before visiting at-risk relatives. “For children who are too young to be vaccinated, I would recommend self-quarantining if they are going to be in contact with anyone else unvaccinated, elderly, or with chronic health issues or immune suppression,” pediatrician Dr. Vijay Prasad told The Cut. “Parents need to make a decision based on their risk profile.”

“The key recommendation would be to ensure that everyone who's eligible that will be around the children is vaccinated,” Ibukun C. Kalu, MD, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Duke University, tells Lonely Planet. For those who can’t be vaccinated, hand-washing and limiting activities in crowded places where it's hard to know everyone’s vaccination status become much more important. “There really just have to be behavioral mitigation practices as compared to masking and vaccination if you're too young to be eligible for either,” she adds. 

Read more: What to know about traveling with unvaccinated kids

Families with young children should also consider their intended destination in more detail than they might’ve done pre-COVID. “The goal would be to reach a point where it shouldn't matter where you go—safety should be embedded in that location,” Kalu says. “But I think for now…it’s just doing a little bit more homework in the beginning, looking past just the destination, the cost and the logistics of getting there to some additional things regarding vaccination practices in that area, community spread of COVID-19 and also, what you might need to do to keep your child safe.” 

Black and white children playing together at the Half Moon Resort beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica
Make sure your family's other vaccines are up to date too © Alison Wright / Getty Images

And then there are the more commonplace risks to consider. “As a pediatrician, I'm still concerned about other vaccine-preventable infections, particularly those that can be picked up while traveling,” says Kalu, who suggests checking the CDC website for your destination and making sure your children’s other vaccines—and yours—are up to date. 

“We focused a lot on COVID in the last year and a half or so, but influenza is another virus that causes a lot of harm if you have a child that gets it,” she says, adding that before you travel, particularly in the winter, your family should get the flu shot and stock up on any medications your pediatrician recommends.

Do kids need to be vaccinated to enter the US? 

Given the unavailability of adolescent vaccines around the world, the US government is not requiring visitors under the age of 18 to be vaccinated at this time, nor will they have to self-quarantine upon arrival—though per the CDC’s recent order, those determinations will be periodically reevaluated. For now, kids will have to be tested three to five days after arrival and self-isolate if the result is positive, or if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

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