Is it safe to fly again? Here are our tips

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Since March 2020, Planet Earth has been screaming beneath the elbow of COVID-19. Our previously frequented travel sites have gathered a thick layer of dust. Is it time to begin booking travel again? Among the many tragic stories, intermittent spikes in reported cases, and economic shutdown, you’ll find positive news, too. As cases rise in some areas, stats show the overall mortality rate declining.

To be clear: The CDC “recommends that you do not travel at this time.” But with a very effective coronavirus vaccine finding its way into the veins of over two million Americans every day, the itch to board a plane is returning with a fury.

Some carriers are even test-driving a vaccine passport of sorts — a “digital health pass” that can grant you access to travel without the need to quarantine or receive testing. With it, airlines can “collect, access and share encrypted information related to passengers’ COVID-19 test and vaccination status prior to travel,” per CNBC.

Obviously, you’re least at risk inside your own brick and mortar. So how dangerous is air travel at this time? If you need to fly in the near future — or just want to (Spring Break travel is here, after all!) — you’ve probably asked many of the questions in the below FAQ.

(Photo by aapsky/Shutterstock)

What states have reopened?

So when can we travel again? Keeping abreast of ever-changing quarantine rules, travel bans, advisories, etc. is mission-critical for travelers in 2021. Regulations vary with the contours of state and international borders.

Every state is open to domestic travel to some degree. Certain counties and regions may have stricter orders than others, but the domestic travel bans are mostly over. In fact, some states are fully, completely reopening.

Florida was one of the first states to shed many of the CDC recommendations, and other U.S. states now trickle behind. Mississippi no longer requires masks, and its businesses may significantly increase their capacity. As of March 10, 2021, Texas and Mississippi have fully reopened all businesses and even removed mask requirements (though they still suggest you wear them). And effective March 19, Connecticut is eliminating capacity controls on restaurants, and giving more lenience to entertainment events (including sports).

International

Remember, you’ll need to provide a negative COVID test when reentering the U.S. after traveling abroad. Here are a handful of the most common destinations for U.S. travelers:

Canada

Canada is not welcoming U.S. travelers unless your visit is categorized as essential travel. There is no estimated date for reopening. Even Canadian citizens and their family are subject to a 14-day quarantine when they reenter the country. You can only enter via the airports in:

  • Montreal
  • Toronto
  • Calgary
  • Vancouver

Mexico

Mexico welcomes U.S. travelers, so long as you’re flying (land borders are still closed through April 21, 2021 at the earliest). They’re even advertising that anyone entering via Cancun will make it through security checkpoints within two minutes!

However, you’ll need to supply a negative COVID-19 test before you can enter. And if you’re found to have coronavirus symptoms upon entry, you’ll be forced to quarantine.

Japan

To protect against COVID-19 variants, Japan has kept its borders tightly locked. They currently prohibit travelers from 152 countries from entry. There are a handful of western Pacific Rim countries that may enter, including Australia, Thailand, and Singapore. Even visitors entering from these countries are subject to quarantine — though if you request a PCR test upon arrival, you can leave quarantine after receiving a negative result.

United Kingdom

The U.K. is a country in which quarantine is unavoidable. You’ll need to first provide a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of arrival — followed by 10 days of quarantine. You’ll be directed to either a hotel or a place of residence, depending on who you are and what country you’ve arrived from.

Additionally, you’ll be subject to another test on day two of your quarantine, and another test on day eight. The U.K. is being extra cautious, as a new variant of the coronavirus, said to be more infectious than the original, surfaced within its borders.

The Bahamas

U.S. travelers can visit the Bahamas after testing negative within five days — at most — before arrival (children under 10 aren’t required to test). You’ll also need a Bahamas travel health visa, which costs up to $40. When purchasing this visa, you’ll also need to buy travel insurance.

Airport FAQ

What are airports like?

Silver linings.

For those who haven’t flown since early 2020, airports for a long time have become practically unrecognizable. I’ve flown several times during the pandemic, and the quietness of barren terminals and aircraft is as eerie as it is peaceful. Those were the early days — domestic travel is rolling along at a notably better pace in 2021.

Each airport and airline have varying protocols to combat the spread of coronavirus. But depending on your location, you can expect ubiquitous hand sanitizer locations, UV lights directed at self-service kiosks and a sea of face masks. Be sure to bring a mask, even if your particular flight won’t require it — some airports will require masks to get through the door.

The TSA reports that an average of more than 1.3 million passengers per day were processed in the U.S. during the third week of March 2021. That’s still about a million fewer people that were processed per day in 2019. But it’s significantly higher than the majority of 2020, the takeaway being that Americans are becoming less squeamish about travel and are instead practicing preventative measures while slowly returning to normal.

If you’re concerned about massive crowds at the airport, you’ve got not much to worry about. There are some scattered reports of more crowding in places like Florida and Mexico, but you’re most likely to avoid hordes of people at smaller, non-hub airports.

I’m vaccinated — what do I need to do before boarding?

Depends on where you’re going! Many countries are looking to admit newly vaccinated travelers back into their countries, including Thailand, Poland, and the Seychelles — and it’ll also give you more freedom within the U.S., like in Hawaii. You don’t have to quarantine in these areas if you’ve received your shots.

But depending on your destination, you’ll need to show proof of a vaccine for traveling, be it a certificate or other form. Do not forget this before your flight. Most destinations will require it upon arrival before stepping foot outside the airport. And you may even need a complementary negative PCR test!

What can I expect going through TSA?

