Let’s be honest: Traveling during COVID-19 can be confusing. This is true whether you’re planning a quick trip to see out-of-state relatives or checking a trip to Rome off your bucket list. Where can I go? Do my children need to be vaccinated to travel? Do I still need COVID-19 testing to travel internationally?
The good news is that, as of 2023, many COVID-19 travel restrictions and requirements have been loosened or removed as risks for severe illness and transmission have changed.
Still, travel is not the same as it was before the pandemic. There are still some specific rules, guidelines and risks related to COVID-19 – and understanding and following them helps keep everyone safer.
Below, we provide tips on how to ensure your trip is as fun, stress-free and safe as possible.
Do I need to be vaccinated to fly? Travel information based on vaccination status
It’s fun to think about where you want to go and what you want to see on your next trip. But it’s a good idea to find out if destinations are open to travelers and if there are travel restrictions.
You should be able to easily search online for “travel restrictions” in the area you’d like to visit. Airline websites are also a great place to look for COVID-19 travel information. When browsing flights to other countries, you’ll often see an overview of travel restrictions and requirements.
Of course, the pandemic and emerging variants cause travel requirements to change frequently. So even after choosing your destination, you’ll want to make sure that restrictions or guidelines don’t change before your departure date. If you’re worried about staying on top of things, consider working with a travel agent – part of their job is to keep you informed of changes related to your travel destination.
Where can I travel if I’m vaccinated?
There are no travel restrictions for you within the domestic U.S.
Most foreign destinations are open to you if you’re vaccinated but travel restrictions may change based on factors such as new variants.
Where can I travel if I’m unvaccinated?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people get a COVID-19 vaccine before traveling, both in the U.S. and abroad. That’s because if you’re unvaccinated, you’re at much greater risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.
As of fall 2022, there are about 100 countries that you can visit without COVID-19 vaccination. But it’s important to note that in some cases you’ll need to show results of a negative COVID-19 test before entry.
Do children need to be vaccinated before traveling internationally?
It depends on who they’re traveling with. If an unvaccinated child is traveling alone or with unvaccinated adults, travel destinations will likely be limited to what’s open to unvaccinated adults.
On the other hand, countries open to vaccinated adults are generally also open to the unvaccinated children who accompany them.
Even when vaccination isn’t a requirement for international travel, it can be a good idea, especially if you’re planning on a multigenerational trip. If a child gets COVID-19, they’ll probably get a mild case, but they can spread it to grandparents and older individuals who are more likely to get a severe illness.
Getting your kids vaccinated can help protect both your children and other members of your family. The COVID-19 vaccine is available for everyone 6 months old and older.
How soon can I travel after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?
The process to become fully vaccinated usually takes at least 5-6 weeks but could take longer depending on when you receive your doses. If you get the Pfizer, Moderna or Novavax vaccine, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second shot – and the vaccine doses are given 3-8 weeks apart. There is also a one-dose vaccine from Jansen (Johnson & Johnson) but it’s not a preferred option.
So if your destination requires vaccination, you’ll definitely need to plan ahead. But if you’re heading off on a quick trip to a destination that doesn’t require vaccination, you can still start your vaccination series. Having one vaccine dose will offer some protection again COVID-19.
Can I fly with COVID-19?
No. You shouldn’t travel if you have COVID-19. If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, you should isolate away from others for at least five full days and wear a mask when indoors and around others for a full 10 days. You also need to delay travel for at least 10 days.
Can I fly if I have been exposed to COVID-19?
If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, but don’t have any symptoms, you should not travel by plane or other public transportation unless you’re able to wear a high-quality mask or respirator when you’re indoors and around others for the duration of your trip.
In addition, you should get tested for COVID-19 after at least five full days following the exposure (Day 6), but test sooner if you start having symptoms. And you should continue to wear a mask when indoors and around others for a full 10 days.
Do I need a COVID-19 test to fly?
COVID-19 testing requirements for domestic travel
At this time, a negative COVID-19 test isn’t required for travel within the U.S.
COVID-19 testing requirements for international travel
A common question is, do you need a COVID-19 test to fly internationally? The answer is: It depends on the destination. So, don’t wait until the last minute to check the testing requirements for the countries you’ll visit.
COVID-19 testing when traveling between international countries
It’s important to remember that testing may not just apply to where your flight lands. You may also need multiple tests if you cross multiple countries’ borders during your trip. For example, if you’re on a bus tour that stops in multiple international destinations, you may need to take tests along the way.
COVID-19 testing before returning to the U.S.
