Vax requirements create headaches for families traveling with young kids

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Yellowstone Geyser, Family at Midway Geyser Basin [Credit: Margaret W./Shutterstock.com]
The FDA's recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 was particularly welcome news. Photo Credit: Margaret W./Shutterstock.com

As suppliers and destinations mull how to safely return to the business of tourism, they are increasingly requiring travelers to show proof of vaccination.

But in doing so, they will, in some instances, be leaving behind a key group: Families with children who, even after the recent lowering of eligible age groups for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds, are still too young for a jab.

For many suppliers, families are a critical demographic. The 2019 U.S. Family Travel Survey found that 77% of respondents had taken their families on a trip in the past three years, and the average spend on family travel was $3,835. Further, it found that interest in "skip-generational travel," when grandparents take their grandchildren on a trip, was growing.

Now, though, Covid-19 vaccination rules and other safety protocols have heightened a sense of uncertainty among some clients.

"There is a lot of confusion because, in general, it's pretty confusing even for us," said Samantha McClure, owner of Small World Travel in Austin, Texas. "It's not surprising that clients are confused."

Jen Campbell Boles, owner of Explore More Family Travel in Cornelius, N.C., said that even her family's travel plans have required a deep dive into Covid-19 rules and regulations. They are headed to Greece in July, and she said she believes that her children are young enough to be exempt from testing requirements.

She said that her clients who are traveling now don't have children, and those who do are waiting to travel until later in the year.

Sally Black
Sally Black

"We've been fielding lots of calls from confused parents," said Sally Black, founder of Vacationkids in Kunkletown, Pa. Among the queries she's getting are questions regarding whether children will be allowed onto cruise ships or into various countries.

Many parents plan to vaccinate their children, and the FDA's recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 was particularly welcome, Black said. She added that among parents inquiring about travel in 2022, many will note that their children will be vaccinated by the time of travel.

However, she said she still believes family travel will be one of the last segments of the industry to recover.

McClure last week said the news about Pfizer's vaccine was too new to have generated any buzz among her clients, and their attitudes toward vaccinations for their children have varied. Many are intimidated by Covid-19 rules and regulations in general.

Samantha McClure
Samantha McClure

"Obviously, there are a lot of families eager to get going, and there is all of this news about countries opening, so they get excited and they start planning," she said. But "some of them get cold feet because of the requirements, the regulations, the fact that kids aren't vaccinated.

"For us," she added, "it's just a matter of spending a lot of time on the phone, setting expectations, making sure clients are really ready to get out there and ready to be flexible with the changes and regulations and what's going to be required of them."

Attitudes are changing, too. For instance, McClure had clients rebooked to sail with Lindblad Expeditions this summer after their trip was canceled last year. But when she informed them their 16-year-old needed to be vaccinated, they balked. A few weeks later, however, they had changed their minds.

"I think the main thing is for people to understand that travel is always a privilege, even more so now, and the places that we're going to don't have the level of vaccinations that we do," she said. "So we have to be respectful and honor their rules."

If a family is interested in traveling but are not vaccinating their children -- or if children are too young to be eligible for a vaccine -- McClure talks to them about other destinations that are open to them.

Like many advisors, she is mostly planning either last-minute trips or ones further out, in 2022 and 2023. Her agency specializes in long-term sabbatical travel around the world for families, and she currently has two on the books that begin next year and one that begins in 2023. 

The pandemic has had a silver lining for close-in bookers: Space is available in destinations that normally book years in advance. McClure said she has booked a few last-minute Africa trips for this summer. Prepandemic, that would not have been possible.

She has also noted another benefit in the complexity of travel today.

"I think that's why people are using travel advisors even more now," she said, "because they want someone else to watch everything for them, to tell them exactly what to do." 

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