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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Fully vaccinated Americans are on the move, while restrictions on the unvaccinated increase

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

• The White House has clarified rules for visitors to the U.S. When the borders open on Nov. 8 to leisure travelers who aren’t citizens of the U.S., those who are 18 and older will need to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before they can board their flight to the U.S. (with very few exceptions). They’ll also be required to provide a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure (a previous rule required it within three days). Airlines will be collecting phone numbers and other contact information in case contact tracing is necessary. This is a move away from the previous country-by-country restrictions.

• U.S. borders are opening to vaccinated travelers from Mexico and Canada. Residents of those countries who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 will also be able to enter, starting on Nov. 8, after more than a year of cutting off cross-border leisure travel. (You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.)

• Fully vaccinated U.S. travelers returning from international locations need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of their return flight to the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says they should also get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the country and watch for symptoms.

There are different U.S. rules for unvaccinated Americans traveling internationally. Unvaccinated Americans traveling internationally will need to test for COVID-19 within one day of their departure from the U.S., and within one day of their return flight. They also should get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the country and watch for symptoms.

• European countries have increased restrictions on unvaccinated American visitors. The European Union (EU) has taken the U.S. off its safe travel list, causing some countries — including Spain and France — to bar unvaccinated leisure travelers from the U.S. (In France, visitors must also provide a statement confirming that they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 and that they have had no contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19). The rules in EU countries vary, so travelers should do their research before settling on a destination, and check the CDC’s country-specific recommendations (as noted below).

• Message to tourists: Come to Hawaii. Gov. David Ige says that fully vaccinated visitors are welcome and encouraged to visit Hawaii beginning Nov. 1. A few months ago he called for a halt to non-essential travel to the state through at least the end of October.

• Unruly air passengers face higher penalties. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) increased the range of civil penalties that can be imposed on those who violate the federal mask mandate (in effect through at least Jan. 18, 2022) in airports and on aircraft or other modes of public transportation. This move is in part a response to the growing number of passengers who are violent or otherwise disruptive mid-flight. From the middle of January through Oct. 26, there have been 4,941 reports of unruly passenger behavior, at times involving physical assault and often the result of disputes over the mask mandate, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Those at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 should not cruise. The CDC has advised people with an increased risk of severe illness to “avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, regardless of vaccination status.”

• Different areas of the country have different COVID-19-related restrictions. Los Angeles County, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas are among the jurisdictions that are again requiring everyone to wear masks in indoor public areas. Chicago has reinstated its COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements for unvaccinated visitors from states that have passed the daily mark of 15 cases per 100,000 residents — now nearly the whole country, as depicted on the city’s online map. Disneyland and Walt Disney World are again requiring face masks to be worn indoors by everyone age 2 and older. Many more regions have no restrictions.

• More destinations are requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. New York City and San Francisco are among the cities now requiring that customers who want to eat indoors at a restaurant, work out in a gym or drink at a bar offer proof of full vaccination. Some New York City hotels, including the Equinox and Ian Schrager’s Public Hotel, have announced their own vaccine requirements. Puerto Rico requires that all visitors staying in hotels and home rentals show proof of vaccination, or a negative test taken within 72 hours of their arrival. The Bahamas has announced that cruise ships will not be allowed to dock there unless all passengers 12 and up show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination.

• The CDC continues to revise its travel recommendations for countries around the world. The agency has many countries at level 4 — “do not travel,” due to very high COVID-19 rates — including Great Britain, Switzerland, and Ireland. Countries including Italy, Canada and Mexico are at level 3 (high COVID-19 rates); Poland, Peru and India are among those now at level 2 (moderate COVID-19 rates). Note that for both levels 2 and 3, the CDC’s advice is the same: Make sure you are fully vaccinated before traveling to these destinations.

Travelers should also check recommendations from the State Department, which may have stronger warnings for certain countries, often due to factors other than COVID-19.

• Canada has begun welcoming fully vaccinated visitors from the U.S. U.S. visitors coming by land or air will need to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, uploaded using the ArriveCAN app or web portal, to avoid a two-week quarantine upon arrival. In July two U.S. travelers who flew to Toronto were fined around $16,000 each for providing false proof of vaccination. All travelers will still require a pre-entry COVID-19 molecular test result.

Starting on Monday, Canada will allow big ships to sail. Big cruise ships (those with more than 100 passengers) can return to Canadian waters on Monday, following a long pandemic ban. All cruise ship passengers age 12 and older are required to be vaccinated.

• 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, unless they are immunocompromised, as noted above. 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 three to five days after their trip. Everyone on a cruise ship should wear a mask in public spaces. Many cruise lines have mask and vaccine requirements. (See below for more information.)

• Masks need to be worn on public transportation. The CDC still requires all travelers to wear face coverings on airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations.


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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.

People are certainly on the move. The number of airline passengers screened by the TSA each day has risen substantially in the past few months — more than 1.5 million people passed through airport security on Oct. 26, for example. That’s still lower than the approximately 1.9 million who did so on Oct. 26, 2019, but it’s a huge leap from the 648,000 who flew on Oct. 26, 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 use a driver’s license that expired on or after March 1, 2020, as acceptable ID at checkpoints, for one year after the expiration date. (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 as well as 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 have begun to do so again, depending on the length of the flight. But Southwest and American have stopped serving alcohol onboard (though only in economy class, in American’s case), through at least January of 2022, due to a high number of incidents involving unruly or violent passengers (as noted above).

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

Cruising has returned to U.S. waters after a long hiatus during the pandemic. Most cruise lines are requiring that guests be vaccinated, including Carnival, which requires all passengers to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination. More destinations, including in the Bahamas, are barring cruise ships unless all passengers 12 and up (or sometimes 18 and up, on European cruises) are vaccinated.

Some passengers, however, are still testing positive for COVID-19, including five on a September cruise from New York to Bermuda on Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony, following a requirement by Bermuda that passengers are tested en route (they’d all already taken a pre-departure COVID-19 test and tested negative). They were taken to hotel rooms in Bermuda, along with spouses or other members of their party. All guests were required to be vaccinated.   

Alaska is again open to big-ship cruising; many of the big lines are now booking summer 2022 cruises 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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