In most cases you won’t need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before returning to the United States. But if you’re flying from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau you’ll need to show a negative COVID-19 test, taken within two days of departure, or documentation of COVID-19 recovery.
What do I need to know about COVID-19 test types for travel?
There are different COVID-19 test types used for travel. Depending on where you’re going, you may be required to have a specific type of COVID-19 viral test.
While both COVID-19 viral tests look for active coronavirus, they look for different parts of the virus. Because of this, there are differences in how fast and accurate the tests are. The types of tests are:
COVID-19 PCR test
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 is a molecular test that looks for specific genetic material related to COVID-19. This test provides the highest accuracy and meets testing requirements for all countries that allow U.S. travelers.
Check with your destination for the required timeframe for negative COVID-19 test results and schedule your COVID-19 test with enough time before departure. If you think there’s not enough time, ask the testing location if it’s possible to expedite your test. Another option is to look for a place that specifically offers rapid PCR testing.
COVID-19 antigen test
The COVID-19 antigen test looks for antibodies that are made by the immune system in response to COVID-19.
Self-tests (or at-home tests) are available, and you can get results in minutes. If you need to show proof of a negative test, you’ll want to look for tests that you do under supervision. However, these tests don’t always meet the testing requirements for traveling internationally.
Planning COVID-19-safe vacations and destinations
If you’re traveling during COVID-19, research is key. The first step is figuring out if you can travel to your desired destination. But you’ll also want to understand the destination’s COVID-19 situation. Here are things to consider as you prepare for your trip:
How fast is COVID-19 spreading?
The safety of a travel destination depends on how fast COVID-19 is spreading and the number of new cases.
- COVID-19 spread in the U.S. The CDC tracks the risk of COVID-19 transmission within communities.
- COVID-19 spread in foreign countries. The CDC provides COVID-19 travel recommendations by foreign destination based on vaccination coverage and COVID-19 transmission within communities.
Based on the risk of getting COVID-19 in different areas, the CDC recommends certain behaviors such as mask wearing.
What are the local safety guidelines for COVID-19?
Spend time researching your travel destination’s COVID-19 safety guidelines. You may learn that some areas have stronger guidelines than you’re used to. While these requirements should make things safer for everyone, you’ll want to know so you’re appropriately prepared for your trip.
How will COVID-19 affect my planned activities?
If you’re planning on visiting certain attractions or landmarks, it’s a good idea to check to see how they’re managing things during COVID-19. Do they require masks? Are they limiting capacity? Do they require advanced tickets? Are they even open?
Knowing the answers to these questions can help you determine the safety of activities while avoiding disappointment.
What is my “COVID-19 plan”?
Even if you try hard to stay healthy and safe while traveling, it’s still possible for you to get COVID-19 (or another illness). Before you leave for your trip, find out what medical care is available in or near your travel destination, including clinic locations and pharmacies.
If you get COVID-19 while traveling, you’ll likely need to extend your stay to align with isolation guidelines. So you also may want to set aside some extra money in case this happens. Depending on your situation, travel insurance or medical evacuation insurance may make sense. But before making any decisions, talk to your insurance provider about options.
What do I need to pack to reduce my risk of getting sick while traveling?
There are certain items to add to your packing list that can keep you safer and give you peace of mind during your travels. Some key items include:
- Extra disposable face masks – Pack a few high-quality disposable coverings such as N95 respirators, KF94 mask or KN95 masks. While you can usually reuse disposable masks with proper care, it can be a good idea to swap out your mask if you’ve spent your day close to others at the airport or on a plane.
- Tissues – If you have a tickle in your throat or are sneezing from allergies, it’s best to cover your mouth using the inside of your elbow or by using a tissue.
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer – Make sure to choose one that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Hand lotion – This is helpful to moisturize dry or cracked skin that could occur from frequent hand sanitizer use.
- Disinfectant wipes – These should contain at least 70% alcohol. They’ll be handy to use on the plane to wipe down your seat and tray.
- Thermometer – Just in case you start feeling sick during your trip, you can check your temperature on your own.
- COVID-19 antigen self-tests – Having self-tests handy can be helpful for a few of reasons. For starters, if you start to feel sick, you can test yourself for COVID-19. But if you’re traveling abroad, you may also need to test if you’re crossing country borders. That’s because the COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly, and there may be unexpected times that you need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
- Water – It’s always a good idea to stay hydrated when on the road. Water helps your body stay healthy and reduces the effects of jet lag.
Traveling by car during COVID-19
Taking a road trip during COVID-19 can be a great choice if you have people in your family who are at greater risk of getting breakthrough COVID-19 or are unvaccinated.
