COVID-19 and Travel: What You Should Know

With more and more people traveling again, you may wonder what’s safe. It mainly depends on whether you’ve gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s what to know if you’re thinking about a trip in the U.S.

What If I’m Fully Vaccinated?

It’s safe for you to travel within the United States. “Fully vaccinated” means you have the most protection from your COVID-19 vaccine. There’s an exception, though: If you have a weakened immune system because of a health condition or a certain medication, ask your doctor what precautions you should keep taking.

Even though you’re fully vaccinated, you’ll need to wear a mask when you travel on airplanes, buses, trains, or other types of public transportation. You’ll also need to mask up in airports and other travel hubs. Masks are required by the CDC, the TSA, and the U.S. Department of Transportation because there’s a small chance you could still catch the virus, get sick from it, or spread it to other people.

If you notice COVID-19 symptoms after you travel, get tested for the virus and stay home.

What If I’m Not Vaccinated?

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:

  • Two weeks after your second dose of a two-dose vaccine, like Pfizer or Moderna
  • Two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, like Johnson & Johnson 

People who aren’t vaccinated are more likely to catch COVID-19 and spread it. That’s why the CDC recommends that you put off trips until you’re fully vaccinated.

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.

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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 get a COVID-19 test within 3 to 5 days or self-quarantine at home. If your test is positive or if you start to show symptoms, call your doctor and stay home so you don’t spread the coronavirus to other people.

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 for 14 days after you travel.

Does It Matter How I Travel?

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. If everyone in the car is vaccinated, you don’t need to wear masks. If not, try to keep 6 feet (about two arm lengths) between you and wear masks. 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. If you’re traveling by bus or train, wear a mask over your nose and mouth. 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.

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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 mask.
  • Avoid 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 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 recommends avoiding travel on cruise ships and river cruises, both in the U.S. and abroad. This is because your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19 are higher when you’re sharing limited space with people who are not in your household.

But 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, isolate yourself.
  • Watch for COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days. If you notice any, get tested.

If you’re fully vaccinated, the CDC says, you don’t need to quarantine after a cruise travel.

If you’re not vaccinated, stay home and self-quarantine for at least 7 days, even if you test negative for COVID-19. If you choose to not get tested, you should stay home for 10 days. Avoid being around other people for about 14 days after your trip.

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If you’ve had COVID-19 and have recovered in the past 3 months, you don’t need to get tested before or after a cruise. You only need to get tested if you have COVID-19 symptoms. You also don’t need to self-quarantine after you return.

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 transport 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.

What If I Want to Travel Abroad?

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, get a COVID-19 test in time to have your result 1 to 3 days before you travel. If you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need to get tested beforehand unless the place you’re traveling to requires it.

Flying back to the U.S. is a different story. Everyone -- even fully vaccinated people -- must get a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 3 days before they travel and be able to show that result to airline officials before they get on their flight. Or they must be able to show proof that they’ve had the virus and recovered within the past 3 months. The precautions for returning travelers are in place because of the COVID-19 variants still spreading around the world.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 09, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “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."

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

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