COVID-19 and Travel: What You Should Know

Medically Reviewed by Ephraim K Brenman, DO on December 28, 2022
8 min read

With travel levels back to almost pre-pandemic levels, you may wonder what's safe. It mainly depends on whether you've gotten the COVID-19 vaccine and bivalent booster. Here's what to know if you're thinking about a trip within the U.S. or abroad.

It's safe for you to travel within the United States. “Fully vaccinated” means you have the most protection from your COVID-19 vaccine.

Top health experts recommend that you choose a vaccine made with mRNA (like the ones from Pfizer and Moderna) rather than the Johnson & Johnson or the Novavax protein-based vaccine, which is made differently. Receiving any COVID-19 vaccine is much safer than being unvaccinated, experts say.

If you're fully vaccinated but also have a weakened immune system because of a health condition or a certain medication, ask your doctor what travel precautions you should take.

The federal mask mandate ended on May 3, 2022. This happened after the CDC decided to end transportation mask requirements on April 18, 2022. You don’t have to wear a mask on airplanes, buses, trains, or other types of public transportation. The CDC no longer requires masks on cruise ships either.

Even though the mandate has ended, the CDC still recommends that you wear a mask over your mouth and nose when you’re in public in areas where the COVID -19 Community level is high. If you are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or live with someone at higher risk, talk to your doctor about wearing a mask at medium COVID-19 Community Levels.

If you may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, you’ll need to take certain steps. If you are up-to-date with your COVID-19 vaccines (meaning that you completed the primary series and at least one of the boosters when you were eligible) you should wear a mask around all others for 10 days and test for COVID-19 at least 5 days after your exposure. Stay away from people who may be at higher risk for severe COVID-19.

If you develop symptoms, get a test and stay home.

If you test positive:

  • Stay at home for 5 days and isolate from others in your home.
  • If you don’t show any symptoms or and you are fever-free for at least 24 hours without using any medicines that reduce your fever, and your other symptoms are improving.
  • Wear your mask around other people for an extra 5 days.

Studies show that COVID-19 vaccine protection against infection or mild illness fades over time and that booster shots help.

The CDC recommends that anyone in the U.S. who got two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, over the age of 12 who had the Novavax, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, should get a bivalent booster shot, the CDC recommends. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who got their first two doses from Pfizer are also eligible to get the Pfizer booster.

These are called “monovalent” because they were designed to protect against the original virus that causes COVID-19. They also provide some protection against Omicron, but not as much as the updated (bivalent) boosters.

There are updated boosters are called “bivalent” because they protect against both the original virus that causes COVID-19 and the Omicron variant BA.4 and BA.5.

It's risky for you to travel within the U.S. if you haven't gotten the COVID-19 vaccine or if you don't have its full protection yet.   

You're not considered “fully vaccinated” until:

  • You are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines when you have completed a COVID-19 vaccine primary series and got the most recent booster dose recommended for you by CDC.
  • If you have completed your primary series—but are not yet eligible for a booster—you are also considered up to date.
  • If you become ill with COVID-19 after you received all COVID-19 vaccine doses recommended for you, you are also considered up to date. You do not need to be revaccinated or receive an additional booster.

People who aren't vaccinated are more likely to catch COVID-19 and spread it. 

Don't travel if you:

  • Feel sick
  • Have had a COVID-19 test and are waiting on the results
  • Got a recent positive test result
  • Think you've been around someone with COVID-19

If you have to travel before you're fully vaccinated, take some steps to protect yourself and the people around you:

  • Get a COVID-19 test 1 to 3 days before you leave.
  • Wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other types of public transportation.
  • Wear a mask in airports, stations, and other travel hubs.
  • Try to stay 6 feet apart from people who aren't traveling with you.
  • Wash your hands often or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Also, find out ahead of time whether the place you're visiting has quarantine requirements for when you arrive. Check with state or territorial and local health departments to learn more.

After you come back from your trip, you may need to consider getting a COVID-19 test within 3 to 5 days or self-quarantine at home. If you think you were exposed to COVID-19, call your doctor and stay home so you don't spread the coronavirus to other people:

  • Stay at home for 5 days and wear a mask around other people for an extra 5 days.
  • If you’re not able to quarantine, wear a mask for 10 days.
  • Take a test on day 5.

If you start having symptoms, get a test and stay home.

If you test positive for COVID-19:

  • Stay home for 5 days.
  • If you don’t have symptoms or your symptoms go away after 5 days, you can leave your home.
  • Continue to wear a high quality mask around other people for an extra 5 days.
  • If you have a fever, stay home until it goes away.

Whether you get a COVID-19 test or not, keep your distance from people who are at high risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19.

No matter how you go, travel and being around people who don't live in your household raise your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 -- even if you're fully vaccinated. But as schools, offices, businesses, and other places start to reopen, the CDC has issued some guidelines about different modes of transportation.

Following the CDC guidelines can help you protect yourself and those around you as you go about your daily activities or plan vacations.

