The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to emphasize that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.
• Canada has extended its cruise ship ban for another year, until February 2022, banning all cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers from Canadian waters. This prevents some big cruise lines from restarting their normal routes between ports on the U.S. mainland and those in Alaska because many are registered in other countries and U.S. maritime law requires foreign-flagged ships to stop at a foreign port when traveling between two U.S. ports. Alaskan legislators are calling the ban “unacceptable.” (Smaller U.S.-based lines, such as American Cruise Lines, are able to continue with plans for Alaskan cruises this summer.)
• Some cruise lines are beginning to announce vaccine requirements for passengers. The first to do so was the Europe-based travel company Saga, which requires guests to have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 at least two weeks before departure; now the river cruise line American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister line, Victory Cruise Lines, have announced that all guests and crew members will need to have been vaccinated for COVID-19, effective July 1, 2021.
• Face mask mandate: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now requires that masks be worn by everyone age 2 and older on public transportation and at transportation hubs such as airports. Refusing to wear a face covering in these settings is a violation of federal law, and could result in a $250 fine and up to $1,500 for repeated violations. This applies “while boarding, disembarking and for the duration of travel.” Masks are also required at federal sites, including national parks.
• Negative test required to enter U.S. by air: The CDC announced that international travelers will need a negative COVID-19 test in order to board a flight to the U.S. In a release about the order, the CDC expressed concern about new variants of the coronavirus, although one variant has already been identified in dozens of cases across the U.S. International travelers now need to provide documentation of a negative viral test taken within three days of their departure or proof that they have recovered from COVID-19, the CDC said. The CDC has said it’s considering requiring COVID-19 testing for flights within the U.S.; the airline industry is opposed to such a rule.
• Negative tests required by other countries. Countries around the world are starting to demand that visitors offer proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entry, or in some cases before boarding flights to their countries. Canada and Britain have added the requirement; Britain requires that visitors from some countries (including the U.S.) also self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of test results. France, Germany and other European countries are still not admitting travelers from the U.S. (among other nations considered high-risk for transmitting COVID-19).
• Canada and Mexico land borders with the U.S. to remain closed. The borders between the U.S. and Canada and the U.S. and Mexico will remain closed to leisure travelers until at least Feb. 21, because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The closure began March 21, 2020, and has been extended on a monthly basis. (Canada has put additional restrictions on travelers, including requiring PCR testing at the airport for citizens returning to Canada; they then need to wait for their test results in a preapproved hotel before they can enter the country. It’s also canceled all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean through April.)
• Airlines’ contact tracing programs. Delta and United Airlines are working with the CDC on voluntary contact tracing programs. Passengers are asked for contact information (phone numbers, email addresses) to allow for easier tracking of the spread of COVID-19.
• Warning against travel to Mexico. The CDC has issued a warning advising against travel to Mexico due to very high levels of COVID-19 in the country (land borders are closed, but Americans can still fly there). If you do decide to go, the CDC suggests: Get a COVID-19 test and wait for negative results before departing; use a mask and follow recommended infection-prevention protocols while you’re there; get tested one to three days before you leave Mexico; get tested three to five days after returning home and stay home for seven days (or, if you don’t get tested, quarantine at home for two weeks). The CDC warns that if you test positive while in Mexico, “you might be quarantined,” delaying your return home. Air travel between the U.S. and Mexico is allowed, but land crossings are still permitted only for essential purposes.
• More airlines and airports offering preflight testing programs. American Airlines and JetBlue are among those offering at-home testing for passengers before their flights; Hawaiian Airlines also has at-home tests and drive-through testing sites in some cities.
• States’ quarantine rules for visitors. Many U.S. states have requested or mandated quarantines for travelers or residents returning from other states. But rules vary widely and change with the COVID-19 numbers, with different penalties (if any) for noncompliance and different definitions of what quarantine means. (Check each state’s official website for guidance, or see our story detailing state rules for travelers.)
Although the number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day is still down from past years, it has risen substantially — from lows of fewer than 100,000 travelers a day in April to more than 617,000 on Feb. 9, for example (though that’s still far fewer than the nearly 1.65 million who flew on the same day last year).
Here’s what to expect and how to lower your risk if you fly.
At the Airport
“Bring some alcohol wipes with you and wipe down anything you’re going to touch,” says Robert Murphy, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
U.S. airports and major airlines report that they are following CDC guidelines for sanitizing public interfaces: cleaning with disinfectant all check-in kiosks, ticket counters, gate seating — among other frequently touched areas — multiple times a day, and providing hand sanitizer throughout ticket and boarding areas.
The major airlines require passengers to wear masks onboard (except when they are eating or drinking), as well as throughout the airports they serve. Those who don’t comply risk being banned from future flights.
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.
