After holding back on more ambitious travel plans for nearly two years, families with kids newly eligible for a COVID vaccine are now planning—and booking—big trips for the holidays and beyond.
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This week, approximately 28 million additional Americans became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it is recommending the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
The announcement comes after a summer during which the Delta variant surge resulted in a worrisome rise in COVID-19 cases among children. “During a six-week period in late June to mid-August, COVID-19 hospitalizations among children and adolescents increased fivefold,” the CDC reported.
Thankfully, the Pfizer vaccine was found to be nearly 91 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in children ages 5 to 11, according to the agency. When asked during a media briefing following the CDC announcement how safe the vaccine is for younger children, Dr. Robert Jacobson, pediatrician and vaccine researcher with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, responded, “We have more monitoring in place for this vaccine than we’ve had for any other vaccine we’ve rolled out here in the United States. In that sense it is the safest vaccine we’ve ever delivered in the United States.”
He went on to explain that the dosage for children ages 5 to 11, which is a third of an adult dose, “achieved the same antibody levels that adults and adolescents 16 to 24 years of age achieved and yet the reactions were about the same in terms of the pain and redness at the injection site, the body aches or headaches. So, we saw no safety signals.”
Distribution of the pediatric COVID vaccines started this week; public health officials plan to scale up to full capacity starting November 8. Kids ages 12 to 17 are already eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and all adults age 18 and older are eligible for the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Pack your bags, kids, you’re getting vaccinated
For many families with kids ages five and up, the news—and its timing—is a game changer for upcoming travel plans.
An October survey of 2,000 travelers commissioned by American Express Travel reveals that 84 percent of parents say they plan on traveling up to six times in 2022. The survey found that 53 percent of parents already have a vacation planned or want to plan one before the end of 2021.
“As soon as it looked good, about a month ago, we booked [a Disney vacation] to get ahead of what we thought would be a rush,” says Julie Donnelly, a mother based in Boston who works in Biotech communications and has two sons, ages six and eight. “You can cancel Disney vacations up to a month beforehand with no penalty.”
Donnelly said if the situation with COVID cases worsens or if the kids weren’t vaccinated in time, they would opt to cancel their March 2022 trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando—but now at least her sons will be vaccinated in time. The family had also planned to visit the children’s grandparents in Texas during Labor Day Weekend this year after not having seen them for two years, “but with the Delta variant raging, we canceled. Now that trip is back on for holiday break. Texas and Florida would just be out of the question unless they are vaccinated,” says Donnelly.
Donnelly’s isn’t the only family planning to travel more now that younger kids can get vaccinated.
Kate Bruce, who lives in Westchester, New York, booked a trip to Grand Cayman for this December that was fully contingent on her daughters, ages five and seven, being vaccinated beforehand, not least because it’s necessary for bypassing an otherwise mandatory quarantine requirement on the Caribbean island.
“We booked an Airbnb that we knew was cancelable up until four weeks before the trip. If they hadn’t announced that the kids were going to be vaccinated, we wouldn’t have gone,” says Bruce.
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Grand Cayman is just the start of bigger travel plans for Bruce and her family. Next year, they want to travel to Europe and possibly Australia after nearly two years of foregoing flights with the girls and sticking with domestic road trips. (Bruce and her husband have both flown themselves during the pandemic, but not with their daughters.)
Marc Percher in Castro Valley, California, says he and his wife plan to travel with their nine-year-old to Arkansas this Christmas if his son is vaccinated. After that, they’re hoping to do some international travel with him in 2022, possibly to Europe—they have their eye on Paris.
Of course, there are many families that traveled throughout the pandemic, some staying closer to home, opting for road trips or vacation rentals for a simple and safe change of scenery, while others have ventured farther afield, depending on their comfort level. Many families with kids under the age of five continue to wait for COVID vaccine eligibility—could vaccine approval for even younger children spur another travel booking wave? Dr. Jacobson estimates that vaccine approval for children ages six months to four years is just months away. Once the younger members of the family get vaccinated, he says there are many ways to help commemorate the experience.
“Parents might celebrate the vaccination with their child. Think about something special your family can do to mark the vaccination and to celebrate the vaccination,” says Dr. Jacobson.
With a surge in demand, families should book sooner than later
As we head into the second holiday season of the pandemic, what families want more than anything is a big trip. The American Express Travel survey found that 68 percent of consumers are willing to give up exchanging holiday gifts with family this year for a family vacation instead.
“There’s no denying that the demand for family travel is there,” says Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel. “We’re starting to get inquiries about booking larger wish-list family trips.”
