Just as people began to resume travel, the super-contagious omicron variant has caused a surge in COVID-19 cases.
As a result, travelers face renewed restrictions and a doubling down on precautions to reduce the risk of infection.
But while vacation planning was more or less put on hold in the early days of the pandemic, COVID fatigue and a greater sense of security among the vaccinated have made many Americans determined to return to activities that bring meaning and pleasure to their lives. “As we enter year three, people don’t want to miss out on the things that are so important in life, and one of those things is travel,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights email subscription service. “People want to have something to look forward to again.”
These days, though, your COVID-19 vaccination status will affect where you can go in the world — and what's safe to do. Keyes and other experts answer some key questions about vaccines and travel.
Do you need to be vaccinated to travel within the U.S.?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends delaying travel until you’re fully vaccinated (two weeks after receiving the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines) to protect yourself from getting COVID-19 and spreading it. Consult your doctor before travel if you have a serious health issue or a weak immune system. (You also shouldn’t travel if you feel sick, tested positive for COVID, are awaiting COVID-19 test results or have been exposed to someone with the virus.)
Hawaii is currently the only state that requires visitors to show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test to avoid mandatory quarantine. Travelers must create an online account to enter trip information and upload vaccination or testing data.
Do you need to be fully vaccinated to cruise?
Basically, yes. Since most cruises resumed in spring 2021 or later, all major cruise lines require passengers to be fully vaccinated, with few exceptions, but mandates vary by company, ship and destination. In addition, cruisers may need to show proof of full vaccination in the countries they visit or certain onshore venues, including museums and restaurants.
But note that the CDC has advised travelers against taking U.S. or international cruises, even those who are fully vaccinated and have a booster. On Dec. 30 it raised its warning level for cruising to its level 4, or “do not travel,” category, due to an increase in COVID-19 cases aboard ships. Almost all ships have reported cases of COVID onboard (indicated within a color-coded chart on the CDC site).
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Do you need a COVID-19 booster shot to travel?
Most travel does not require a COVID-19 booster, though that may be changing. The governor of Hawaii recently said that state soon may require travelers from other U.S. states and territories to have a booster shot in addition to being fully vaccinated.
And Spain has just announced that starting Feb. 1, it will require all U.S. travelers to prove they’ve been fully vaccinated at least 14 days before their departure to Spain, plus proof of a booster if their final vaccine was more than 270 days earlier.
The CDC recommends that everyone, including people who already have had COVID-19, get a booster shot when eligible in order to travel. A booster may take one to two weeks to reach peak protection.
What are the COVID-19 vaccination rules for international travel?
You can travel internationally if you’re fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, but expect to face various vaccination, testing or quarantine requirements throughout the world.
In France, for instance, you need to be fully vaccinated and offer proof of a negative COVID test. Officials will scan your vaccination data to create a digital health passport with a QR code, which you’ll need to go into any restaurant or museum in France. In Greece, you don’t need to show proof of vaccination to enter the country, but you will need to do so to enter public spaces like restaurants.
Meanwhile, the CDC advises against travel to both countries (among many around the world), due to high COVID-19 rates, regardless of your vaccination status.
That means travel to other countries requires careful planning, and staying up to date on the latest requirements, says Keyes. “There’s not only more bureaucracy and documentation involved, but changing guidance — and changing pretty frequently.”
Online resources to consult while planning international travel include:
- The CDC map of COVID-19 risk levels, travel recommendations and restrictions by destination.
- The website of the U.S. Embassy in your destination country. The U.S. State Department lists U.S. embassies by country at usembassy.gov, and provides a map with country-specific information on COVID-19 restrictions, requirements and risk levels (which are sometimes higher than the CDC’s risk assessments, often due to factors other than COVID).
- Your destination’s official government or tourism board website.
- Your airline’s website, which should have information about flight requirements and may provide information about the country you plan to visit.
Should you carry your paper vaccination card?
Some travel providers or venues may require your original CDC-labeled paper vaccination card, but many places will accept a digital image (meaning you can just keep a photo of the card on your smartphone).
There is no national registry for electronic health records, but some states, including California and New York, offer digital health passports to help people manage their COVID-19 data. If you received a vaccination outside your home state, it may be difficult to get a digital passport because each state registry is different.
Some private organizations also offer digital health passports or mobile apps. Apple’s Health app, for example, lets you upload your COVID-19 vaccination record and display it in its Wallet app.
The International Airline Travel Association is testing the IATA Travel Pass with more than 50 global airlines, including AeroMexico and Qantas, to store and manage COVID-19 vaccine and other information. The mobile app is free for passengers to use if their airline is part of the pilot program. Many airlines offer similar online tools for their passengers.
What should you do if you lose your vaccination card?
If you carry around your original vaccination card, you risk losing or damaging it. The CDC recommends photographing your card as backup.
If you need a new one, contact your state health department for a replacement, suggests Vicki Sowards, director of clinical resources for Phoenix-based Passport Health, which provides travel medicine and immunizations at more than 270 clinics across North America. You also can contact the site where you received your vaccine.
Once fully vaccinated, can you travel like you did before the pandemic?
No, experts say, because of the various regulations and guidance that’s constantly changing.
It’s still important to wear a face mask, wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and take other precautions, Sowards says. Masks are still required on public transportation, including airplanes and trains, and inside travel hubs, like airports.
“There’s risk and you have to assess the degree of risk you’re willing to take,” says Abinash Virk, M.D., an infectious disease and travel expert for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “There are people who want zero risk, so they stay home and limit their activities.” But if you’re fully vaccinated, have received the booster and follow CDC guidance, he adds, your risk of contracting COVID-19 (particularly a life-threatening case of it) is relatively low.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association's website.