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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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• U.S. borders are opening to vaccinated travelers from Mexico and Canada. Residents of those countries who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 will now be able to visit the U.S., the White House announced this week, after more than a year of cutting off cross-border leisure travel. The policy will go into effect, officials said, in “early November.” (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.)

Residents flying to the U.S. from other countries may visit with proof of vaccination, beginning Nov. 8, the U.S. government announced last week. They will also need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three days of their departure to the U.S. Airlines will be collecting phone numbers and other contact information in case contract tracing is necessary.

• 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 departure 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. Unvaccinated Americans returning to the U.S. will need to test for COVID-19 before departure to the U.S., and within one day of their return flight.

• 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, France and Denmark — 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).

Unruly air passengers will face higher penalties. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will increase 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. 12, there have been 4,724 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.

• 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.”

• As the delta variant continues to spread, some areas of the country have reinstated restrictions. Los Angeles County, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., 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.

• Message to tourists: Don’t come to Hawaii. “Now is not the time to visit Hawaii,” Gov. David Ige said recently in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, due to record numbers of COVID-19 cases. “I’m asking all residents and visitors alike to restrict travel, curtail travel to Hawaii to essential activities only.” The governor has requested a halt to non-essential travel through the end of October.

• 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, are beginning to announce 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. The government opened its borders on Aug. 9, though 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. Two U.S. travelers were recently fined nearly $20,000 for providing false proof of vaccination. All travelers will still require a pre-entry COVID-19 molecular test result.

• Canada will allow big ships to sail next month. Big cruise ships (those with more than 100 passengers) can return to Canadian 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, 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 that 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 still need to be worn on public transportation. As noted above, 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.


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


Travel’s surge back toward normalcy has slowed, 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 TSA each day has risen substantially in the past few months — more than 1.64 million people passed through airport security on Oct. 13, for example. That’s still lower than the approximately 2.3 million who did so on Oct. 13, 2019, but it’s a huge leap from the 718,000 who flew on Oct. 13, 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 have begun to do so again, depending on the length of the flight. But Southwest and American have stopped serving alcohol onboard, 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. It’s in part due to more destinations, including in the Bahamas, barring cruise ships unless all passengers 12 and up are vaccinated.

Some passengers are still testing positive for COVID-19, however, including six passengers, four of whom were vaccinated, on a Royal Caribbean International cruise that departed from Nassau recently; they were quarantined and evacuated from the ship. (Only one exhibited symptoms and those were mild.)

And Alaska is again open to big-ship cruising. Congress 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 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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