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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

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

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Latest updates

• The United States is among a growing number of countries barring travelers from some south African nations in response to rising alarm over the newly identified omicron variant of the coronavirus. It was initially detected in South Africa in early November, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a Variant of Concern on Nov. 26. The U.S.’s ban includes non-U.S. citizens from South Africa and seven other African countries, including Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, raised its travel alert level for those countries to 4 (“do not travel”). Japan, Morocco and Israel are temporarily banning all (or nearly all) foreign travelers, due to the threat of omicron.

The White House is announcing new rules for international travelers today, in response to Omicron. Starting next week 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. (Before this announcement, fully vaccinated U.S. travelers could offer tests taken within three days of their flight home.) 

• U.S. residents traveling internationally should also get tested after their trips. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to advise U.S. travelers to get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the country and to watch for symptoms.

• Unvaccinated Americans traveling internationally need to test for COVID-19 within one day of their departure from the U.S. as well as follow the above post-travel testing requirements. The CDC advises against travel unless you are fully vaccinated. (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.)

• Non-U.S. citizens need to show proof of vaccination to visit the U.S. The borders are now open to leisure travelers who aren’t citizens of the U.S., but those 18 and older will need to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before they can board their flights to the U.S. (with very few exceptions). They also need to show a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure, as noted above. Airlines will be collecting phone numbers and other contact information in case contact tracing is necessary.  

 Masks need to be worn on public transportation through at least March 18. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rule requiring all travelers to wear face coverings on airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations, will extend through the winter, the White House says. Fines for noncompliance are doubling, from a minimum of $500 to up to $3,000 for repeat offenses.

• Some European countries are barring 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).

• 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 Nov. 23, there have been 5,538 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.” The CDC 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.)

• Different areas of the country have different COVID-19-related restrictions. Los Angeles County, Hawaii 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 most of the 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 U.S. 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 vaccination. 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); Columbia and Peru 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 requires visitors from the U.S. to be fully vaccinated. 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.


The number of airline passengers screened by the TSA each day has risen substantially in the past few months — more than 2.2 million people passed through airport security on Nov. 29, for example. That’s nearing the approximately 2.6 million who did so on Nov. 29, 2019, and a huge leap from the 982,000 who flew on Nov. 29, 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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