Hendley says that American Express Travel is booking families for a really wide variety of trips: beach vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico, family ski trips in Colorado and Utah, an adventure to see the Northern Lights in Finland with a packed itinerary of dog sledding and a visit to a reindeer farm, as well as a multi-generational safari in South Africa. The company is also starting to see an uptick in interest in cruise bookings for 2022 and 2023, for sailings in the Caribbean and Europe.
“There’s been a huge surge [of travel bookings] lately,” says Amy Annis, travel consultant with family specialist Ciao Bambino!, a Virtuoso agency. For summer 2022, Annis says almost all of her family clients that were with her from before the pandemic “are coming back—and they’re coming back even stronger, meaning that they want to take a little longer trip, they want to take a little bit more luxurious trip. It’s almost like, ‘We’ve missed it so much and now we’re going to splurge.’”
Annis specializes in family travel to Europe, and the places her clients want to go include Paris, Venice, Tuscany, and the Amalfi Coast. With the big wave of 2022 bookings coming in she is telling all her clients that they need to get their 2022 travel plans booked ASAP.
For the most sought-after vacation destinations in Europe, she says, “I’m pretty sure I’m not going be able to find good accommodations for families in those places past January.” All is not lost, though: Families should anticipate limited availability and anticipate booking their second or third choice of accommodation if they wait too long.
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After booking mostly domestic trips for families in 2020 and some Mexico and Caribbean trips in 2021, William Kiburz, vice president of Coronet Travel Ltd., and a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council (TAC), says his agency is booking a lot more family travel beyond the borders in 2022, with the most popular bookings being multiple-bedroom villas in the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe and, yes, still some U.S., for summer and fall 2022.
Cari Gray, CEO and owner of bespoke travel agency Gray & Co., and another AFAR TAC member, says her family travel clients are finally ready to travel beyond North America again, too. As long as the international destinations they’re planning to visit have no mandatory quarantine, they are “not going to let [required COVID] tests or forms get in the way.”
She said many families are opting for additional travel insurance that includes costs associated with the pandemic, like covering an extended stay or medical evacuation if someone in the group were to test positive for COVID and can’t get back into the U.S. right away due to the COVID testing requirements.
Family travel plans “have been stalled by the pandemic, but now they are raring to go,” says Gray. “People are ready to go explore with their kids.”
Tips for families with upcoming travel plans
For families embracing their newfound confidence to travel, Sally French, travel expert at NerdWallet, reminds them and those around them to pack some extra patience in the coming weeks and months, especially during what will likely be a much busier holiday travel season this year compared to last.
Patience and understanding will be key
Nearly one-third of Americans who didn’t travel during the 2020 holiday season plan to do so this holiday season, according to a NerdWallet survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted in September.
“Given that many families haven’t flown in two years, it’s likely that the crop of first-time travelers will be twice as big this year. Expect things in the airport to be a little bit slower and stressful as you account for the newbie travelers, or quite simply those who haven’t flexed their travel muscles in a while,” advises French.
Work with a travel advisor or agent
Never has there been a more potentially complicated time for familes to travel. Now, more than ever, families should consider tapping a family travel specialist to help them map out their plans and create safeguards.
Sign up for TSA PreCheck, Clear, or Global Entry
With increasing crowds at the airport, families should consider investing in trusted traveler expediting services like TSA PreCheck, Clear, or Global Entry to get through the TSA security lines quicker (with PreCheck and Clear) or to pass through customs easier (with Global Entry).
Check your (vaccine) calendar
Don’t forget about the timeline for getting vaccinated. If you’re hoping for the kids to be vaccinated by a certain date, you need to work backward from that date, taking into consideration that the Pfizer vaccine requires two doses that need to be given three weeks apart. The CDC (and many countries and destinations that require vaccination for entry) considers someone to be fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose, so that’s a five-week span from first dose to being considered fully vaccinated.
Make flexible travel plans
While being vaccinated can boost confidence in travelers, there are conditions that can still make even the vaccinated less certain about going forward with their travel plans, as we have already seen with the Delta variant surge and breakthrough infections. We are still in a pandemic, and there are still many potential hiccups, including ever-changing travel rules and regulations that are beyond our control. Make sure that the flights booked have no change fee (this typically applies to all but Basic Economy fares on most airlines), and try to book hotels and vacation rentals with lenient cancellation policies.
French advises travelers to consider getting travel insurance that includes Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) coverage or using a travel credit card that offers some trip cancellation benefits.
>> Next: Booking 2021 Holiday Travel: Your Guide to When, Where, & How