The emergence of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 has thrown uncertainty into holiday plans, but experts say not to cancel your vacation just yet. Here's how to travel safely with children this season.
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This holiday season, families across the country are tracking the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was declared a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO). But although the spread of Omicron is concerning, experts say you shouldn't cancel holiday travel plans just yet.

There are steps families can take to protect themselves from any COVID-19 variant, said Jennifer Lighter, M.D., a hospital epidemiologist and pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health. "If you are vaccinated and boosted and wear a mask when indoors, you are protected and should feel like you can live your life," she says. "And if that involves going on vacation, then go on vacation."

An image of a suitcase with a mask on top of it.
Credit: Getty Images.

Melanie Fish, a travel expert and head of public relations for Expedia Brands, says it's understandable families have questions about how to proceed with travel plans, but the most important thing is to know your options. "This isn't the first time the pandemic has thrown us back into some uncertainty," she said. "Take all those lessons we were forced to learn during the pandemic and hold on to them… Make sure your travel plans are flexible: look for hotels that allow free cancellation and book flights that allow changes."

This is what families should know before taking a holiday trip this year.

What Is the Omicron Variant?

The Omicron variant was first detected in southern Africa, and it was reported to the World Health Organization on November 24. Two days later, WHO designated Omicron a "variant of concern" due to its "large number of mutations, some of which are concerning." It has since spread to countries around the world, including the United States.

"The reason why it raised a lot of concern was... it was shown to have a lot of mutations compared to prior variants and in areas that were pretty important on the spike protein," says Karen Acker, M.D., a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children's Hospital. "It does appear it is a lot more transmissible, [but] it doesn't seem to be making people sicker thus far."

Ultimately, time will tell how worrisome this new variant is. But it's important to note that while Omicron has been "taking over" South Africa, Dr. Acker says that isn't currently the case in the U.S. "We are still completely dominated by the Delta variant," she said. "What we've seen from the Delta variant is that areas with higher vaccination rates had lower cases and lower hospitalizations."

Thankfully, kids have been shown to be at a lower risk than adults when it comes to contracting a severe case of COVID-19, says Dr. Acker. But that doesn't mean there isn't any chance of it happening. "These are times where parents really have to evaluate what risks they are comfortable with," she said. "We know a lot more than we did in the beginning and we know that overall kids are not at high risk of severe disease, but that doesn't mean the risk is zero."

Is It Safe To Travel This Holiday Season?

"Right now, we're saying you can travel, you can continue your normal life to an extent, but keeping in mind all the things you can do to be as safe as possible," Dr. Acker.

The most important thing to do? Get vaccinated. Experts overwhelmingly agree that vaccination is most effective way to keep kids from contracting any variant of COVID-19. Currently, all adults and children 5 years and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. And those under 5 have increased protection if the rest of their household receives their vaccines; this is called "cocoon care," Dr. Lighter said.

"Most transmissions happen in the home, they don't usually happen during travel. If you want to protect your young child, get vaccinated," Dr. Lighter said, adding vaccines are "extremely safe, they're extremely effective."

Experts also pointed to other tried-and-true ways to prevent infection while traveling, like mask wearing and hand hygiene.

The good news: flying is actually considered a relatively safe activity, says Dr. Acker. "Interesting that planes have not been large sources of transmission because of the ventilation systems," she said. That said, you should watch out for airports "if you're close to people in crowded lines," adds Dr. Acker.

Should My Family Get Tested Before Traveling?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people don't travel until they're fully vaccinated. The organization says that unvaccinated travelers should get tested one to three days before a trip.

The CDC also recommends all international travelers get tested three to five days after they return. And if you're unvaccinated, you should self-quarantine for a full seven days after an international trip, even if you test negative. What's more, all travelers flying back to the U.S. from an international trip are required to get tested within one day of boarding a flight, regardless of their vaccination status. Children under 2 are exempt.

Dr. Lighter said she often relies on at-home antigen tests as a good line of defense. "They're easy, they're inexpensive," she said. "We have to start using these antigen tests more and more."

Should Families Purchase Trip Insurance?

Trip insurance can be an added expense, but it's almost a necessity in these uncertain times. "Travel insurance has become a must for me when it wasn't a couple years ago," Fish said. "But it's important to know what your policy will or will not cover. It's not a given that a basic travel insurance policy is going to reimburse the cost of your trip for a COVID reason. You really need to read the fine print."

Where Are Families Traveling for the Holidays?

Some popular vacation destinations for the holidays are ski and beach locations like Breckenridge, Colorado; Maui, Hawaii; Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennesee; Park City, Utah; and Kissimmee, Florida (famous for its theme parks), according to data from home rental company Vrbo.

In general, home rentals tend to be popular with families and multi-generational groups. And these rentals are more popular than ever, with Vrbo vacation homes seeing a more than 30 percent increase over the holidays this year, compared to the same time period in 2019 and 2020.

But Fish said there are still some destinations where families can look to save money. "If you haven't yet booked a holiday trip for this year and you're looking for somewhere that still has a big selection, you might want to consider a big city trip like New York or Las Vegas," she said. "If you're dead set on a beach vacation and you're having trouble finding a good selection for the beach you had in mind, I suggest Puerto Rico, which is going to be cheaper this time of year than the Bahamas."