'Hot spots still a little too hot': More than half of Americans won't consider international travel as countries reopen

Airlines say travelers are excited to return to Europe and the United Kingdom as plans to reopen borders progress, pointing to a spike in ticket shopping and bookings.

United Airlines saw a 19% increase in flight searches to Europe the day the news broke that trips to Europe might be a possibility for vaccinated Americans this summer. And “demand is through the roof”' for the airline's new flights to Greece, Croatia and Iceland, CEO Scott Kirby said last week.

Those travelers appear to be in the minority.

More than half of American adults – 55% – aren't ready to consider international travel, according to a new Harris Poll survey. And more than half of those respondents, 58%, say they aren't sure if or when they will be ready.

This despite a surge in optimism about the pandemic recovery and an overall eagerness to board airplanes again, according to John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll.

Gerzema said 67% of Americans say the worst of the pandemic is behind us, compared with just 33% in early January. And 50% of Americans say they miss traveling on airplanes, the highest figure in a year, he said.

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"Americans clearly want their lives back, and they want to get back and travel, but I think the (COVID-19) variants are causing a lot of hesitation to go abroad,'' Gerzema said in an interview. 

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Nearly 3 out of 4 respondents said the "fear of different variants'' has an impact on their interest in traveling internationally. Not all of them were concerned enough to put off a trip, however: 23% of those surveyed said it wouldn't deter them. 

In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the green light for fully vaccinated Americans to travel at low risk but noted that international travel poses additional risks, including possibly spreading new COVID-19 variants. The agency and the U.S. State Department still have many countries at their highest alert level due to COVID-19. 

The Harris Poll, conducted April 30-Sunday with a nationally representative sample of 2,096 adults, did not ask respondents about any other reasons affecting their willingness to consider international travel. 

One traveler responding to the late April news that the European Union is expected to reopen to vaccinated Americans this summer pointed to a map showing a high rate of COVID-19 infections in many spots around the globe. 

"For the folks talking about traveling,'' she posted on Twitter. "Them hot spots still a little too hot for me.''

Pollsters did ask about COVID-19 vaccination status, with 45% of respondents already vaccinated. Nearly 16% said they will not be getting the vaccine. The rest were taking a wait-and-see attitude (20%), planned to get vaccinated when it was available (10%), or planned to get the shot(s) when they got around to it (almost 9%).

Americans' willingness to consider international trips was not divided along vaccination lines in the poll, however. Half of the respondents who said they would not consider international travel had been vaccinated, compared with 38% of those who said they are willing to consider an international trip.

"(Travel) is still considered a high-risk activity for a number of people even though it’s starting to take off,'' Gerzema said, "and international travel, is amplified, obviously.''

Vaccine requirements have become a politically divisive topic, so much so that travel industry officials and others are no longer using the term vaccine passport, preferring vaccine certificates, among other terms. 

The high-profile European countries that have already reopened or announced reopening dates, including Greece, said they will require travelers to be vaccinated. And the European Union, which is expected to release more details on reopening plans this week, said earlier this week that vaccines would be a key component.

"My guess is that most long-haul, international borders are going to require you to be vaccinated to go,'' Kirby said in a live interview with the Washington Post last week.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents dozens of international airlines, is advocating for COVID-19 testing and other options in addition to vaccines so the reopening requirements aren't discriminatory.

The poll on international travel asked respondents whether they thought a vaccination should be required to travel internationally or if COVID-19 testing would be sufficient. 

The results: 59% said vaccination should be required for international travel, 41% said a COVID-19 test is enough.

Travelers flying to the United States are already required to show a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery from COVID-19 to board the plane, even if they are vaccinated.

So who's ready to go to Europe?

More than 4 in 10 Americans are ready to resume international travel, according to the Harris Poll.

Not surprisingly, they tend to be younger. The biggest segment: travelers aged 25-40, with 62% saying they would consider traveling abroad, followed by those 18-24, at 60%. Just 26% of those 57+ say they are willing to travel internationally.

Younger people crave adventure and tend to be less risk-averse, Gerzema said. 

"Basically, their lives were interrupted for a year,'' he said. "All of us were, but I think it really hit hard for young people.''