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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Fully vaccinated Americans are on the move as COVID-19 restrictions ease

Woman with face mask and suitcase in the hotel room, close up.

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Latest updates

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revised its travel recommendations for dozens of countries. 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 travel) for many popular tourist destinations, including Canada, Italy and France. Finland, Bermuda and Barbados are among those now at Level 2, indicating moderate levels of COVID-19, while Iceland is at Level 1, the safest category. Its advice for Levels 1 and 2 is the same as for Level 3: “Make sure you are fully vaccinated before traveling to these destinations.” (Some countries, including Ireland and Aruba, are unlabeled due to unknown COVID-19 levels, so the CDC suggests avoiding travel there.)  

• Check the State Department’s guidance as well. It has also downgraded its risk levels for many countries, but is still advising against visiting some, sometimes due to factors other than COVID-19. Canada, Italy, France and Iceland, for example, are listed at Level 3, or “reconsider travel.” It suggests exercising increased caution in Finland and Bermuda, and says “do not travel” to Ireland and Greece, among many others.

Europe is beginning to open to Americans who are fully vaccinated (two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), under certain conditions. The European Union announced that it will reopen to international travel for the summer tourist season, with details to come on the method it will use for vaccination verification. Some countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany, Iceland and Croatia, have already opened to fully vaccinated (or, in some cases, simply COVID-19 free) Americans. Delta is offering direct flights between some U.S. cities and Rome, Venice and Milan for passengers who consent to COVID-19 testing. Americans now can visit Spain if they offer proof of COVID-19 vaccination through the Spain Health Portal.

• Testing is required for return to the U.S. In order to board a flight to the U.S., visitors and American citizens need to 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 travel, 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.

Domestic destinations are loosening their COVID-19 restrictions. Las Vegas lifted all restrictions on June 1, for instance, as have most states. New York announced plans to lift all restrictions (capacity limits, health screenings) once 70 percent of its population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which it expects to happen in the next few weeks.

• Many in the travel industry still appear uncertain about how to implement the new CDC guidance. Some hotels and restaurants, for example, are wrestling with whether and how they can safely allow fully vaccinated people to go maskless indoors, as they also consider the needs and desires of their employees and customers. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has recommended that member hotels (almost half of U.S. hotels) loosen indoor mask requirements for vaccinated guests. Chip Rogers, AHLA’s CEO and president, said in a statement: “At this time, we are not asking hotels to require proof of vaccination status, but we do ask that all guests and workers, vaccinated or not, respect and honor these revised guidelines. Unvaccinated guests should wear face coverings at all times and practice physical distancing.”  


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Travel is surging back toward normalcy, now that the CDC has declared it safe for those who are fully vaccinated to travel within the U.S. They also do not need to get a COVID-19 test or to quarantine before or after domestic travel.

But the CDC’s guidance for unvaccinated travelers remains unchanged: They should delay travel until they are fully vaccinated. If they 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 loosening requirements has led to busier airports as travelers take to the skies again. The number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day has risen substantially in the past few months — more than 1.8 million people passed through airline security on June 7, for example. That’s still quite a bit lower than the more than 2.6 million people who did so on June 7, 2019, but a huge leap from the 430,000 who flew on that day in 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.  

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.”

Airlines that had introduced temporary reprieves on change or cancellation penalties during the pandemic are now again charging for changes to economy-fare tickets. (See more on airlines’ current policies here.)


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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.

Meanwhile, Florida has implemented a ban on so-called vaccination passports that begins July 1, preventing cruise lines from requiring vaccinations if they hope to sail from ports in its state. The companies are hoping for an exemption.

Celebrity Edge is sailing from Fort Lauderdale with a fully vaccinated passenger load on June 26 (before the Florida rules goes into effect), to become the first big ship to cruise in the U.S. since the pandemic began, apart from test cruises.  

And Alaska is now 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 Canada, which has banned large cruise ships through February 2022. With the new rule change, many of the big lines have announced cruises to Alaska this summer, with 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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