The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to emphasize that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.
• While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still not recommending travel, it has announced the easing of some restrictions for people who are fully vaccinated. (You’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after having received the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after the one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s.)
• According to the new guidance, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to get a COVID-19 test or to quarantine before or after domestic travel, nor do they need to be tested for COVID-19 before departing for international travel. They do still need to be tested before returning to the U.S., however. Those fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine when they return from international travel, but they should get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the U.S. Everyone should continue to wear masks in public and follow other infection prevention measures, such as frequent handwashing and social distancing.
• The CDC’s guidance for unvaccinated travelers remains unchanged: They should avoid all nonessential travel. If they do travel within the U.S., they should get tested for COVID-19 one to three days before departure and again three to five days after returning. They should stay home and self-quarantine for seven days after travel or 10 days if they don’t get tested at the conclusion of travel. The CDC also recommends that unvaccinated people delay international travel until they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
• Canada has extended its cruise ship ban for another year, until February 2022, banning all cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers from Canadian waters. This prevents some big cruise lines from restarting their normal routes between ports on the U.S. mainland and those in Alaska, because many are registered in other countries and U.S. maritime law requires foreign-flagged ships to stop at a foreign port when traveling between two U.S. ports. Alaskan legislators are calling the ban “unacceptable.” (Smaller U.S.-based lines, such as American Cruise Lines, are able to continue with plans for Alaskan cruises this summer.)
• Some cruise lines are beginning to announce vaccine requirements for passengers. The first to do so was the Europe-based travel company Saga, which requires guests to have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 at least two weeks before departure; now the river cruise line American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister line, Victory Cruise Lines, have announced that all guests and crew members will need to have been vaccinated for COVID-19, effective July 1, 2021.
• Face mask mandate. The CDC now requires that masks be worn by everyone 2 and older on public transportation and at transportation hubs such as airports. Refusing to wear a face covering in these settings is a violation of federal law and could result in a $250 fine and up to $1,500 for repeated violations. This applies “while boarding, disembarking and for the duration of travel.” Masks are also required at federal sites, including national parks.
• Negative test required to enter U.S. by air. The CDC announced that international travelers will need a negative COVID-19 test in order to board a flight to the U.S. In a press release about the order, the CDC expressed concern about new variants of the coronavirus, although one variant has already been identified in dozens of cases across the U.S. International travelers (even those who have been fully vaccinated) now need to provide documentation of a negative viral test taken within three days of their departure or provide proof that they have recovered from COVID-19, the CDC said.
• Canada and Mexico land borders with the U.S. to remain closed. The borders between the U.S. and Canada and between the U.S. and Mexico will remain closed to leisure travelers until at least April 21, because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The closure began March 21, 2020, and has been extended on a monthly basis. (Canada has also canceled all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean through April.)
• Airline contact tracing programs. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are working with the CDC on voluntary contact tracing programs. Passengers are asked for contact information (phone numbers, email addresses) to allow for easier tracking of the spread of COVID-19.
• Warning against travel to Mexico. The CDC continues to advise against travel to Mexico due to very high levels of COVID-19 in the country. (Land borders are closed, but Americans can still fly there.) The CDC says, “If you must travel to Mexico, get fully vaccinated before travel. All travelers should wear a mask, stay 6 feet from others, avoid crowds and wash their hands.” Air travel between the U.S. and Mexico is allowed, but land crossings are still permitted only for essential purposes.
• States’ quarantine rules for visitors. Many U.S. states have requested or mandated quarantines for travelers or residents returning from other states, but rules have begun loosening in recent weeks. (Check each state’s official website for guidance, or see our story detailing state rules for travelers.)
Although the number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day is still down from past years, it has risen substantially since the beginning of the pandemic — more than 1.5 million on April 1, for example, compared with around 124,000 on the same day in 2020 (though still far lower than the 2.4 million on April 1, 2019).
Here’s what to expect and how to lower your risk if you fly.
At the Airport
“Bring some alcohol wipes with you and wipe down anything you’re going to touch,” says Robert Murphy, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
U.S. airports and major airlines report that they are following CDC guidelines for sanitizing public interfaces. This includes cleaning with disinfectant all check-in kiosks, ticket counters, gate seating — among other frequently touched areas — multiple times a day, as well as providing hand sanitizer throughout ticket and boarding areas.
The major airlines require passengers to wear masks on board (except when they are eating or drinking) and throughout the airports they serve.
The TSA is asking travelers to use enhanced precautions during airport screening, including putting personal items such as wallets, phones and keys into carry-on bags instead of plastic bins, and staying 6 feet from others waiting in line. TSA officers are required to wear masks and gloves and to change gloves after a passenger pat-down, and travelers are required to wear masks as well.
Passengers are allowed to bring liquid hand sanitizer in containers up to 12 ounces in carry-on bags; previously, liquids could be in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces. And they can board flights with driver’s licenses that expired beginning March 1, 2020, “to use it as acceptable ID at checkpoints for one year after expiration date, plus 60 days after the COVID-19 national emergency.” (Some people have been unable to renew their licenses because of the outbreak.)
