The uncomfortable truth about travel, vaccines, tests and mask requirements

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’re going to travel during the pandemic, you need to make certain you know the latest vaccine, test and mask requirements. It’s a confusing time. 70,000 new cases a day is nothing to sneeze at — but even so, planes are full, vacation rentals are overbooked, and spring break is in full swing.

And you have questions — lots of questions.

You want to know if it’s safe out there, if you have to wear a mask if you need to get vaccinated. Here are the answers.

Is it safe to travel?

No. The Centers for Disease Control still advises people to stay home.

The CDC recommends no travel during the pandemic. Stay at home.
The CDC: “Delay Travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

That seems pretty unambiguous.

Seriously, Chris. I’ve been locked up for the last year. Is it safe to go?

If you can wait a little longer, I think we’ll get the “all clear” from the CDC soon enough. But if it’s an essential trip, you should take all recommended precautions. I’ll get to those in a minute.

Going forward, will a vaccine be one of the requirements to travel during the pandemic?

Yes and no. Qantas says it will require vaccines for passengers on international flights, but it isn’t resuming international flights until October at the earliest. As of July 1, the American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines will require all guests to show proof of vaccination. And Saga Cruises already requires guests to be vaccinated at least 14 days before boarding. But these are outliers.

If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to show a negative COVID test?

Yes. Right now, that applies mostly to air travelers returning to the United States. You’ll either need to get tested no more than three days before you travel by air into the country and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight, or be prepared to show documentation of recovery, according to the CDC. By proof, the government means a recent negative viral test and a letter from your healthcare provider or a public health official stating that you were cleared to travel.

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As of today (Feb 26, 2021) you do not need a negative COVID test for domestic travel.

Do I have to wear a mask on the plane if I’ve had a vaccine?

Probably. Here are the exceptions:

  • A child under the age of 2 years.
  • A person with a disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, that prevents them from wearing a mask.
  • A person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations.

What kind of requirements will I face if I travel internationally during the pandemic?

It depends. Some countries have almost no restrictions when it comes to flying (Mexico). Others are totally closed to air travel (Libya). Check out this interactive map from the International Air Transport Association. Prepare for things to change without warning.

Here's a map of restrictions travelers will encounter around the world during the COVID crisis.

I’m allowed to remove my mask to eat or drink. What if it’s a long meal?

That’s cheating and if your flight attendant catches you, you can get into trouble. An internal memo to Delta Air Lines’ crewmembers offers the following guidance: “Prolonged periods of mask removal will not be permitted for eating or drinking,” it notes. “Masks must be worn between bites and sips.”

If someone refuses to wear a mask, can I report them to the federal government?

It’s up to the flight crew if you’re on a plane. If you’re in an airport terminal, it’s the job of law enforcement. My advice? Don’t take matters into your own hands. Mask wearing is such a politically charged issue and can easily escalate into a violent confrontation. Report the violation to the crew or law enforcement and let them do their jobs.

But their flagrant disregard of the rules is endangering lives. Shouldn’t I do something?

Yes, you should move to another seat, if possible.

When will it be safe to travel?

When the CDC says so or when there are fewer than 100 COVID deaths a day in the U.S. — whichever comes first.

Come on. Even with all of these pandemic requirements, do I have to wait for the CDC to tell me I can travel?

Yes. The CDC is staffed by experts, who are better positioned to sound the all-clear than some random guy on Facebook or YouTube.

*For pandemic related cancellation information, see: Here are the answers to the top coronavirus travel questions

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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