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For some, the COVID-19 vaccine is a ticket to travel. Many people are still planning carefully

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Air travelers line up to board an American Airlines flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at O'Hare International Airport on March 11, 2021.

Air travelers line up to board an American Airlines flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at O'Hare International Airport on March 11, 2021. With COVID-19 case counts falling from January highs and vaccine distribution making progress, some people who put travel on hold during the pandemic are starting to feel comfortable planning trips. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — Diana Williams and her husband normally take a couple of overseas and domestic trips every year.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, they’ve left Chicago’s city limits only once. As soon as she learned when she would get her first COVID-19 vaccine shot, she counted the days until her second dose would be effective and started planning a trip to Key West, Florida, for later this month.

Her friends are also itching for a change of scenery, said Williams, 76, who lives near Lincoln Park.

“The two big topics of conversation in our age bracket are have you gotten your shot yet, and where’s your first trip?” she said.

With COVID-19 case counts falling from January highs and vaccine distribution making progress, some people who put travel on hold during the pandemic are starting to feel comfortable planning trips — including seniors and front-line workers who have already received their vaccines. Traveler numbers at airports are rising even as many colleges canceled traditional weeklong spring breaks.

On a recent morning at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 3, a handful of recently vaccinated travelers said they were taking their first trips since the pandemic began.

“I usually travel all around the world and planned to save domestic trips for when I’m older … but this is where we can go now,” said Stephanie Tomlin, 26, of Ohio, boarding an American Airlines flight to Hawaii.

Another passenger on the flight, Josh Turan, 36, of Alabama, said the progress of the vaccine rollout made him feel more confident taking his first pandemic flight even though he was still waiting for his shot.

U.S. airline passenger numbers are down 53% during the most recent week compared with prepandemic levels, but Transportation Security Administration officers screened more than 1.4 million people Thursday — the most on a single day since March 15, 2020.

That doesn’t mean jet-setters are back to their prepandemic ways. Even those ready to get back to vacationing are more likely to opt for beaches and outdoor destinations over big cities, and they’re doing pretrip research that goes far beyond browsing hotel reviews.

Will travelers need to quarantine on arrival, or when they come back home? How are case counts trending? Are bookings refundable? Are restrictions loose enough to give tourists something to do, but not so loose that visiting feels risky?

Travel restrictions and policies requiring quarantines or proof of negative COVID-19 tests are still limiting overseas trips. U.S. tourists can’t visit European Union countries, though some others allow Americans who test negative shortly before arriving, including the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.

Some countries have dropped restrictions for travelers who can prove they are vaccinated, but several still only accept travelers from certain countries.

Americans must test negative for COVID-19 before returning to the U.S. or prove they recently recovered from the virus, even if they’ve been innoculated, and some states and cities have their own restrictions. Travelers to Hawaii must test negative or quarantine for 10 days after arrival, and Chicago says people arriving from certain states with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases must quarantine for 10 days unless they are fully vaccinated or test negative.

Several organizations and airlines are working to create apps, known loosely as vaccine passports, to help travelers navigate restrictions, store their COVID-19 test results and — eventually — record their vaccination status. Most are still in the early stages or only used in certain destinations, and United Airlines and American Airlines encourage passengers to bring additional documentation of negative tests even if their results have been verified through the airlines’ apps.

Airline travel is recovering from its low point last spring, but there are still far fewer people flying than there used to be. United, American and Southwest Airlines will have 51%, 43% and 24% fewer available seats on flights leaving O’Hare and Midway Airport next month than during the same month two years ago, according to data from travel analytics company Cirium.

But people are getting more comfortable planning ahead. Orbitz saw a “huge” increase in people booking flights with less than a week’s notice earlier in the pandemic, but most flights booked now are for travel between June and August, the online travel agency said in an email.

In the Chicago area, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Anchorage, Alaska; Cancun, Mexico; Washington, D.C.; and Fort Myers, Florida, have seen the biggest increases in July bookings compared with July 2019, Orbitz said.

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said at an investor conference Monday they expect to stop losing money on operations in March, thanks to a recent jump in bookings. Delta’s daily sales so far in March are 30% higher than February, and United said its cash flow could be positive going forward if the trend continues.