And note that you now have until Oct. 1 before you’ll need a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. The deadline was delayed a year.
On the Plane
The CDC requires passengers and crew to wear masks while boarding and disembarking and during the flight. Airlines have also beefed up disinfection procedures and are trying to prevent close contact by boarding passengers from the back of the plane to the front. Delta is the only major airline still blocking middle seats to enable social distancing, but it recently announced that the policy will end May 1.
An October Harvard University report declared that air travel during the pandemic is no more risky than going to a grocery store. Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “a relatively very low risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] while flying,” thanks to air-filtering systems and requirements that passengers wear masks.
All the major U.S. airlines have equipped their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The CDC concurs, noting in its guidance for travel during the pandemic that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”
But the CDC also notes that while “we don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others,” air travel can make social distancing particularly difficult. Murphy suggests that passengers “wipe the area down where you’re going to be sitting, and the armrests and the tray table — anything you touch. If there’s a touch screen or control or something, you need to clean that before you touch it.”
He adds: “If anybody around you is sick, get off the airplane.”
Providers have been trying to address travelers’ concerns about upcoming trips by introducing temporary reprieves on change or cancellation penalties. (See more on airlines’ policies below.) They’re also allowing no-fee changes and cancellations on new bookings, and in some cases are offering steep discounts.
As more Americans receive vaccinations, many tour operators have begun scheduling trips. The nonprofit educational travel company Road Scholar is starting its tours this month, for instance. Collette will make decisions on program cancellations on a case-by-case basis 30 to 45 days prior to scheduled departure.
The CDC recently extended its Conditional Sailing Order through Nov. 1. The order, which applies to ships with 250 or more passengers, requires the lines to first demonstrate they have certain procedures and facilities in place (testing capacity and quarantine areas, for instance) to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their ships.
Many lines had hoped to restart later this spring and are protesting the ruling. Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and other lines still have itineraries set to begin June 1. Smaller ships, including riverboats, are not affected. The cruise lines are offering vouchers for future travel when cruises are canceled, as well as no-fee cancelation policies in some cases.
Hotel chains have also loosened their cancellation policies, waiving change and cancellation fees that would normally apply to nonrefundable rates.
The major airlines have a range of policies. American, Delta, United and Alaska airlines no longer charge change fees, which are typically $200, for most tickets on U.S. flights; Southwest has never charged them. (See details on each airline’s policies below.) Be aware that if an airline cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund as mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Amtrak is waiving change fees for reservations made before March 31; you can make changes online, but for cancellations and refunds, you need to call 800-USA-RAIL. Many of its routes are operating on a reduced schedule. Passengers are required to wear facial coverings both at the station and onboard unless they are in a private room. (Read more about Amtrak’s safety procedures.)
Alaska Airlines has eliminated change fees “on Main and First Class fares everywhere Alaska flies” for tickets bought through April 30; fees may be charged for changes to Saver fare tickets bought after that date. Customers have to pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive. (You can also get a credit certificate for future travel if you aren’t ready to reschedule.)
American Airlines has eliminated change fees for all tickets on domestic flights booked between March 1, 2020, and Jan. 31, 2021. Change fees will apply to Basic Economy tickets bought after Jan. 31 of this year. American has also eliminated change fees on most international flights originating in the U.S. for tickets issued on or after Nov. 19, 2020, with the exception of Basic Economy fares. Customers must pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive. They can also now fly standby on earlier flights for the same destination on the same day at no additional charge.
British Airways (an AARP member-benefit provider) says it will not charge a change fee for bookings made from March 3, 2020, onward for journeys due to have been completed by April 30, 2022 — although customers will need to pay any fare differences.
Delta has eliminated change fees on domestic flights as well as on all international flights originating in North America. The move will be permanent for some classes of tickets, but fees will again be charged for changes to Basic Economy tickets bought after April 30 of this year, which are nonrefundable. Customers must pay the fare difference if their new flight is more expensive. You have a year or more to reschedule, depending on when you bought the ticket. (see site for details).
JetBlue Airways is suspending cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through May 31. Fare differences may apply.
Southwest Airlines allows passengers who need to change or cancel their flights (at least 10 minutes before departure) to rebook within the next year or, in some cases, even later for no fee. You can rebook online by visiting southwest.com/rebook. Note that fare differences may apply.
Spirit Airlines is waiving change fees for customers who book by April 4. Its site says that those who cancel “will receive a full purchase-price reservation credit to be used on future travel.”
United has eliminated change fees for tickets on domestic flights and has announced that international flights originating in the U.S. can also be changed without a fee. The move will be permanent for some classes of tickets, but fees will again be charged for changes to some Basic Economy tickets bought after April 30 for domestic flights (May 31 for international flights). Travelers who change tickets can apply the funds (now or later) to a flight of equal or lesser value — or pay the fare difference — for travel up to 12 months from the original ticket issue date. There’s no limit to how many times you can change your flight.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 9, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.
Christina Ianzito is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who joined AARP in 2010. She’s the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.