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 can board flights with driver’s licenses 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 Oct. 1 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 delayed a year.
On the Plane
The CDC requires passengers and crew to wear masks while boarding and disembarking and during the flight. Airlines have also beefed up disinfection procedures, and are trying to prevent close contact by boarding passengers from the back of the plane to the front. Some are blocking middle seats to enable social distancing. (Delta says it will do so through at least April.) They point to an October Harvard University report declaring that travel during the pandemic is no more risky than going to a grocery store. Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “a relatively very low risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] while flying,” thanks to air-filtering systems and requirements that passengers wear masks.
All the major U.S. airlines have equipped their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that 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.”
But the CDC also notes that while “we don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others,” air travel can make social distancing particularly difficult. Murphy suggests that passengers “wipe the area down where you’re going to be sitting, and the armrests and the tray table — anything you touch. If there’s a touch screen or control or something, you need to clean that before you touch it.”
He adds: “If anybody around you is sick, get off the airplane.”
Providers are trying to address travelers’ concerns about upcoming trips by introducing temporary reprieves on change or cancellation penalties (see more on airlines’ policies below). They’re also allowing no-fee changes and cancellations on new bookings, and in some cases offering steep discounts.
Many tour operators have suspended upcoming trips. The nonprofit educational travel company Road Scholar has canceled all programs through April 30, for instance. Collette will make decisions on program cancellations on a case-by-case basis 30 to 45 days prior to scheduled departure.
The CDC has lifted its No Sail order for cruise lines, replacing it with a Conditional Sailing Order. The phased restart plan requires the lines to first demonstrate they have certain procedures and facilities in place (testing capacity and quarantine areas, for instance) to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their ships. Many lines have pushed their planned restart dates into the spring. Holland America announced that it won’t be cruising until at least May 1, for example, and Princess Cruises recently announced it won’t restart until after May 14 (previously it had canceled cruises only through March 31).
Hotel chains have also loosened their cancellation policies, waiving change and cancellation fees that would normally apply to nonrefundable rates.
Amtrak is waiving change fees for reservations made before March 31; you can make changes online, but for cancellations and refunds, you need to call 800-USA-RAIL. Many of its routes are operating on a reduced schedule. Passengers are required to wear facial coverings both at the station and onboard unless they are in a private room. (Read more about Amtrak’s safety procedures.)
The major airlines have a range of policies. American, Delta, United and Alaska airlines no longer charge change fees (typically $200) for most tickets on U.S. flights (see details on each airline’s policies below).
Be aware that if an airline cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Alaska Airlines has eliminated change fees “on Main and First Class fares everywhere Alaska flies” for tickets bought through March 31; fees may be charged for changes to Saver fare tickets bought after that date. Customers have to pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive. (You can also get a credit certificate for future travel if you aren’t ready to reschedule.)
American Airlines has eliminated change fees for all tickets on domestic flights booked between March 1, 2020, and Jan. 31, 2021. Change fees will apply to Basic Economy tickets bought after Jan. 31, 2021. American has also eliminated change fees on most international flights originating in the U.S. for tickets issued on or after Nov. 19, 2020, with the exception of Basic Economy fares. Customers must pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive. They can also now fly standby on earlier flights for the same destination on the same day at no additional charge.
British Airways (an AARP member-benefit provider) says it will not charge a change fee for bookings made from March 3, 2020, onward for journeys due to have been completed by April 30, 2022, though customers will need to pay any fare differences.
Delta has eliminated change fees on domestic flights as well as on all international flights originating in North America. The move will be permanent for some classes of tickets, but fees will again be charged for changes to Basic Economy tickets bought after March 30, 2021. Customers must pay the fare difference if their new flight is more expensive. You have a year or more to reschedule, depending on when you bought the ticket (see site for details).
JetBlue Airways is suspending cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through March 31. Fare differences may apply.
Southwest Airlines allows passengers who cancel (at least 10 minutes before departure) to rebook within the next year or, in some cases, later. The airline has extended the expiration date of some travel credits. You can rebook online by visiting southwest.com/rebook. Note that fare differences may apply.
Spirit Airlines is waiving change fees for customers who book by Feb. 28. Its site says, “If you cancel your flight, you will receive a full purchase price reservation credit instantly.”
United has eliminated change fees for tickets on domestic flights and has announced that international flights originating in the U.S. can also be changed without a fee. The move will be permanent for some classes of tickets, but fees will again be charged for changes to some Basic Economy tickets bought after March 31. Travelers who change tickets can apply the funds (now or later) to a flight of equal or lesser value — or pay the fare difference — for travel up to 12 months from the original ticket issue date. There’s no limit to how many times you can change your flight.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 9, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.
Christina Ianzito writes about health, travel, and entertainment for AARP. Previously she was contributing writer at The Washington Post and other publications. She is the recipient of a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.