This Is the Riskiest Part of Your Vacation

Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Five months into the pandemic, you’re probably familiar with the potential risks that come with traveling. Being on public transit like buses, trains, and airplanes, which don’t always allow proper social distancing, can potentially expose you to the novel coronavirus. Even road trips aren’t a guarantee of safety. (Chances are, you’ll have to make a pit stop or two.)

But no matter how you travel, you’re definitely not off the hook when you arrive at your final destination. In fact, experts say the riskiest part of traveling during a pandemic isn’t necessarily the journey but the place you’re visiting and the choices you make while you’re on vacation.

There’s no guarantee you’ll be safe around friends and family

Normally, vacation is a good time to let your guard down, take a break from the normal routines of your daily life, and have a little fun. But this time is far from normal, and letting loose during a pandemic could come with significant risks, says Cassandra Pierre, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Boston Medical Center.

Even when you visit family and close friends you trust, there’s no guarantee you’re not putting yourself at a higher risk for contracting Covid-19. Pierre says people frequently underestimate risk factors when visiting loved ones. “Family members we deem safe may actually pose a higher risk of transmission because of their jobs, where they live, or the fact that they may not physically distance or mask,” she says.

Pierre shares the example of a colleague with several health conditions that put her at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19. In Massachusetts, her home state, she was vigilant about her health, even to the point of staying home from her medical job for months. Then, she decided to go visit her family out of state. Even though she drove to lower her exposure risk, she tested positive for Covid-19 when she got back.

That’s one difficult part of visiting loved ones during the pandemic: You’re supposed to be able to let your guard down around your family. But it’s important to remember that the people you’re staying with, the people you’re hugging and sharing food with, could be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic — and you could still get sick.

“When people travel, they often think, ‘I don’t have to worry about what I worry about when I’m at home.’ There’s this overall mindset that nothing can harm you when you’re in another place because you’re there to have fun.”

The riskiest part of vacationing during the pandemic: loss of inhibition

The best part of a vacation in normal life is the most dangerous part of a vacation during a pandemic. No matter where you travel or who you see, the nature of a vacation often doesn’t lend itself to rational thinking and vigilance about safety and health.

That’s the basic psychology of a vacation: You’re leaving your normal life to experience something new. You’ve been there if a simple change of scenery has ever prompted you to drink too much, stayed out too late, or trust people or situations you’re normally more cautious about. Part of this loss of inhibition has to do with why people go on vacation in the first place. All these behaviors are particularly harmful during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When people travel, they often think, ‘I don’t have to worry about what I worry about when I’m at home,’” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “There’s this overall mindset that nothing can harm you when you’re in another place because you’re there to have fun.”

Along with the loss of inhibition, Whitbourne says travelers are also vulnerable to social contagion when they leave their bubbles. For example, let’s say you normally mask up and physically distance when you go to your local grocery store. If you travel to a destination where those things aren’t the norm, you’ll be more likely to follow suit — even at your own risk.

“When you’re in a different environment, and you’re around other people, you behave the way they behave,” she says. “So depending on what the people around you are doing, you could be either more or less vigilant about your personal safety.”

“Vacation is a time of experimentation; that’s what makes memories. But it’s so important to continue to do the things you do at home to protect yourself.”

Masking up and staying away from loved ones is exhausting. But taking a break from a routine you’ve implemented for your own health and safety isn’t worth the risk of infecting yourself or others. “The crux of this is, ‘I’ve been good for so long; I deserve to be bad for a while, and it won’t end badly for me,’” Whitbourne says. “But you need to adjust your mindset to the big picture: What are you going to remember later in your life? Getting Covid-19 or being slightly inconvenienced?”

Your health should still be the top priority when you’re away from home. “Vacation is a time of experimentation; that’s what makes memories,” Pierre says. “But it’s so important to continue to do the things you do at home to protect yourself.”

On top of skipping trips to locations that are obviously more dangerous than where you live, Pierre recommends the obvious: avoiding crowded, public places as much as possible when you arrive and, of course, masking up and keeping a six-foot distance from anyone you’re not quarantining with.

When making plans to visit family, Whitbourne recommends having a conversation about safety expectations before the trip. If possible, request that you spend time outside rather than indoors and steer clear of physical touch, like hugging, that would cause you to violate social distancing guidelines. It might be awkward, but these tough conversations could protect you and others from illness.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.