It’s a confusing time to be a traveler. Many airlines, hotels and travel advisors promise it’s safe to book a vacation. But health officials are telling you to stay home. 

So who’s right?

Both are. (Told you this was confusing.)

It’s safe to book a vacation — new consumer-friendly refund rules mean you won’t lose your entire trip if you cancel — but not necessarily to take one. Health officials are correct, too. You should stay home, particularly if you’re in an at-risk group. The exception: If you’ve had both shots and waited the required 10 days to develop your antibodies, you can probably safely travel now.

But there’s more to it than that. I know because I’ve spent the better part of this year answering the same question: “Is it safe to travel yet?” Just last week, I did it online, on the radio (shout-out to The Rude Awakening Show on WOCM-FM in Ocean City, Md.), and TV (thanks, NBC Nightly News).

Here are the facts:

  • Travelers are anxious about taking a trip, with many saying they’ll skip a vaccination and a vacation in the near future. 
  • Overall traveler sentiment for 2021 is so-so, at best.
  • People who travel are choosing safe, remote destinations.
  • Travel for everyone won’t be safe until later this year. 

Travelers are nervous about the future

Fact is, travelers are skittish about getting back out there, even though vaccines are becoming more available. Interestingly, a new Harris Poll survey finds that only about half of Americans plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them. About 1 in 5 (21%) do not plan to, and a quarter (25%) are unsure, according to the poll, conducted on behalf of the site Coupon Cabin.

Travel sentiment is so-so, at best. Travel Again, an organization dedicated to restoring confidence in traveling, reports that travel confidence among leisure travel travelers dropped from 2.63 to 2.61 (on a scale of 5) between November and December.

“With overall traveler confidence reaching a very low, but plateaued level, the future of travel remains clouded with significant uncertainty,” says Travel Again cofounder Mike McCormick.

And business travelers feel just about the same.

 Some people are skipping travel in 2021

Digital marketing agency AccuraCast asked customers what they would look for in a travel insurance policy for this year. To their surprise, 42% said they didn’t plan to travel at all in 2021, so they wouldn’t have any need for travel insurance. 

The 65-plus group was the most travel-shy, with roughly 50% saying they were staying put. Respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 were most likely to travel (64 percent).

“The travel industry has already taken a massive hit from COVID, and the results of this survey show that 2021 isn’t necessarily going to get any easier,” says Farhad Divecha, managing director of AccuraCast.

Where are travelers going?

To get an idea of where people want to go, check out Vrbo’s 2021 Trend Report. It concludes that families are more likely to drive than fly. They want to visit outdoor destinations, where they can practice social distancing. And they like the idea of “flexcations,” which can blend work and play. Yes, they’re anxious to make up for lost time by traveling more — but they’re not on a timetable.

No surprise that the top emerging destinations are in places far away from civilization. Places like Emory, Texas, just outside of Dallas; or Slade, Ky., near Lexington (famous for its reptile zoo). People think it’s safe to travel to these less-traveled places, and during a pandemic, it just might seem that way.

Is it safe to travel if you’ve had a COVID vaccination?

 If you’ve already had your two COVID-19 shots, you can probably book and take a trip now. In fact, you have a few months to take advantage of some spectacular travel deals. All-inclusive resorts, flights and cruises want your money. Especially cruises. If you’ve had your shots, you can save some serious money on travel right now.

 Bear in mind that you’ll still have to practice social distancing and wear a mask. But your increased immunity means you can safely drive, fly and stay in a hotel — again, as long as you’re abiding by all the relevant regulations.

This could create a kind of reverse spring break for 2021. Imagine the Florida beaches filled with 65+ vacationers who have had their shots, instead of college students. Now that would look a little unusual. I hope Daytona Beach is ready.

 Is it safe to travel if you haven’t been vaccinated?

 If you haven’t received the vaccine, it’s probably not safe to travel yet. With several highly infectious coronavirus variants now on the loose, you could easily get infected when you’re on the road. And to be clear, the CDC has warned against unnecessary travel

“Travel can increase your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19,” the CDC notes. “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

Wait to take a vacation until mid to late summer. And try to get the vaccine in the meantime.

Waiting it out will not be easy. In the coming weeks, airlines, hotels and travel agents will probably offer you deeply discounted trips. And, after almost a year of going nowhere, you might be tempted to say “yes.” But what they won’t tell you is that travel in the time of COVID-19 is still risky — maybe more risky than they’re willing to admit.

Consider, for example, the debate raging in the airline industry about mandatory testing. It’s already required for flights to the U.S., but now the CDC is mulling a rule mandating testing for all domestic passengers. Airlines are fighting it, but the fact that we’re even having the discussion suggests that the threat is far from over, and that travel remains one of the biggest risks you can take.

When can we travel again?

It’s going to be a long, slow recovery. As of now, the earliest anyone could give the “all clear” for travel would be this August. That assumes enough people get vaccinated and the number of cases drops as expected. But if things don’t go as planned — if the new variants prove resistant to the vaccine, for example — it could be many months before everyone can travel safely again.

Between now and August, you’ll see more offers for unbelievably good travel deals. You may also see a bankruptcy or two in the travel space. If you’re booking a trip for later this year, remember to monitor the financial health of the travel company. And always consider travel insurance from a third party. You don’t want to fly on an airline that goes all Chapter 7 on you.