En español | The travel industry — not to mention travelers — are eager for a return to normal so people can once again fly, cruise and road-trip like they did before the pandemic. Now that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway, many are hoping it will be the key to helping us get moving again. Experts offer some answers to the big questions on the vaccines’ likely effect on travel, as well as what won’t change, at least for many months (hint: the need for mask-wearing and other precautions).
Will you need proof of COVID-19 vaccination to fly?
Possibly. Airlines are eager for travelers to be able to avoid quarantine at their destination and for the elimination of blanket travel bans between countries (which will, consequently, help spur air travel’s recovery). Now airlines are also beginning to test digital “health passports” that could reliably prove someone’s negative test results and eventually their vaccination status.
They are also able to offer users updated lists of health requirements and alerts for destinations around the world.
The International Air Transport Association is developing a health app, the IATA Travel Pass, that will allow travelers to store verified test or vaccination results on their mobile devices. It’s being tested by more than a dozen international airlines, including Australia’s Qantas and Air New Zealand.
CLEAR, the private prescreening program that allows its members to speed through security checkpoints, is collaborating with the creators of a similar app, CommonPass, developed by the nonprofit Commons Project and the World Economic Forum that is establishing a registry of trusted health care providers and a standard format for reporting results. Passengers will be able to take a COVID-19 test at home, send their test to a lab and have their results uploaded to the CommonPass app. A QR code certifying that they’re clear for entry will be scanned upon their arrival. Eventually, it can and presumably will be used to upload vaccination status, serving as a kind of immunity passport.
Qantas, as well as other airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and United, are testing CommonPass as well.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said in November that the airline may make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for all passengers flying to or from Australia (where long-haul flights are expected to resume in October).
COVID-19 vaccination may not be required to board domestic flights, however; Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, told the Today show that may be something exclusive to international travel, “whether the airlines do it or international authorities do it.” Even COVID-19 testing requirements, Bastian said in January, would be burdensome for domestic travel. Alaska Airlines has said it has no plans to require vaccinations and believes that things like universal mask-wearing and planes’ highly efficient HEPA filters are sufficient infection-prevention measures.
But the airline (along with American Airlines and a few others) has just begun using a mobile app called VeriFLY, that works like a health passport, allowing international visitors to verify that they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 — now required of all international airline passengers entering the U.S.
One of many questions remaining about these apps: how they might be integrated with traditional paper passports.
Might some countries require COVID-19 vaccination for entry?
Probably, at least as a way for visitors to avoid restrictions such as quarantine. Several African countries already require vaccinations for yellow fever, for instance, so there’s precedent, says Jan L. Jones, a professor of hospitality and tourism at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “So I do think that some places will require it, specifically. And if they don’t require it, they’re going to require things like quarantine.”
Gavin Delany, founder and CEO of the online trip-planning service Travelstride, agrees, noting that it could be extremely confusing for travelers to suss out different requirements, “as some countries are likely to have tiers of entry rules and vaccination [rules] based on traveler age, perceived risk at the origin country and political element.”
There have been baby steps taken along this path, however. In January, Iceland became one of the first countries to provide vaccine certificates to its citizens to help them avoid certain border restrictions. It will also recognize the vaccine passports from other countries, allowing visitors to skip COVID-19 testing or quarantine rules if they show proof of full COVID-19 inoculation. Sweden and Denmark are also working on similar vaccine passports.
And now the country of Georgia has announced that “citizens of all countries, traveling by air … may enter Georgia if they present the document confirming the full course (two doses) of any COVID-19 vaccination.” Otherwise, depending on their country of origin, they need to be tested for COVID-19 and fill out a special application form. Romania also has testing exemptions for vaccinated visitors.
Asked whether a similar kind of vaccine passport might be issued in the U.S., Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Newsweek in January, “Anything is on the table. Anything is possible, of course.”
There is even a chance that individual states could require visitors to be vaccinated for COVID-19, in the same way they require public school students to show proof of vaccinations for certain diseases, like polio and hepatitis A, says Anthony Harris, M.D., medical director at WorkCare, a consulting company focused on health in the workplace (including airlines and cruise ships). Harris considers it “likely, even though it’s going to be a state-by-state process, that states will elect to mandate vaccinations and proving a record of vaccinations.”
The public appears to support such requirements: A survey of 2,415 adults by The Points Guy found that two-thirds (67 percent) of people who are already vaccinated and have a desire to travel say they are more likely to travel to a destination or with a provider that requires a vaccine passport.
What about cruising?
Cruises have been on hold in the U.S. since the onboard outbreaks last spring, and the big lines, like Carnival and Holland America, don’t plan on restarting until at least June. The CDC wants them to first prove they have effective safety protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, some cruise lines have decided to require that all passengers be fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Crystal Cruises, which plans to start cruising the Bahamas July, is the first big U.S.-based line to do so, requiring that everyone aboard be fully vaccinated for at least two weeks before departure, with no exceptions. “At this time, we are unable to accommodate any guest who cannot be vaccinated,” it notes on its website.
The river cruise line American Queen, known for its trips along the Mississippi River, has also declared that beginning July 1, all passengers and crew members will need to have been vaccinated for COVID-19. They’ll also need to be tested for the virus before departure. “I need a new marketing slogan: ‘We’re 200 percent protected,’ or something like that,” says the company’s CEO John Waggoner, who notes that bookings in January jumped 35 percent over December.
In Europe, meanwhile, the British tour company Saga announced that travelers will need to have been vaccinated at least 14 days before cruising, once it begins operating again in May.
A big factor for cruise lines who have yet to announce vaccine requirements will be whether countries they visit ask passengers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, says Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners, a travel agency network. “If they want to stop in certain ports of call, some of those countries might require it.”
Once you're vaccinated, can you travel just like you did pre-COVID-19?
No, no and no, experts say. At least not for a while. The U.S. is still in a crisis stage, as the numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths continue to rise. And while the current COVID-19 vaccines (from Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are extremely effective at preventing illness in the people who receive them, vaccinated people might still be able to transmit the coronavirus to others as asymptomatic carriers — the jury’s still out on that at this early point in the rollout. It’s also unclear how long immunity lasts after the two-dose vaccination.
For those reasons, even vaccinated people will need to follow mask-wearing and safe social-distancing recommendations in public, at least “until we reach the herd immunity magic number, which is around 196 million individuals” in the U.S., says WorkCare’s Harris. (The CDC has loosened restrictions for vaccinated individuals in some social settings.)
Another reason we’ll want everyone to keep wearing masks and take other precautions for the near future, adds Harris: “We don’t want a subsegment of the population walking around without masks in a setting that requires masks to be worn. That’s just such an awkward precedent for the remainder of individuals who don’t have access to vaccinations at this point in time.”
Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 8. It's been updated to reflect new information regarding international travel and vaccinations.
Christina Ianzito is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who joined AARP in 2010. She’s 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.