The complicated calculus of traveling with kids during Covid
To the long list of ways that Covid-19 has changed travel, add this one: The kids’ club just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Pre-2020, glorified daycare was almost an essential component of five-star family getaways. Kids could make origami butterflies or explore tide pools under the watchful eyes of resort staffers, while parents happily got re-acquainted with relaxation.
But the pandemic has raised the bar on family travel. Consider a new offering from travel outfitter Black Tomato, best known for planning exotic adventures for upscale clients—now building entire itineraries around beloved children’s stories.
The company’s new Take Me On a Story program is a fanciful step up from Harry Potter-themed walking tours. Its Oxfordshire trip, inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, includes a foraging class and a bespoke costume made by a top atelier, complete with hand-stitching and a fitting in a charming Cotswold cottage. Pricing starts at $45,000 for a family of four.
As part of the Treasure Island itinerary in the British Virgin Islands (from $30,000 for four) kids can take lessons in sword-fighting and celestial navigation, and participate in an underwater treasure hunt. Other options explore Arabian Nights in Morocco, Journey to the Centre of the Earth in Iceland, and Call of the Wild in Alaska.
Black Tomato co-founder Tom Marchant says the idea for Take Me On a Story dates back to 2019 but has taken time to come to fruition. Now, he says, is the perfect moment for it. “People are looking for genuine escapism,” he explains.
Other high-end travel companies are also raring to satisfy those pandemic desires—and the willingness to splash out. After a year of lockdown, they’re launching lavish cruises, safaris, and itineraries, all aimed at travelers with children under 18.
And yet, family travel has never been a more complicated proposition. Vaccines aren’t expected to be widely available to the under-16 set for several months, possibly not even until early 2022.
Dr. Richard Malley, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist who runs the travel clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, says teens may get vaccine access in the fall, “assuming everything looks good in the trials.” But those under 12 will need to wait longer. Nevertheless he’s seen an uptick in family travel consultations. Some patients are going to visit relatives living abroad. Others, Malley says, are going on exotic vacations like safaris, “the dream trips that families used to do” that went away.
On April 2, the same day the CDC announced that domestic travel is considered low risk for vaccinated people who continue to take precautions, the TSA screened nearly 1.6 million passengers. It was the most in one day since the pandemic began, and more than 10 times the throughput in April 2020.
That indicates a gap between the CDC’s official stance—limiting non-essential travel pre-vaccine—and what people are doing. According to a report from travel-focused ad agency MMGY, the divide is pronounced among parents who make over $150,000: They plan to take 4.4 leisure trips over the next 12 months, compared to 3.3 trips for wealthy households sans-kids.
Dr. Aaron Millstone, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, says Covid presents an extremely small threat to unvaccinated kids—but it’s not zero. Decisions come down, in part, to how comfortable you are with a potential positive for them and yourself. “Even though I’m vaccinated, if I get a mild Covid case, I can’t work for 10 days,” he explains.
The risk of spreading the disease post-vaccine, however small, also still exists, particularly in destinations with poor vaccine access or uptake where locals may be more vulnerable. “It’s all an equation,” Dr. Malley says. “You’ve increased your risk here, so reduce it there.”
Traveling in a private car—or private plane—comes with less risk than commercial flights, though a lack of testing and tracing among airlines has made the risk of flying difficult to assess.
“There’s a lot of data to suggest that plane travel can be safe,” says Dr. Susan Coffin, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “But you could be the person who gets put in the middle of a row and have people coughing on your right and left.” (Even Delta is now selling middle seats.)
Millstone suggests skipping food court meals at airports, going straight to the gate just before the flight, and wearing your mask throughout the trip.
Even if you’re not concerned about contracting the virus, Malley recommends checking local Covid case counts wherever you go, not just to mitigate your family’s risk and avoid adding vectors of transmission, but to reduce potential strain on a burdened healthcare system—parents and children alike can still get injured or sick from non-Covid illnesses. “Would you want to be in a country where the medical system is in trouble?” he says.
Making up for lost trips
Millstone says the wisest move is to wait, even just a month or two: “Most models are predicting that by summer, rates will have gone down.”
Parents will have more high-end options then as well. Besides Black Tomato, boutique cruise company Uniworld just launched a “Christmas in July” series of trips, designed as a do-over for the 2020 holidays. The cruises will feature red-and-white decor, winter themed cocktails, and onboard holiday markets.
In March, Ker & Downey Africa started selling 10-day private safaris specifically for families that includes visits to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti National Park, and Selous Game Reserve. For $8,430 per person, clients have exclusive use of 4x4 vehicles, as well as safari camps and villas chosen for their child-friendliness. (Kids, lions, and luxury don’t always go hand in hand.) The itineraries respond to a marked an increase in East Africa requests from families, says Sarah Morris, sales manager of Ker & Downey Africa.
The same holds true for Roar Africa, which recently introduced a Lion King-themed itinerary in South Africa, complete with themed children’s activities and, of course, the chance to spot all of the animals who featured in the film.
“No one made their summer travel plans as far in advance as they usually do,” says Roar CEO Deborah Calmeyer. “Now they are ready—and they want to go big.”
As for Black Tomato, the most extravagant trip of all may be the Call of the Wild journey in Alaska. During the nine-night experience, families can go on a kayaking safari and a custom survival course, as well as take a private helicopter to the top of a glacier, then spend the day learning how to drive a dog sled. The trip clocks in at almost $40,000 per person.
“If children are lucky enough to go on these trips, it’s going to be not only inspiring but educative,” Marchant says. “And we’re trying to create something that adults will enjoy as well.”