Traveling During COVID-19
With travel largely back to pre-pandemic levels, you may wonder what's safe. It mainly depends on whether you're up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations. Here's what to know if you're taking a trip within the U.S. or abroad.
You're less likely to get seriously ill from COVID when you travel if you're up to date on your vaccine. That means getting the most recent version of the shot. Vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna, and Novovax have all been updated to protect against the most widely circulating strains.
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.
You don't have to wear a mask anymore on airplanes, buses, trains, cruise ships, or other types of public transportation, but sometimes it's still a good idea. The CDC recommends you wear one when you’re in areas where the rate of hospital admissions related to COVID is high. If you're at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID or live with someone at higher risk, talk to your doctor about wearing a mask at medium COVID hospitalization levels.
To find out the COVID situation at your destination, you can check with local health departments or visit the CDC website. Their COVID Data Tracker tool can show you the level of COVID-related hospitalizations in a particular county.
If you've been exposed to the virus, you’ll need to take certain steps whether or not you're traveling. You should wear a mask around others for 10 days and test for COVID at least 5 days after your exposure. Stay away from people who may be at higher risk for severe COVID.
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 didn'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's been gone for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicine.
Do I Need a COVID Booster?
Studies show that COVID vaccine protection fades over time and that booster shots help.
The CDC recommends that everyone get the most current version of the COVID shot. That's regardless of how many doses you've already had. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved for adults and children as young as 6 months, while the Novovax vaccine is approved for everyone 12 and older. Most people just need one shot, although dosing schedules are different for children between 6 months and 4 years.
It's riskier for you to travel if you haven't gotten the COVID vaccine or if you don't have its full protection yet. It takes about 2 weeks for the shot to boost your immune system. People who aren't vaccinated are more likely to catch the virus and spread it.
Don't travel if you:
- Feel sick
- Have had a COVID test and are waiting on the results
- Got a recent positive test result
- Think you've been around someone with COVID
If you're traveling without being fully vaccinated, you can take some steps to protect yourself and the people around you:
- Get a COVID test 1 to 3 days before you leave.
- Wear a mask on public transportation and in airports, stations, and other travel hubs.
- Keep your distance from people who aren't traveling with you.
- Wash your hands often or use a hand sanitizer.
After you come back from your trip, you may want to consider staying home and getting a COVID test within 3 to 5 days.
A vaccine passport is proof that you’ve tested negative for or been protected against certain infections. It can be digital, like a phone app, or physical, such as a small paper card. You can carry it with you and show it if required, like before you go into the office, board an airplane, or visit a restaurant, movie theater, or gym.
When COVID vaccines first became available, the concept of a vaccine passport system was raised as a way to help boost economies while limiting the spread of the disease. Companies would be able to fully open for business to people who were vaccinated.
It was a new play on an old idea. For years, people who’ve traveled to certain areas of the world have needed to show papers -- or a medical passport called a yellow card, created by the World Health Organization (WHO) -- to prove that they’ve gotten vaccines against diseases like yellow fever.
But ultimately, it didn't happen. While most countries required proof of a COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter during the pandemic, it was temporary. Nearly all of those restrictions have been lifted.
Does It Matter How I Travel?
No matter how you go, being around people who don't live in your household raises your risk of getting and spreading COVID. But you can stay safe with some precautions while using different modes of transportation.
Air travel.The CDC recommends that you check the level of COVID hospitalization at your destination before you go. If it's high, you may want to postpone your trip -- especially if you're at a higher risk for severe illness.
If you're healthy, your risk of catching the virus on a plane is pretty low. The air on planes goes through a filter that catches most viruses and other germs. If you want to be extra safe, you can wear a high-filtration face mask when you’re in airports and on planes, and clean off your seat and tray table with a disinfectant wipe before you sit down.
You're more likely to get infected if you sit close to someone who's sick. If someone near you is coughing or looks ill, ask the flight attendants to move you or that person to a seat at least 6 feet away.
Personal vehicle. You can feel safe in your car unless you're traveling with someone who may be sick. In that case, wear a mask and improve ventilation by rolling down the windows or setting your air-conditioning to non-recirculating mode to draw in fresh air.
During the pandemic, rental car companies stepped up their cleaning procedures and now say you can expect to pick up a vehicle that's been disinfected. If you're still concerned, you can wipe down the door handles, steering wheel, and dashboard with disinfectant.
When you drive, you’ll need to refuel. That means you'll have to use gas pumps and credit card keypads that other people have touched. You can put on disposable gloves or use a disinfecting wipe to clean off the pump handle and keypad before you pump or pay, or wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you're finished.
Public transportation. Transit systems have increased their efforts to clean and disinfect train cars and buses, but it can be hard to know when yours was last scrubbed down. To protect yourself, you can:
- Wear a mask.
- Keep your distance from other riders.
- Travel during non-peak hours.
- Avoid touching too many surfaces.
- Avoid huddling in groups with other riders at travel hubs or stations.
To protect everyone who rides, stay home if you're sick. Don't take the train or bus if you have symptoms or you know you've been around someone with COVID. It's possible to spread the virus once you're infected, even if you don't show symptoms.
Rideshare, taxi, or carpool. Getting in an enclosed space with people from outside your household raises your risk. Cleaning, masking, and distancing policies that were put in place at the height of the pandemic are largely optional now. Drivers are still told to stay home if they're sick, have been exposed to the virus, or test positive, and so should you. You can also choose to wear a mask, roll down the windows, and use touchless payment if it's available.
Cruise ships. The pandemic shut down the cruise industry for months. When sailings resumed, the CDC had rules for companies operating in U.S. waters about testing for passengers and crew, cleaning procedures, and other virus safety measures. Now there are guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses, which recommend:
- All crew and passengers over age 6 months have the latest vaccines
- Passengers get tested before they board
- Passengers reschedule their trip if they're sick
- Cruise lines test and isolate passengers who show symptoms
- Ships have handwashing or sanitizing stations available
- Passengers and crew consider wearing a mask in crowded or enclosed places.
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 get to your destination.
International Travel Restrictions
The restrictions and requirements that were in place throughout the pandemic have been lifted for the most part. But you should still check with the country you're traveling to, and the airline or cruise company you're using, about their specific rules.
The CDC keeps a list of travel notices for places around the world at CDC.gov/travel. You can check whether you need to take special precautions against COVID or other diseases. The U.S. State Department also lists vaccine requirements for entry to global destinations at travel.state.gov.
What if I Get COVID-19 When I Travel?
Plan for how you’ll pay for health care before you leave. Check with your insurance provider to see if they’ll cover general or emergency medical expenses in the U.S. or abroad. If they don’t, consider buying additional short-term travel insurance.
If you test positive for COVID-19 during your trip, you may need to stay longer at your destination while you isolate. You’ll want to consider the costs of extra lodging or last-minute travel changes.
If you're traveling internationally, do some research ahead of time to find out whether the country has isolation or reporting policies and when you'll be cleared to travel.
Up-to-date COVID vaccines can protect you from a serious illness. But talk to your doctor if you’re worried about getting sick when you travel. They’ll let you know if there’s more you can do to stay safe.