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? What COVID-19 testing do I need – and when?

While all the COVID-19 travel restrictions, requirements and recommendations can feel overwhelming, understanding and following them helps keep everyone safer.

Limiting travel is the best way to reduce your risks, especially with the discovery of new variants, but that may not be possible for all people. So if you travel, try to make choices to improve the safety of your trip. Below, we provide tips on how to ensure your trip is as fun, stress-free and safe as possible.

Where to travel to during COVID-19 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 when traveling during COVID-19, you need you 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.

Some foreign destinations may be open to you if you’re vaccinated but travel restrictions change frequently based on factors such as new variants.

If borders are open, they may have strict travel requirements. For example, some destinations may require you to have travel medical insurance, sometimes up to $100,000, that would cover medical costs in the event of a COVID-19 infection. Other places may require a quarantine period.

Where can I travel if I’m unvaccinated?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people should 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.

If you travel, here’s what you need to know:

  • There are no requirements for vaccination or testing for travel in the domestic U.S. However, some U.S. cities require proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test for indoor activities such as dining and entertainment.
  • Few foreign destinations allow unvaccinated travelers. And if they do, there’s often a lengthy quarantine period.
  • If you’re unvaccinated and travel internationally, you’ll need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 24 hours of return to the U.S.

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.

While vaccination isn’t a requirement for international travel, it can be a good idea, especially if you’re planning on a multigenerational trip. Getting your kids vaccinated can help protect both your children and other members of your family. If a child is exposed to or gets COVID-19, cases are usually mild, but they can still spread it to grandparents and older individuals who are more likely to get severe COVID-19.

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:

What’s the vaccination rate in the region?

Areas with higher rates of COVID-19 vaccination generally have lower infection rates. So, going to an area with a high vaccination rate may be safer than going to an area with a low vaccination rate. Here’s where to find vaccination information:

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 and social distancing.

What are the local safety guidelines for COVID-19?

Spend time researching your travel destination’s COVID-19 safety guidelines. If people are generally following masking guidelines and social distancing, you’ll likely be safer.

You may also learn that some areas have stronger COVID-19 safety guidelines than you’re used to. For example, some countries and U.S. cities have widespread mask mandates and may require proof of vaccination for indoor dining and entertainment. 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 your planned activities?

Staying safe on your vacation isn’t just about where you go, but also what you do. We know that activities are safer if you’re outdoors or in uncrowded locations.

Because there’s pent-up demand for travel, popular destinations may be more crowded than usual, which can make them less safe during COVID-19. So, taking a trip off the beaten path may be a good option. For example, instead of touring historic buildings in a crowded city, consider an outdoor hiking trip.

If you’re planning on visiting certain attractions or landmarks, it’s a good idea to check to see how they are managing things during COVID-19. Do they require masks? Are they limiting capacity? Do they require advanced tickets? Are they even open? For instance, if the reason you’re going to Rome is to see the Colosseum, you can postpone your trip if tickets aren’t available.

Knowing the answers to these questions can help you determine the safety of activities while avoiding disappointment.

Getting to your destination during COVID-19

How you get to your destination can also impact your chance of getting COVID-19.

Traveling by car

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’s a good idea to keep the masks on and the air vents open.

Traveling by plane

Being on a plane can be one of those times when not everyone is vaccinated. In these situations, it’s best to wear a mask, social distance and keep your hands clean.

Of course, social distancing isn’t always possible on a plane. So, it can be a good idea to increase your efforts in other types of prevention, like masking.

For everyone’s safety, masks are required on airplanes and can only be removed briefly while eating or drinking. When choosing a mask to protect against COVID-19, make sure you find one that’s thick enough and fits well. For added safety, consider using an N95 respirator.

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. Many airlines hand out these types of wipes when you board the plane, but it can be a good idea to pack your own.

Is it safe to fly 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. But it’s still important to wear masks to prevent breathing in particles before they make it to the filtration system.

Things to carry while traveling during COVID-19

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 – after wearing the same face mask for a long time on the plane, it can feel good to swap it out for a fresh one.
  • 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.
  • Extra COVID-19 antigen self-tests – Read below for specifics about testing while traveling.

COVID-19 testing for travel: What you need to know

What are the types of COVID-19 testing?

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 are available, and you can get documented results in minutes. All you’ll need is internet access, a device with a camera and a place to leave your test for about 20 minutes while it processes.

However, these tests don’t always meet the testing requirements for traveling internationally.

What are testing requirements for international travel during COVID-19?

Testing before flying to another country

Don’t wait until the last minute to check the testing requirements for the countries you’ll visit. You’ll need to allocate time for testing, especially if your destination requires one or more PCR tests.

If a PCR test is required to fly into a country, make sure that your test results note that it’s from a PCR test. If you don’t meet testing requirements, you may not be allowed on the airplane.

If your destination doesn’t specify what type of viral test, an antigen test should be okay. You can get an antigen test from your local health clinic or do a self-test at home. If you choose to do a self-test, make sure to have an extra kit in case you have problems with the first.

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.

Research which types of COVID-19 tests are needed. If you’ll need a PCR test, take time to find testing locations as part of trip planning.

Testing before you return to the U.S.

When returning to the U.S., you’ll also need to show a negative COVID-19 test. In this case, it can be an antigen COVID-19 test.

Fully vaccinated individuals, along with children over the age of two who are traveling with them, will be required to show documentation of a negative test from within three days of boarding for their plane to the U.S.

If you’re an unvaccinated adult or if you can’t show proof of vaccination, your test results will need to be from a test taken within one day of travel to the U.S. If unvaccinated children are traveling with you, they’ll also need to be tested within one day of departure.

Children under the age of 2 don’t need to be tested.

What are testing requirements for domestic travel during COVID-19?

At this time, a negative COVID-19 test isn’t required for travel within the U.S. However, if unvaccinated people travel, the CDC recommends they get a test prior to departure and upon return.

Pro tip: pack extra COVID-19 antigen self-tests

Packing antigen self-tests can make international traveling easier. But how many do you need?

You’ll need at least one for when you return to the U.S. You may also need to test if you’re crossing country borders. But because the COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly, there may be unexpected times that you need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. So, it’s good to be flexible.

It can help to purchase several and bring them in your suitcase. If you end up buying too many, you can always use them at home. But if you’re traveling and don’t have a test that will work, don’t worry – chances are there’s a testing facility nearby.

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.

If you’re vaccinated:

  • Take a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after international travel.
  • Pay attention to how you feel and get tested if you experience symptoms.
  • If your test is positive, stay home for 10 days, even if your symptoms are minor.

If you’re unvaccinated:

  • Take a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after any travel.
  • If your test is positive, stay home for 10 days, even if your symptoms are minor.
  • If your test is negative, stay in quarantine for at least seven days.
  • If you don’t get tested, stay in quarantine for at least 10 days.

Plan for safe travels

It’s possible that new variants can continue to surface, so the safest choice is to limit travel if possible. If you choose to travel, planning can help you have a safe and enjoyable vacation during COVID-19. Still, it’s best to expect change before you leave, and even after you’ve started your trip.

While COVID-19 travel restrictions can make things more complicated, it’s important to remember that if countries are requiring vaccination, testing or other precautions, it’s a sign they’re taking measures to keep COVID-19 under control. And if we’re ever going to get back to travelling as we did in the past, we need to need to significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19.