Personal vehicle. If you travel in a car, only people who are necessary should be in it. It's also a good idea to improve ventilation: Roll down the windows or set your air-conditioning to non-recirculating mode to draw in fresh air.

Before you use a rental car, wipe down the door handles, the steering wheel, and the dashboard with sanitizer containing 60% alcohol. At your destination, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Follow the same guidelines when you rent scooters or skateboards for personal use.

Public transportation. Local health officials may recommend that you wear a mask in indoor public transportation settings, such as a train or bus. Try to:

  • Follow social distancing guidelines of keeping 6 feet apart from other riders.
  • Skip a few rows of seats to maintain distance.
  • Travel during non-peak hours.
  • Avoid touching too many surfaces.
  • Avoid huddling in groups with other riders at travel hubs or stations.

Rideshare, taxi, or carpool. If you're using rideshare apps or sharing rides with people you're not familiar with or who are not from your household, take these steps to protect yourself:

  • Wear a high-quality mask.
  • Consider avoiding rides if the driver and other riders are not properly wearing masks.
  • Put at least two arm lengths of space between you and other riders whenever possible.
  • Sit in the back seat diagonally from the driver, rather than directly behind them.
  • Ask the driver to improve ventilation when they can.
  • Try not to touch water bottles, magazines, or other items that other riders may have used.
  • Use touchless payment if possible.
  • Carry sanitizer with 60% alcohol to clean your hands before and after each trip.

Bicycling, walking, or using a wheelchair. When infection rates are high in your area and you're out in the open walking, biking, or using mobility assistive devices like a wheelchair, keep a distance from other people who're not from your household.

You should also:

  • Avoid crowds or tight spaces.
  • If someone is coming toward you or passing you, try to stay 6 feet away, stay as far to your right as possible, or cross the street.
  • Carry a clean mask in case you have to be close to others.
  • Avoid touching common surfaces as much as possible.

Cruise ships. The CDC encourages all cruise ships operating in U.S. waters to participate in the CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. This helps passengers make informed decisions about taking a cruise.

If you do take a cruise, follow these guidelines when you return:

  • No matter your vaccination status, get a COVID-19 test 3 to 5 days after your return.
  • If you test positive, follow the instructions above.
  • Watch for COVID-19 symptoms. If you notice any, get tested.

Viruses spread easily between people in close quarters like on cruise ships. So the CDC recommends that you avoid traveling on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide if:

  • You are not up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.
  • You have an increased risk of severe illness, regardless of vaccination status. This includes people who are older or have any serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, or diabetes and children with underlying medical conditions.

Before you take a cruise, check with your state and local health agencies for guidelines. Also, look into the CDC guidelines for your destination.

No matter which mode of transportation you take, carry a mask in case you find yourself in a crowded place. Avoid touching common surfaces as much as you can. Use hand sanitizer before and after travel, and wash your hands with soap and water when you reach your destination.

For gatherings with family and friends, the first step is learning their vaccination status if you can. Those who are unvaccinated or who have weakened immune systems have a much higher risk of getting COVID-19 and of having the most serious symptoms. They're also more likely to pass the infection to others.

If they make up part of your gathering, it's best to social distance and wear a mask unless you're outside.

If you're fully vaccinated but feel sick or know you've come into contact with the virus, get tested so you know whether to stay home.

If you're unvaccinated, get tested immediately after exposure and, if it's negative, again 3 to 5 days later.

The CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask indoors in areas with substantial to high levels of virus transmission, even if they're fully vaccinated. In general, look for small crowds and outdoor activities, and avoid close quarters that are poorly ventilated.

Whether you're fully vaccinated or not, you'll need to do some prep work. First, find out if the country you're going to has entry requirements or restrictions. You'll need to follow all of its requirements, or you may get sent home. Also, ask your airline about its requirements for COVID-19 testing and paperwork.

You should also find out whether COVID-19 is spreading in the country you plan to visit. Take a look at the CDC's “COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination” to find the current level of risk.  

If you're not fully vaccinated, as a precaution, get a COVID-19 test in time to have your result 1 to 3 days before you travel. You may want to test yourself upon your return as well as a precaution.

Show Sources


CDC: “COVID-19 Vaccine Booster Shots,” “COVID-19: Small and Large Gatherings,” “Holiday Celebrations,” “When You've Been Fully Vaccinated,” “COVID-19: Domestic Travel During COVID-19,” “International Travel During COVID-19,” “Requirement for Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test or Recovery from COVID-19 for All Air Passengers Arriving in the United States," “COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination,” “Requirement for Face Masks on Public Transportation Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs,” “Travelers Returning from Cruise Ship and River Cruise Voyages,” “Protect Yourself When Using Transportation," “CDC Endorses ACIP's Updated COVID-19 Vaccine Recommendations,” “CDC Updates and Shortens Recommended Isolation and Quarantine Period for General Population," "“Order: Wearing of face masks while on conveyances and at transportation hubs.”

Mayo Clinic: “COVID-19 (coronavirus) travel advice.”

Up to Date: “COVID-19: Diagnosis.”

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