Should My Family Be Flying? The Latest Coronavirus Travel Advisories and Precautions to Take
Here's what you need to know about flying during the coronavirus pandemic, plus expert tips for keeping your family safe if you have flights booked.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread to nearly every country—including the United States, which now has the most confirmed cases in the world. Throughout 2020, most countries had travel restrictions and even placed bans on travelers coming from the U.S. as coronavirus cases surges.
On January 12, the CDC issued an order for all international travelers—as well as Americans traveling abroad—to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the U.S. Now, with President Joe Biden officially sworn in, more coronavirus travel mandates—including wearing masks in airports and on airplanes—are being implemented. The CDC has even relaxed its travel recommendations, urging unvaccinated Americans to avoid unnecessary travel but giving the green light to vaccinated individuals as long as they take proper safety precautions.
Given these restrictions and recommendations, travelers might wonder if it's safe to fly. Here's a rundown on the latest coronavirus travel advisories so you can decide whether you should be canceling flights. Experts also weigh in on precautions to take when traveling during the pandemic.
Current CDC Recommendations
The CDC recommends putting off travel until you're fully vaccinated (aka two weeks after your last shot), though it's best to take safety precautions whenever you leave your home. Here are latest travel recommendations:
- Domestic travel is OK for vaccinated individuals, though they should still wear a mask, social distance and avoid crowds, and wash hands frequently. They can also skip self-quarantining and don't need to get a COVID-19 test before or after travel unless specifically required.
- If you're not vaccinated and traveling domestically, the CDC recommends that you get tested 1-3 days before your trip, adhere to standard safety practices while traveling, get tested again 3-5 days after traveling, and self quarantine for a full 7 days. If decide to skip the second test it's recommended that you quarantine for at least 10 days before being around others.
- International travel is also considered safe for vaccinated Americans, though it may pose more of a risk than domestic travel. You'll want to follow safety precautions, but you'll also need to provide a negative COVID-19 test (no more than three days before travel) before you can enter the U.S. again—and that goes for all travelers, vaccinated or not. The CDC also recommends getting another test 3-5 days after you get home and self-monitoring for any symptoms.
- If you're not vaccinated, the CDC recommends delaying international travel.
- Vaccinated parents with unvaccinated kids may want to proceed with caution and weigh the risks of traveling before booking a trip.
- Check state, local, airline, and destination travel restrictions before booking your trip to make sure there's nothing else you'll need to do.
CDC "Level Four" Travel Advisories
In an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC and the U.S. State Department have issued a "level four" status—which means you should avoid all travel to them—on many international destinations where the COVID-19 risk is considered "very high." While early travel advisories were on China, South Korea, and Iran, the widespread transmission of COVID-19 has forced more restrictions.
It's a good idea to check the CDC to see which locations are considered lower risk before booking your trip.
Is It Safe to Fly Somewhere Without Restrictions?
Unvaccinated Americans will probably want to cancel their upcoming vacation plans, and they should avoid traveling to places with CDC-issued advisories. But what if you made vacation plans domestically?
Unfortunately there's much uncertainty regarding COVID-19, according to Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World. And while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three COVID-19 vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson), not everyone is eligible to get them yet. The CDC hasn't released any guidelines for fully vaccinated travel.
At the end of the day, "you have to make a personal decision about the risk you're taking," says Dr. Wahrman. If you do travel, research quarantine restrictions beforehand, and take steps to limit exposure (wearing a mask in public, staying in a secluded cabin instead of a hotel, avoiding crowded indoor restaurants, etc.)
Also remember it's possible that "you could be asymptomatic and still contagious," says Dr. Wahrman. This means someone you encounter might look perfectly healthy but is actually carrying the coronavirus. "Just be aware of the things you've been in contact with that could carry viruses and bacteria from other people," says Dr. Wahrman.
How Can I Prevent Coronavirus While Traveling?
The coronavirus is mainly spread through airborne droplets released when people talk, sneeze, cough, or breathe. It may also be able to live on surfaces and potentially infect someone who touches that surface and then their eyes, nose, or mouth—although this isn't thought to be the main mode of transmission.
The CDC recommends the use of face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult, and that would definitely apply on an airplane. In fact, it's a federal law to wear face masks in airports and on planes.
Practicing proper hand hygiene is also key to prevent COVID-19 transmission. "Wash your hands with soap and water—especially before eating and touching your face," says Kathleen DiCaprio, Ph.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus. Scrub for at least 20 seconds, rinse with water, and thoroughly dry with a clean paper towel.
There are also other ways to prevent transmission when traveling by plane. Use alcohol-based sanitizer or disinfectant wipes on items other people have touched, such as tray tables and armrests. Take measures when going through security, when "your stuff touches bins that held other people's stuff and could pick up germs," says Dr. Wahrman. She recommends bringing a few clear Ziploc bags, and then sticking your items in these bags before putting them in the bins.
Finally, "if you see that there's somebody who looks visibly sick, try to create a little distance," says Dr. Wahrman. Granted, this might be easy in waiting rooms and baggage claim, but not so much if you're stuck next to a sick person on the plane.
The Bottom Line
You're not required to cancel your plans, but social distancing is still recommended to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and that might be a little tricky on an airplane or in an airport. You have to do what's best for you and your family, but experts do recommend staying home right now if you haven't been vaccinated.
"At this point, people who are traveling or plan to in the future should be aware of the certain travel restrictions and periodically check the CDC website on these restrictions. It may be helpful to check for any updates from the airlines and/or the airports they are arriving to or departing from as well," says Dr. DiCaprio.