Should I travel? Understanding risks and how to plan for air travel during COVID.

Is air travel safe? What planning do I need to do? Is a 'vaccine passport' required? Get all the information on air travel during a pandemic here in one place.
April 2, 2021

Are you planning to travel soon? Here’s some advice: Get organized early. Plan. Plan. Plan.

With millions of Americans now vaccinated, the urge to travel to see family and friends – or to just get away for a while – is powerful.

boy and father wearing masks looking out at plane at an airport before they travel during a pandemic.
Source: Getty Images.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are now saying that fully vaccinated people can safely travel in the U.S., but they are warning people that international travel poses additional risks.

What does it mean to be ‘fully vaccinated?’

People are considered fully vaccinated:

  • 2 weeks after their second dose in a 2-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or
  • 2 weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine

If you don’t meet these requirements, you are NOT fully vaccinated. Keep taking all precautions until you are fully vaccinated.

If you have a condition or are taking medication that weakens your immune system, you may NOT be fully protected even if you are fully vaccinated. Talk to your healthcare provider. Even after vaccination, you may need to continue taking all precautions.

Source: CDC

It’s clear that Americans are excited to travel; airlines and hotels are seeing a dramatic uptick in summertime reservations. Some of the most popular destinations for airline travel include Honolulu, Denver, Chicago, Miami and Orlando.

If you decide to travel, here’s some advice: Have a plan A, B and C. If you are eligible, get fully vaccinated. No matter whether you travel by plane, train or car, be sure to stick with safety protocols. Plan to wear a mask, stay 6 feet away from others and wash your hands frequently.

Many countries and territories outside the continental United States require travelers to show proof of a negative result from a high-quality PCR COVID-19 test at their borders. The traveler must take the test within 72-hours of departure. Make sure you get tested for COVID-19 at a site that can provide you with fast, reliable results. The last thing you want is to be waiting for test results and miss your flight. UCHealth facilities provide high-quality PCR tests and generally give patients test results within 24-to-48 hours; for more information on COVID-19 testing, click here.

Is it safe to travel?

CDC health experts are now saying that people who are fully vaccinated can safely travel within the U.S.  Click here for updates. People from the U.S. who travel internationally will need proof of a negative COVID-19 test when they fly back into the country. Click here for information about travel from the CDC. Guidelines change frequently, so check often for updates. And click here if you are pregnant and considering travel.

Do I need to be fully vaccinated before traveling? Do I need a ‘vaccine passport’ to prove my vaccinated status?

If you are eligible, get fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Wait two weeks after getting your second vaccine dose to travel. It takes time after your second dose (or your only dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) for the antibodies to take their full effect.

If you are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, take a photo of your vaccine certificate and bring it with you as proof of your vaccine. Some apps are being developed that can scan COVID-19 vaccination records.

Nurse gets first dose of covid vaccine in December 2020. Will vaccine passports be required for air travel in the future?
Luiz Perez, an employee at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, gets his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, December 14, 2020. Photo by Joel Blocker for UCHealth.

COVID-19 vaccination is generally not required to board domestic flights.

Around the world, several countries are welcoming tourists who are fully vaccinated or have a so-called “vaccine passport.” These countries include places like Belize, Iceland and Slovenia.

To enter other countries, travelers must have negative PCR COVID-19 tests. In addition, many countries require other vaccines. CDC experts recommend that you stay up to date on routine vaccines (those recommended for everyone in the U.S. based on age, health conditions and risk factors). You should get the required vaccines at least a month before your travel date. You may also need to show your medical history, share your planned activities and answer any other health concerns.

For information on how to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at UCHealth, click here.

Do I have to be tested for COVID-19 before I travel?

Follow all state and local recommendations or requirements for travel. While testing is generally not required to board an airplane to travel to destinations within the continental U.S., you may have to show verification of a negative COVID-19 test for travel to U.S. destinations such as Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

If you need to be tested for COVID-19 before traveling, make sure you are being tested at a location that can provide test results quickly.

Is it safe to fly? Should I be considering air travel?

man sleeping with mask on a plane - airborne covid
Experts are advising people to be very careful about crowded indoor spaces like airplanes. Photo: Getty Images.