Plus, car travel can be more comfortable. If you’re taking a cross-country car trip with your family, you can consider your car a safe space, like your home, and leave your masks off.
But if you’re traveling with an unvaccinated friend, it is still a good idea to keep the masks on and the air vents open.
How to fly safely during COVID-19
Masks are no longer required on most domestic flights or at airports within the United States. But it’s possible that you may need to wear a mask when flying internationally. Whether or not masking is required, the CDC continues to recommend that travelers over the age of 2 years old wear a mask when flying.
When choosing a mask to protect against COVID-19, make sure you find one that’s thick enough and fits well. For better protection, consider using an N95 respirator, KN95 mask or KF94 mask.
It’s also a good idea to sanitize your hands frequently and use a disinfectant wipe to clean the area around you, including the seatbelt latch, armrests, tray and touch screen. Some airlines hand out these types of wipes when you board the plane, but it can be a good idea to pack your own.
How safe are airplanes during COVID-19?
Ventilation plays a big part in the safety of indoor events. While you may not already know it, the airflow on planes is good and effective – it’s a combination of filtered air and outside air. On average, all the air on a plane is fully exchanged every three minutes while in-flight.
The air filters used on planes are also effective, capturing nearly all airborne particles that pass through the filters, which may lower your chance of catching COVID-19 on an airplane. Wearing a mask can prevent breathing in particles before they make it to the filtration system.
What should I do if I get COVID-19 while traveling?
No one wants to get COVID-19 on vacation. But if it happens, here’s what you should do:
- Test – If you start to notice symptoms, take an at-home antigen test right away. If it’s positive, you have COVID-19. But if it’s negative, you should test again. If it’s still negative, wait a day and then test again. The reason for the repeat tests is that it’s possible to be positive for COVID-19 and get a negative result – especially with newer variants of COVID-19.
- Isolate if you’re positive – If you have COVID-19, you’ll need to isolate away from others for at least five days and delay travel for 10 days. This will likely mean that you’ll need to rearrange your travel plans.
- Mask up – If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, wear a mask when you’re indoors and around others for a full 10 days. If you test positive for COVID-19, you should follow isolation guidelines and continue masking for at least five full days after you can leave isolation.
- Contact your doctor if you’re at risk of severe symptoms – If you're unvaccinated, have a weakened immune system or chronic health condition, or are older, you’re more likely to have severe COVID-19 symptoms. If you have questions or concerns, get in touch with your primary care doctor or clinician.
Safety considerations when coming back home after vacation
Once you return home from your travels, there are things you should do to keep others safe in case you were exposed to COVID-19 during your travels. What you’ll need to do depends on where you went and your vaccination status.
- Pay attention to how you feel and get tested immediately if you experience symptoms. Sometimes multiple tests may be necessary when using antigen tests.
- If you’ve traveled internationally, taking a COVID-19 test at least five days after your return is often recommended. Depending on your history with COVID-19, the CDC has guidelines for choosing how and when to test:
- You’ve never had COVID-19 or you have not had a positive test within the last 90 days: Testing is recommended. Choose a PCR or antigen test. If you choose an antigen test and it’s negative, multiple tests may be necessary to confirm.
- You’ve tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 30 days: You only need to test if you have symptoms. If you have symptoms use an antigen test – if the first test is negative, you may need to test multiple times. You don’t need to test if you don’t have symptoms.
- You’ve tested positive for COVID-19 between 31 and 90 days ago: Use an antigen test whether you have symptoms or not. Multiple tests may be necessary if the first one is negative.
If you get COVID-19, chances are you’ll have mild COVID-19 symptoms you can treat at home. But in some people, minor COVID-19 symptoms can turn serious. Talk to your doctor about medications to prevent severe COVID-19 if you’re unvaccinated, have a weakened immune system or a chronic health condition, or are middle-aged or older.
Can you get the COVID-19 vaccine after traveling?
The COVID-19 vaccine can’t keep you from getting sick or help you feel better if you’ve already picked up the virus while traveling. After receiving all the recommended doses, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the final dose.
But even if you do get sick, it’s still a good idea to get vaccinated since it’s possible to get COVID-19 again. Talk with your primary care doctor or clinician if you have questions about when to get vaccinated.
Plan for safe travels
It’s so exciting to be able to travel again with less restrictions. Still, COVID-19 isn’t completely gone, and new variants continue to appear. So, keep taking steps to be safe during your travels.
You’ll also want to remain flexible – it’s best to expect change before you leave, and even after you’ve started your trip. While updates to COVID-19 travel restrictions can make things more complicated, remember they’re important for getting us back to traveling more like we used to.