Travelers like Stephanie Wolkin are looking for a safe bet for their upcoming trips. But how do you define safe at a time like this?
Safe for Wolkin means she can see her 97-year-old mother in New Jersey without infecting her with the deadly COVID-19 virus. Safe means she can find a way to make her annual trip to France this year, to make up for the one canceled last summer.
"I don't think I will be comfortable traveling until the vaccines are more widely available and there is some way to verify that those boarding a plane have been vaccinated," says Wolkin, a retired educational worker from White Bear Lake, Minnesota. "I also would want the obligatory wearing of masks by all passengers to be strictly enforced."
Other travelers echo her concerns. One-third of corporate travelers said they want their employers to adopt travel policies that define cleanliness, social distancing, and procedures to prevent virus transmission, according to an internal customer survey by TripActions, an expense management system provider.
"It's their top requested change to their corporate travel policy," says TripActions spokeswoman Kelly Soderlund.
But how do you define safe, and how do you get it? It turns out these are easy questions with surprisingly difficult answers. Safety increasingly means just one thing: avoiding the coronavirus. Getting that security may be an elusive goal.
How do you define security after the pandemic?
Leisure travelers say they want security, even for a short road trip to a favorite national park. Volvo recently surveyed drivers and found that they're concerned with safety above all else, even as they plan their spring break road trips. For now, the fastest way to sell a car – or a vacation – is to talk about its safety features.
"The effects of the pandemic have expanded the definition of safety," says Jim Nichols, a spokesman for Volvo Car USA. "Cars and homes have become our safe havens, causing many to consider upgrading these personal spaces to feel better protected.”
Promising to protect travelers from the virus is one way to deliver security. Shortly after the outbreak last spring, Enterprise Rent-A-Car asked its customers what they wanted beyond its Complete Clean Pledge, an enhanced cleaning program for its vehicles and locations. Nearly 80% said they'd feel most comfortable renting a vehicle if they could wipe down the high-touch areas with a disinfecting wipe. "That customer feedback inspired a collaboration with Clorox," says Lisa Martini, an Enterprise spokeswoman. One-count Clorox wipes now come standard in every Enterprise vehicle.
Travelers want specific action on safety
Alan Fyall, a professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, says travelers wanted companies to take specific action to protect them from infection.
"They wanted an honest and transparent response from the industry to mitigate their fears about the pandemic and the chance of catching COVID-19 when traveling," he says.
There have been some standouts, he says. Hilton’s CleanStay program with Lysol and the Mayo Clinic set the bar for the hotel industry. And Orlando’s safety protocols to “raise the bar on safety” have reassured visitors that it's doing everything it can to maintain a safe and clean environment for tourism.
But how do you feel safe?
Despite the many precautions during the last year, safety concerns remain. Many travelers still refuse to take a trip or even plan one. Chris Schaberg, an expert on air travel and a professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, says there's a reason for the reluctance, and it's something of a Catch-22.
"The only way to make travelers feel safe while traveling is for travelers to actually travel safely," he says. "This means travelers knowing how to be safe, actually doing it, and communicating about safe travel measures with fellow travelers as well as with family and friends."
Lingering fears about COVID-19 and the dangerous new variants make that difficult.
Even when an airline or hotel checks all the boxes for safety, travelers still have lingering doubts as they begin to plan this year's trips. In case they were to fall ill, they wonder if there would be adequate health facilities – including emergency rooms and ventilators – to support them, according to Ceppie Merry, a physician and medical adviser to HealthyButSmart.com.
"When it comes to COVID-19, there are large deficiencies in health care for travelers," she says.
There's only so much travel companies can do to soothe the worries of their customers. The precautions and protocols are reassuring, but there are just too many unknowns. For a traveler like Wolkin, who wants to visit her elderly mother in New Jersey, it may be a while before she's ready to travel again.
How travelers can find security now
A qualified travel adviser. A competent travel agent can also make you feel safer. And some travel agency networks are taking that job seriously. Late last year, Travel Leaders introduced its Book with Confidence program, promising that its advisers would stay abreast of all relevant health and safety protocols and share the information with their clients. "There's a checklist of nearly 200 items for advisers to review to ensure their clients’ health and safety before and during their travels," says J.D. O'Hara, CEO of Internova Travel Group, Travel Leaders' parent company.
Travel assistance service. Credit cards and travel insurance companies offer 24/7 hotlines for customers, which can provide some assurance to nervous travelers. Christine Buggy, vice president of marketing at Travelex Insurance, says more of her customers are taking advantage of the company's travel assistance services. "They provide current information about travel health advisories at your destination, assistance with lost baggage or travel documents, and prescription replacement," she says.
Research. Ultimately, the only one who can make you feel safe is you. Before you plan your next trip, you have to weigh all the new health and safety protocols and the promises made by travel companies. At a minimum, check the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website if you're traveling internationally. It classifies countries on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being safe and 4 dangerous.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Safe travel during COVID: Should you travel before getting vaccinated?