I'm a Mom and Epidemiologist: Here's How I Suggest You Travel With Kids This Summer

Many parents are weighing the need for continued COVID-19 caution and the desire to give their kids a "normal" summer. Dr. Rhonda Spencer-Hwang, an epidemiologist and professor of public health, gives advice on how families can travel safely.

An illustration of a mom and child packing a suitcase.
Photo: Illustration: Emma Darvick.

As an epidemiologist and mother of three (ages 6, 13, and 16 years old), and having received many questions about summer vacations, I'm here to help with travel plans. With the COVID-19 virus hanging around a little longer and new variants emerging, you'll want to add a few extra steps to your summer routine to reduce the likelihood of catching or spreading the virus. Here's my advice for traveling more safely while enjoying summer with family.

Don't Overdo It

The first rule of thumb is to resist the urge to double-book and do everything. As the pandemic waxes and wanes, things will start reopening. We are going to be bombarded with all kinds of advertisements encouraging us to do everything. Resist the urge! I continually remind myself to stop feeling like I need to make up for missing out this past year. It's more important to keep a balanced itinerary, especially since increasing stress actually decreases your body's ability to fight infection. So do yourself (and your family) a favor and leave some white space on the agenda.

Plan Ahead

Traveling is getting easier, though it remains tricky in some places. Research places you are heading to well in advance by checking state and local territory/county websites for up-to-date COVID-19 information and continue to monitor them. The COVID-19 hotspots can change in just a few days.

Also, some states and other countries require you to take a COVID-19 test which will need to be scheduled in advance before your flight (you can contact the airline you are flying with for more information). Some places may require a quarantine period once you arrive, which may defeat your purpose of traveling there. Be in the know to reduce the likelihood of last-minute vacation cancelations, which probably won't be well received by all family members.

Decide on Transportation

Planes, trains, and cars are OK to use for travel, but they come with varying COVID-19 risks. The safest of those three is in your own car with members of your same household. Regardless of the transportation used, take precautions when traveling through public places. I call it the "packing up and masking up" approach. No matter whether it is required or not, I recommend wearing a mask (following CDC guidelines), social distancing as best you can, and hand-washing or hand-sanitizing often. Implement this approach even if you've had the vaccine. You don't want you or your family to end up with any kind of illness, especially while on vacation.

Keep in mind that some places may require masks when you get there, so be prepared. On shorter flights, try to avoid eating or drinking to keep from removing a mask—though with toddlers this might be mission impossible. On a positive note, a wonderful fact about the majority of commercial airlines today is that they are equipped with high-grade HEPA filters to help remove airborne particles and viruses.

Choose Your Destination Wisely

I suggest ditching theme parks, cruise ships, and other activities that might be overcrowded or require lots of time in close quarters. I also recommend staying within the U.S. for now, which the CDC says is OK for fully vaccinated people to do long as they continue to take COVID-19 precautions.

I recommend heading out into nature with the kids and going wild for the wild! Scientific studies reveal the healing benefits of spending time in nature—even just breathing it in gives your immune system a boost. And it's best to avoid the indoor dining scene. Instead, if wishing to dine out, pick food up and head to the great outdoors or back to your hotel for an impromptu picnic. You'll probably be stocked with wet wipes already.

If going to visit vulnerable family members (like Grandma and Grandpa), rethink the trip if they haven't had the COVID-19 vaccine. You want to keep your loved ones safe, especially those who may get extremely sick if they catch the virus.

For parents not comfortable traveling yet, listen to your intuition and go when and where you feel comfortable.

Once You Book

Keep an eye out for symptoms

If you or any of your family members show any kind of COVID-19 symptoms before your trip, change your plans. Yes, it may cost you money for a canceled trip, but you just might save someone's life. If you purchased trip cancelation insurance or refundable tickets, that'll help you recover costs.

If you come down with symptoms while on your trip, don't go out visiting places. Stay put. You don't want to expose anyone. In your suitcase pack decks of playing cards (my fave is Rat-a-Tat Cat), small board games, and art supplies that are inexpensive and lightweight, just in case you get stuck in a hotel.

Have a different mindset

While on the go this summer, you probably will experience a wide range of emotions, whether from other travelers, service attendants, or even your own children or partner. Let things slide and exert extreme patience. This year, start your travel with a different mindset—even traveling to the destination is part of the adventure. Ironically though not an illness, grumpies are contagious too. Help kick them to the curb with abundant acts of kindness.

Stay health-conscious

No matter your travel arrangements, make sure to include daily plans to stay healthy. Over the past decade, I've been researching the habits of people who have lived an amazing 100 years, and they give excellent advice for parents to help you thrive in the face of the pandemic. They encourage staying hydrated and eating more plant-based foods—both fruits and vegetables, not just the former. Bacteria in your gut support the immune system, so it's important to feed your inner friends and keep them healthy. A wonderful bonus for parents, if your family eats this way regularly—it helps boost the likelihood of success, from academics to athletics and beyond. So happy planning and enjoy your summer vacation!

The Bottom Line

If you want to travel with your family this summer, plan ahead and take time researching where to stay and how to get there, depending on what makes most sense for your family's safety. And remember that vaccinating, masking, and hand-washing are not 100 percent effective, so the key is to practice multiple risk-reduction techniques to greatly reduce the likelihood of catching or spreading COVID-19.

Rhonda Spencer-Hwang, who holds a doctorate in public health, is an epidemiologist and associate professor in the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University. Through her groundbreaking research, she has developed a program to help prepare families for whatever life throws their way—increasing resiliency, happiness, and likelihood of positive performances. She shares this research in her book, Raising Resilient Kids, releasing in August 2021.

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