Air travel increases your chances of coming in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces, either on the airplane, in airport terminals or on public transportation shuttles. Physical (social) distancing may be difficult, sometimes for hours at a time, all of which increases your risk of infection from the virus that causes COVID-19. If you decide to travel by air:

  • You’re required to wear a mask. Only those 2 years and younger; people with a medical condition that makes a mask difficult for them to breathe; and people with a disability who cannot safely wear a mask due to their disability are excluded from this requirement. Masks are also required on public transportation to and from the airport, while in the airport and while on the plane.
  • What happens if I don’t wear a mask on a plane? People not wearing a mask will not be allowed to board an airplane as it is a violation of federal law.
  • How do I eat on a flight that requires a facemask? A face mask can be removed while eating, drinking or taking medications for brief periods of time while on an airplane. A person may also briefly remove their mask when communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, when a person is unconscious for reasons other than sleeping, when it’s necessary to verify a person’s identity or when there is a loss of cabin pressure or other emergencies on the aircraft that requires the use of oxygen masks.
  • How long do I have to wear a mask on my flight? You must wear your mask for the duration of your flight.

What should I bring on a trip?

The list of necessary items for travel is much longer during a pandemic than during normal times. Along with all of your regular items and your passport if you’re traveling internationally, be sure to bring comfortable masks (and have plenty to spare). Some people like to wear two masks at a time. You’ll also want to bring hand sanitizer and wipes. It’s best to be cautious, so assume that a common surface may be contaminated. Wipe down your airline seat, tray table and armrests. Sanitize or wash your hands frequently.

man disinfecting coronavirus in his car
Source: Getty Images.

Rental cars are usually cleaned before you rent them. But, it’s fine to wipe down the steering wheel and gear shift before you start driving. Better safe than sorry.

In addition to masks and cleaning items, you’ll also want to bring copies of your vaccine records (if you have them) and results from a negative COVID-19 test.

It’s also wise to bring common medications that you’ll want to have if you get sick. But, if you feel sick before your trip or as you arrive at the airport, cancel your trip. It’s dangerous and unacceptable to fly if you might have COVID-19 and could spread the illness to others.

What types of masks should I bring?

Safety is important and so is comfort, especially if you are taking a long international flight. It’s possible now to buy higher-quality masks. For advice, click here. For information on double masking, click here. Federal law requires that people wear masks on all flights, so expect to keep your mask on (properly over your nose and under your chin) during your entire flight — with the exception of very brief breaks to eat and drink. You will want a mask that is comfortable to wear for several hours and allows you to breathe well. If you are taking a long-haul flight, you’ll also want to try wearing a mask as you sleep. Some airlines may allow gaiters instead of medical masks. Consult with your airline to check on specifics.

Can I travel outside of the U.S. during this pandemic? Where do I find travel restrictions?

Yes, you can travel outside of the U.S., but health experts at the CDC continue to advise people to be cautious before traveling internationally. That’s because many leaders around the world are struggling to provide vaccinations to their citizens and a dangerous third wave of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths is now gripping countries in the European Union and elsewhere around the world. If you must travel, make sure you take all the necessary precautions to stay safe. The CDC provides health notices and warnings for many destinations, which can be found here.

Understand that other countries also have COVID-19 guidelines in place and those could change at any time. There may be stricter curfews and mask mandates than you are used to and violations could involve fines or jail time. CNN recently reported on the countries that are still allowing travel from the U.S.

It also is possible that the country you want to visit is not allowing international travel/visitors at this time, or you may have to pay to quarantine for up to 14 days upon arrival. If nothing else, you will likely need proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to your arrival.

Here’s CDC guidance related to international travel:

  • Fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread COVID-19.
  • International travel poses additional risks, and even fully vaccinated travelers are at increased risk for getting and possibly spreading new COVID-19 variants.
  • Delay international travel until you are fully vaccinated.

If you are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine:

  • You should continue to follow CDC’s recommendations for traveling safely and get tested 3-5 days after travel.
  • You do NOT need to get tested before leaving United States unless your destination requires it.
  • You do NOT need to self-quarantine after arriving in the United States.

How do you determine whether it is safe to travel to an international destination?

The CDC has a list of destinations for both travelers and clinicians that outlines the COVID-19 infection levels in specific areas. The CDC also has health notices, vaccine credentials and medical guidelines for travelers to specific regions. There is information on preventable diseases in the area, and even a recommended packing list for that specific area. That information can be found at here.