Where travelers want to go has changed significantly since before the pandemic, and so have flight schedules. Most business travelers are still staying home, and vacationers are still favoring outdoor destinations, a trend that emerged early in the pandemic.

At O’Hare and Midway Airport, United, American and Southwest Airlines slashed the number of seats on April flights from Chicago to New York City-area airports by 78%, 61% and 70%, respectively, compared with April 2019.

Instead, Chicago-based United added a total of more than 20,000 seats on flights to Florida. Already a popular destination, Florida became even more attractive when the U.S. began requiring people show a negative COVID-19 test before returning from an overseas trip, making it more difficult to travel to beaches in Latin America, said Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of International Network and Alliances.

As some resorts and hotels in Latin America and the Caribbean began reassuring travelers they could easily get tests and, in some cases, stay for free during a two-week quarantine, bookings to those destinations returned, he said.

American has more flights from Chicago to beach destinations like San Juan, Puerto Rico; Honolulu, Hawaii; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Florida in April compared with the same month two years ago, according to data from Cirium.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline is also seeing more interest in other outdoor destinations, said Brian Znotins, American’s vice president of network planning. There are more seats on flights from O’Hare to Portland, Oregon; Montrose, Colorado; Boise, Idaho, and Bozeman, Montana, than there were two years ago.

In June the airline is adding daily flights from O’Hare to Spokane, Washington, which is within a 10-hour drive of seven national parks, and two airports serving Yosemite National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

Heriberto Gallegos, 25, of Little Village, planned a one-week trip to the Pacific Northwest in late April, where he plans to visit Olympic National Park. He had been avoiding travel until he got the COVID-19 vaccine and wanted a change of scenery after spending the year in Chicago.

“I’ve never seen mountains in person, so that’s on my list,” he said.

Airlines are still adjusting summer schedules. American is finalizing domestic flight schedules a month or two in advance instead of the usual four to six months because they can’t make plans using prior years’ travel patterns, Znotins said.

But “less exotic” destinations could also get a boost in the coming months if the vaccine rollout means people are able to safely visit relatives again, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand to go see grandma in Indianapolis, or wherever that may be,” Znotins said.

Hotels, too, are seeing travelers come back. The number of U.S. hotel rooms sold during the week ending March 6 topped 18 million for the first time since October, according to hotel industry research company STR. The 49% occupancy rate is the highest it’s been in four months, led by Florida, though occupancy rates nationwide were still down 20.5% compared with the same week last year.

Hyatt’s occupancy rates were above 40% during the last two weeks of February and the first week of March for the first time in a year, Asad Ahmed, senior vice president of commercial services for the Americas, said in an email. Weekend occupancy rates topped 50%, and resorts in destinations like Florida, Southern California, Mexico, Colorado and Hawaii have been first to recover.

Uncertainty around changing restrictions has prompted more people to purchase travel insurance policies that let them cancel trips for any reason, including border closures and quarantine regulations, that aren’t covered by most standard trip cancellation policies, according to travel insurance website Squaremouth.

The upgrade can increase costs by roughly 40% and only reimburses up to 75% of insured trip costs. It was relatively unpopular before the pandemic, but sales of the policy have grown from 3.5% of Squaremouth’s sales in 2019 to 17%, the company said in January.

Trip insurance may look more appealing to people who spent hours trying to recover money spent on canceled trips last spring — some successfully, others running afoul of vacation rentals with strict cancellation rules or airlines that pushed vouchers for future flights instead of issuing credits.

At Airbnb and VRBO, cancellation policies are up to the host. Airbnb will provide refunds, but only if the host or customer gets sick with COVID-19.

Even as some travelers venture out, others are waiting.

Catherine Diedrich’s kids have Type 1 diabetes, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says may put them at increased risk for severe illness if they get COVID-19, and it’s still unclear when kids will be able to get vaccines.

That means vacations to any crowded destination are off the table, but Diedrich, 48, of Albany Park, would like to drive her children to visit family in Indiana. Her relatives have been taking virus-related precautions seriously, but she worries about traveling through areas with looser restrictions.

“None of us have felt like we want to set a date yet … We’ve made it this far, let’s not screw things up by doing it even a month early,” she said.

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