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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Some COVID-19 restrictions return as delta variant spreads

Travelers wearing protective masks line up to check-in for JetBlue Airways Corp. flights in Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

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Latest updates

• As the delta variant spreads and vaccination rates slow, some areas of the country reinstate restrictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on July 27 that individuals who live in or visit areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission — which is currently about three-fourths of the country — should wear masks in public indoor settings regardless of vaccination status. Los Angeles County, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., are among the jurisdictions that are again requiring people to wear masks in indoor public areas, regardless of vaccination status. Chicago has reinstated its COVID-19 testing requirement for visitors from 14 states that have passed the daily mark of 15 cases per 100,000 residents. If they are not vaccinated for COVID-19, those visitors will need to obtain a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 72 hours prior to arrival in Chicago or quarantine for a 10-day period upon arrival. Disneyland and Walt Disney World are also again requiring face masks to be worn indoors.

•  Other domestic destinations have loosened their COVID-19 restrictions for those who’ve been vaccinated — but maybe not for long. New York, for example, lifted all restrictions (capacity limits, health screenings) besides those recommended by the CDC (such as requiring masks for unvaccinated individuals in many settings and for everyone on public transit), but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has just announced a new recommendation — not a mandate — that everyone wear masks indoors. And Massachusetts is now recommending that even vaccinated individuals wear masks in public indoor settings if they or someone in their household is more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 or is unvaccinated.

•  England has begun welcoming fully vaccinated Americans, who will no longer be required to quarantine upon arrival. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have followed suit. But the CDC recently raised its warning for Britain to level 4 — “avoid travel to this destination.” Due to high levels of COVID-19 there, the warning says, “even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.” The State Department also now says, “Do not travel to the United Kingdom due to COVID-19.” (You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.)

• Unruly air passengers are described as a serious threat. The airline industry is calling for more serious prosecution of what appears to be a growing number of passengers who are violent or otherwise disruptive mid-flight. Since the middle of January, there have been 3,615 reports of unruly passenger behavior, at times involving physical assault, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Those include 2,666 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate.

•  Canada will begin welcoming fully vaccinated visitors from the U.S. on Aug. 9. The government has barred leisure travel from the U.S. for more than a year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Canadian officials will require proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, uploaded using the ArriveCAN app or web portal, for visitors to avoid a two-week quarantine upon arrival. (You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.) All travelers will still require a pre-entry COVID-19 molecular test result. Canada will begin allowing visitors from the rest of the world on Sept. 7.

• Canada will allow big ships to sail this fall. The country also said that it will allow big cruise ships (those with more than 100 passengers) back into its waters beginning Nov. 1, following a long pandemic ban. This is sooner than expected; Canada had previously suggested the ban would last until February.

• The CDC lowered its warning level for cruising from level 4 (COVID-19 risk is very high) to level 3 (COVID-19 risk is high). It has also stopped explicitly warning those who are fully vaccinated against cruise travel. The CDC still recommends that those who are not fully vaccinated avoid travel on cruise ships. It also says that even those who are fully vaccinated should get a COVID-19 viral test one to three days before departure, and that everyone on a cruise ship should wear a mask in public spaces. Some cruise lines are requiring proof of vaccination; others are not. (See more on cruising below.)

• The CDC continues to revise its travel recommendations for countries around the world. It has lowered the warning levels from level 4 (avoid travel due to high COVID-19 levels) to level 3 (make sure you are fully vaccinated before you travel) for many popular tourist destinations, including Canada, Ireland, Italy and France. Finland and Germany are among those now at level 2, indicating moderate levels of COVID-19, while Iceland and Bermuda were recently upgraded to level 1, the safest category. The CDC’s advice for levels 1 and 2 is basically the same as for level 3: “Make sure you are fully vaccinated before traveling to these destinations.” But it’s raised its warnings for some countries, including Britain (as noted above), Portugal and Spain, to level 4.

(Note: Travelers should also check recommendations from the State Department, which has downgraded risk levels for many countries, though it is still advising against visiting some, at times due to factors other than COVID-19.)

• Europe is beginning to open to Americans who are fully vaccinated — under certain conditions. The European Union (EU) has added the U.S. to its safe travel list for the summer tourist season, though there are still plenty of roadblocks to easy passage. Some countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany, Iceland and Croatia, are already open to Americans — though with caveats (they typically require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test). EU countries’ rules vary, so travelers should do their research before settling on a destination.  

• Testing is required for return to the U.S. In order to board a flight to the U.S., both visitors and American citizens must provide documentation of a negative viral test taken within three days of their departure or provide proof that they have recovered from COVID-19. Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine when they return to the U.S. from international locations, but they should get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the U.S. and watch for symptoms, according to the CDC. Everyone should continue to wear masks in public and follow other infection prevention measures, such as frequent handwashing and social distancing.

• Masks still need to be worn on public transportation. While the CDC has announced loosened mask-wearing guidelines for those who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, it still requires all travelers to wear them on airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations.


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


Travel’s surge back toward normalcy is starting to look more precarious, with the extremely contagious delta variant’s spread, and its apparent ability to infect fully vaccinated individuals; though their symptoms tend to be far milder than those for unvaccinated people, they may be able to pass on the virus to others.

The CDC still advises against travel unless you are fully vaccinated. If those who are unvaccinated 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 number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day has risen substantially in the past few months — nearly 2.24 million people passed through airport security on Aug. 1, for example. That’s still lower than the approximately 2.69 million who did so on Aug. 1, 2019, but it’s a huge leap from the 800,000 who flew on Aug. 1, 2020.

There are a few things travelers should keep in mind:

At the Airport

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. Fines for refusing to wear a mask can range from $250 for the first offense to $1,500 for repeat offenders.

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 are also allowed to board a flight with a driver’s license 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 May 3, 2023, 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 recently delayed from Oct. 1, 2021.

On the Plane

The CDC requires passengers and crew to wear masks while boarding and disembarking and during the flight. None of the airlines are still blocking middle seats to enable social distancing.

While many airlines had stopped serving food and drinks during flights, some, such as Southwest and Delta, have begun to do so again, depending on the length of the flight. (See more on airlines’ current policies here)

All of the major U.S. airlines have equipped their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which 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.”


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Cruising

It’s really happening: Cruising is beginning to return to U.S. waters. The CDC recently clarified its requirements for big ships to cruise again, after a long hiatus during the pandemic. It asks them, for one, to undergo a test cruise before they sail to demonstrate their safety measures, unless they can prove that at least 95 percent of their passengers are fully vaccinated. Some passengers are still testing positive for COVID-19, however, including six passengers on a Royal Caribbean International cruise that departed from Nassau last weekend, four of whom were vaccinated; they were quarantined and evacuated from the ship. (Only one exhibited symptoms, and those were mild.)

Meanwhile, Florida has implemented a ban on so-called vaccination passports, prohibiting cruise lines from requiring vaccinations if they hope to sail from ports in the state. The cruise industry is hoping for a reversal of this policy.

And Alaska is again open to big-ship cruising. Congress has approved the bypassing of longtime rules that required foreign-registered ships traveling between U.S. ports to stop in another country (in Alaska’s case, Canada, which has banned large cruise ships through November of this year). With the rule change, many of the big lines have begun cruising to Alaska, with COVID-19 vaccination requirements for passengers.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 9, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.

Christina Ianzito is 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. 

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