Can I travel to Mexico or Canada?

Mexico has welcomed tourists, but CDC health experts currently are advising people not to travel to Mexico as the COVID-19 infection rates are very high there.

Canadian government officials have been much stricter and, for the most part, are not welcoming international visitors. Click here to learn more.

To see specific recommendations from the CDC regarding the safety of visiting specific international destinations, click here. Canada’s infection levels, like those in the U.S., remain high.

If you travel outside the United States and test positive for COVID-19 while you are traveling, you might not be permitted to return to the U.S. until you finish an isolation period, which currently is 10 days from the time your symptoms end. If you are exposed to someone while traveling outside the U.S., you may also have to quarantine before returning to the U.S.

Can a U.S. citizen be denied re-entry into the U.S.?

Yes. All air passengers coming to the United States, including U.S. citizens and fully vaccinated people, are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 3 days before travel or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past 3 months before they board a flight to the United States.

Travelers may not be able to re-enter the United States if they become sick with COVID-19 or test positive for the virus while traveling abroad. Citizens may also be refused re-entry into the U.S. if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 while outside the country.

In both cases, the person most likely wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S. until they have completed mandatory isolation or quarantine periods. Learn more about isolation and quarantine guidelines.

When does my passport need to be updated in advance of travel?

People who want to travel internationally in the next year should be thinking now about getting their passports renewed since it’s taking much longer than usual. Some countries require that your passport be valid at least six months beyond the dates of your trip. Click here for information on passports.

How do I get my passport expedited during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Passport operations have been delayed because of COVID-19. According to the U.S. Department of State, people should expect wait times of 10-to-12 weeks for normal passport processing. You can pay more to expedite that process to about 4-to-6 weeks, but don’t cut the time short. Plan far in advance and get your passport early. There are some agencies that can assist customers with life-or-death emergencies or urgent travel within the next three business days. You can learn more about how that works by clicking here. If you urgently need to renew a passport less than three days before departure, try logging in to the site exactly at midnight to sign up for the few available in-person passport renewal slots around the U.S. No walk-ins allowed.

Travel plans and coronavirus - What should you do? A woman walks with her suitcase at an aiprort.
Source: Getty Images.

When do I need to arrive at the airport?

Make sure you arrive at airports very early in case problems arise. As airports become busier, and thus more crowded, be sure to stay 6 feet away from others and bring plenty of hand sanitizer. Apply for TSA PreCheck® | Transportation Security Administration to avoid long lines and move through security checkpoints more quickly.

Can I take my dog on international trips during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Possibly. Review the International Animal Expert Regulations, which apply in all circumstances, not only during a pandemic. The CDC also suggests you call the appropriate embassy to confirm entry requirements for the county you are visiting with your pet. Make sure you have required and recommended vaccinations for your animal. Learn more about traveling with your pet here.

Is it safe to go on a cruise right now?

The CDC recommends that all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, because the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high. This is especially important for people who have an increased risk of severe illness.

Those who do decide to go on a cruise ship should get tested 3-to-5 days after the cruise and should stay home for at least 7 days after the trip, even if you test negative. If you don’t get tested, you should stay home for 10 days after your trip.

You should not travel if you are sick. If you become sick while on your cruise, stay in your cabin and notify the onboard medical center immediately to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Cruise passengers are at a higher risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases and outbreaks of COVID-19 have taken place on cruise ships.

What is travel insurance and should I get it?

Travel insurance covers costs if you need to cancel or delay your trip. Some countries require travelers to have insurance. But, many travel insurance companies will not cover problems or air rescues related to COVID-19. Unless you specifically know that a travel insurance policy will cover health care for COVID-19 in another country or rescue from another country, do not count on travel insurance to cover all of your costs. If you get COVID-19 while traveling internationally, you could run into many complications.

What sort of safety precautions are advised for hotels?

Hotels must follow CDC guidelines.

Before booking a hotel or a stay at a private property, check to see whether the hotel or your host is following guidelines from Safe Stay, the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s recommendations for safe cleaning practice, social interactions and workplace protocols.

Be advised that most hotels have eliminated some amenities such as breakfast buffets, use of swimming pools and gyms.

Erin Emery and Katie McCrimmon contributed to this story.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.