Despite COVID, older Americans plan to start traveling again — even if they’re unvaccinated

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Many people have had to put their vacation plans on hold over the last two years. However, with the pandemic heading into the rear-view mirror, a new poll finds “bucket list” trips are coming back for many American seniors. A team from University of Michigan Medicine finds one in three older Americans (ages 50-80) are already packing their bags for a long trip in the near future. Their survey also finds many Americans are actually looking forward to the prospect of holiday travel this year.

Despite the excitement over the return of travel, the shadow of the pandemic continues to loom over many itineraries. The August 2021 poll of 2,110 respondents notes many Americans planning on traveling soon are already preparing themselves mentally to potentially change plans if COVID-19 cases spike at their destination. Researchers defined a “long trip” as any vacation lasting longer than two weeks or traveling to any destination further than 100 miles away from home.

While only 17 percent of older adults says they’ve taken a long trip over the past year, 31 percent are planning on hitting the road or flying soon. Another one in four plan on traveling during the holidays. However, 20 percent of would-be travelers plan on altering their plans if COVID-19 cases spike in the regions they want to visit. Another 52 percent would at least consider re-scheduling or changing their plans because of COVID-19 concerns.

Unvaccinated Americans more likely to travel

The COVID-19 vaccine adds another interesting wrinkle to these findings. Unvaccinated older adults are actually less likely to change their travel plans due to COVID-19, despite being more susceptible to serious COVID-19 illness than their vaccinated counterparts.

“Travel, especially after so many months of staying close to home, could give many older adults a needed break from their everyday surroundings and a chance to feel a sense of normalcy, or reconnect with friends and family separated by distance for so long,” says Preeti Malani, M.D., the poll director and an infectious disease physician at Michigan Medicine, in a university release. “Vaccinated older adults should still be mindful of COVID-19 activity at their destination, but most would face a much lower risk of developing a severe infection than their unvaccinated peers.”

The poll also looked at how people plan to deal with any potential health issues that arise while traveling. Among those who traveled over the past year, one in 10 admit they had to receive some type of medical care while on the move. As far as those preparing to travel, virtually everyone (97%) intends to bring all of their prescription medications with them and 88 percent plan to bring extra medical supplies.

Another 34 percent will visit with their primary doctor just before heading out, which is a much higher percentage than the 18 percent who did the same before traveling over the past year. Interestingly, only three in 10 respondents feel the need to check in with their health insurance plan regarding what they would cover if medical issues occur while away from home. Roughly 10 percent say they’ll find a medical facility after arriving at their destination or simply buy traveler’s health insurance.

Telehealth on the go?

One of the poll’s more noteworthy findings is that one in four older Americans planning to travel soon are assuming they’ll be able to have a telehealth or remote meeting with their doctor while traveling. The problem is that likely isn’t an option for many. The Michigan team notes that state and federal rules, as well as various health system policies, may not permit such video meetings if the doctor and patient are in different states or countries. Only 19 percent of respondents planning on traveling soon are going to be staying in their home state.

“These poll findings are consistent with previous AARP research which shows that optimism for travel this year is growing, but COVID-19 precautions still take precedence for many older adults,” adds Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research for AARP. “As more Americans make travel plans, it’s important to continue referring to public health officials’ travel guidance. Those who may be at higher risk of infection should talk to health care providers about how to stay safe if they travel.”

These findings are the latest in Michigan Medicine’s ongoing National Poll on Healthy Aging.

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