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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Many restrictions ease with lower COVID-19 case numbers​

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Latest updates

• Travelers will be required to wear masks on planes and other public transportation until at least April 18. The federal mandate has been extended from the previous end date of March 18.

• The CDC has lowered its warning on cruising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lowered the warning level for cruising to level 2, for “moderate” levels of COVID-19, down from level 3 (and, before that, level 4, or “do not travel”). It still suggests that travelers be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 before cruising. The agency also says to avoid cruise ship travel if you aren’t fully vaccinated and are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. (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.)

• Many COVID-19-related restrictions are being lifted around the countryHawaii is now the only state that still requires most people to wear face coverings in indoor public places. The order applies regardless of an individual's vaccination status. It is set to end March 26. (See our state-by-state guide to COVID-19 restrictions.)

• Countries are reopening to tourists. Australia is now open to foreign travelers who’ve been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. For many months during the pandemic, the country required even returning residents to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel at their own expense. New Zealand will allow vaccinated visitors starting April 12. Britain no longer requires visitors to take COVID-19 tests or quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status. Canada will no longer require negative COVID-19 tests from visitors starting April 1.

• The CDC still has well over 100 countries on its level 4, or “do not travel,” list, due to very high COVID-19 rates. They include - Canada and all of Europe.

• American Airlines will again selling alcohol onboard again. After almost two years of pausing alcohol sales during the pandemic, American is set to bring back the booze on April 18. American Airlines is now the only major airline still not selling alcohol to some passengers — those in economy class — on its flights. The FAA has found that many incidents involving unruly or violent passengers have included alcohol. 

• You’ll still need to take a COVID-19 test before returning to the U.S. All travelers — regardless of vaccination status or nationality — arriving from international locations need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of their flight to the U.S.

While omicron seems to have peaked in many areas of the country, the pandemic's unpredictability continues to make travel planning (or any kind of planning, really) nerve-racking.

Here’s what we know now:

Domestic travel

There are few nationwide rules besides the federal mask mandate, which requires mask wearing on public transportation — airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations — through at least April 18. Fines for refusing to wear a mask range from $500 to $1,000 for first offenders and from $1,000 to $3,000 for second offenders. 

These fines are in part a response to the high number of passengers who have been violent or otherwise disruptive while flying. From the middle of January 2021 through Dec. 21, there were 5,779 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).

Otherwise, many destinations are loosening or dropping COVID-19-related restrictions, as noted above.


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International travel

Travelers should check country-specific recommendations from the CDC, as well as the U.S. State Department, which may have stronger warnings for certain countries, often due to factors other than COVID-19.

The rules in different countries vary, so it’s important to do your research before settling on a destination. To complicate matters, the rules can change at any time.

And remember you’ll still need to take a COVID-19 test before returning to the U.S. 

If you’re unvaccinated for COVID-19 and traveling internationally: You need to test for COVID-19 within one day of departure from the U.S. as well as follow the above post-travel testing requirements. 

If you’re not a U.S. citizen and 18 or older: You need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before you can board your flight to the U.S. (with very few exceptions). You also need to show a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure, as is the case for all travelers entering the U.S. Airlines will collect phone numbers and other contact information in case contact tracing is necessary.

Air travel

TSA screening: The TSA is asking travelers to use extra 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 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 pandemic.)

And note that you now have until May 3, 2023, to obtain 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.

Onboard: 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. 

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.”

It's not clear, however, whether the omicron variant may make onboard infection more likely.

Cruising

The CDC still advises against cruising if you’re unvaccinated and more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, but (as noted above) it has lowered its warning level for cruise ship travel.

The CDC is now letting the cruise lines set their own course for safety measures. The agency’s Conditional Sailing Order, which set pandemic-related rules for cruising since October 2020, expired on Jan. 15. All of the major cruise lines have agreed to voluntarily follow the CDC’s suggested COVID-19 mitigation measures — though some officials say these public health measures should remain mandatory.  

You can check the status of different ships on the CDC's color-coded chart.

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. 

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

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