TSA press releases outline proper behavior in the security checkpoint line. While the press release is targeted at the New York area (the hardest-hit from the pandemic), it reveals a gold standard that can be helpful no matter where you’re traveling. Here’s what you need to know:

  • TSA officers will wear gloves and masks, and change gloves after each pat-down. They will use a fresh swab for each passenger when probing for explosives
  • Passengers should wear facial protection and practice social distancing in the checkpoint line
  • Passengers may be asked to remove their mask to verify ID (or if the mask trips an alarm for some reason)
  • Scan your own boarding pass (don’t hand it to the TSA officer), then display it to TSA for visual inspection
  • If your bag triggers an alarm, you may be directed out of line to dispose of/separate culprit items and return through the line (eliminating a TSA officer’s search of your bags)

One way to avoid long lines and minimal touchpoints at security checkpoints is to enroll in TSA PreCheck. Not only will it save you time (it’s got a dedicated lane that’s almost always shorter), but you’ll get to keep your shoes, belt, and light jacket on. You don’t even have to take out your liquids or laptop from your backpack! Many of the best credit cards for travel even come with a statement credit that immediately reimburses you the $85 application fee. You’ll get five years (or more) of TSA PreCheck for free.

How early do you need to show up at the airport?

Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer to airport arrival, you can definitely expect fewer crowds than this time last year. In my experience, domestic airports have been at least twice as quick for things like check in, bag check, and security screenings. This means that if you previously liked to leave an hour for these steps (i.e. arrive 90 minutes before a domestic flight where boarding begins 30 minutes before takeoff), you may be fine arriving at the airport just 60 minutes early in the current era.

Keep in mind that TSA and most airlines have reduced staffing to accommodate fewer crowds, so don’t cut things too close! As a historically last-minute airport arriver (think 55 minutes before departure), I have been plenty comfortable getting to the airport just 40 minutes before takeoff. Your mileage may vary!

Are lounges safer to social distance than the concourse?

As a reminder, the recommended social distancing practice is a minimum of six feet from others.

We normally extol airport lounge access as a refuge from the hectic terminal. Fewer screaming kids, no incessant airport announcements delivered by Carolyn Hopkins, no gate agents talking over one another through the P.A. system. And it’s generally quite easy to find a secluded, socially distanced spot from others.

However, with the air travel industry months or years away from operating at full capacity, lounges are no safer than the once-bustling concourses. To boot, many food and beverage options have been temporarily discontinued from lounges, making them less desirable than they were pre-coronavirus. You’ll find that most food options are prepackaged or

The industry is on the upswing, though — domestic Amex Centurion Lounges are now all reopened, and they offer incredible service (though processes are still slightly tweaked due to the pandemic).

What are doctors and the CDC saying?

You might be surprised to hear what experts think about air travel at this time. Subjecting yourself to confined areas with passengers from all over the country might not sound smart (and you’re certainly safer if you don’t do this), but doctors are finding that it may be less risky than first anticipated. Circulation of cabin is air is less of a concern due to High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which are on nearly every major jet flying in the skies today. HEPA filters on planes are similar to those used in hospital rooms and filter out more than 99% of airborne microbes, refreshing cabin air every two to three minutes.

But the CDC still hasn’t “approved” travel yet, even for those who are fully vaccinated. Here are some highlights from the CDC’s latest recommendations:

Fully vaccinated people can:

  • Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
  • Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
  • Refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic

For now, fully vaccinated people should continue to:

  • Wear masks, maintain physical distance, and practice other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households
  • Avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings
  • Get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
  • Follow CDC and health department travel requirements and recommendations

Make sure to read our travel guide for those who’ve been vaccinated for an in-depth breakdown of the risks of travel post-vaccination.

For those not yet vaccinated two medical authorities further expound on the risks of flying, via Travel and Leisure:

Dr. Winfried Just, a researcher in mathematical epidemiology and professor at Ohio University, and Dr. Georgine Nanos, a board-certified physician specializing in epidemiology, both agreed that the prolonged exposure of a long-haul flight could be riskier, but only because it leaves the door open that much longer for potential exposures. Longer flights mean more people using the bathrooms, more instances of masks being removed (even if just temporarily for eating and drinking), more exposure to anyone nearby who might be shedding the virus, and so on.

Since flight times for both domestic and international flights can be anywhere between one hour and double-digits, it’s safer to choose destinations with shorter overall flight times. That being said, when it comes to flying during a pandemic, safety is measured on a sliding scale.

Dr. Just cautions that “safe is never 100 percent safe,” since it is impossible to completely eliminate risk.

Flying FAQ

What precautions are airlines taking?

Airlines are taking the coronavirus extremely seriously. In addition to spending hours scrubbing down each aircraft at night, they thoroughly clean between flights, utilize hospital-grade disinfectants and employ HEPA air filters to minimize the possibility of spreading disease. Check out the flight restrictions by airline below.

AirlinePrecautions airlines have taken against COVID-19
American Airlines– You must self-screen to ensure you have no coronavirus symptoms prior to boarding
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
United– You must self-screen to ensure you have no coronavirus symptoms
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Boarding procedure now back to front to promote social distancing
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
Delta– You must self-screen to ensure you have no coronavirus symptoms
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Middle seats blocked through April 30, 2021
– Boarding procedure now back to front to promote social distancing
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
Southwest– No more than 10 people standing to board at once
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
Alaska Airlines– You must self-screen to ensure you have no coronavirus symptoms
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
JetBlue– You must self-screen to ensure you have no coronavirus symptoms
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Inflight entertainment can now be controlled by personal mobile devices as a remote (no need to touch the screen)
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
Frontier– You must self-screen to ensure you have no coronavirus symptoms, and confirm this at check-in
– Boarding procedure now back to front to promote social distancing
– Temperature taken during boarding
– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
Spirit– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking
– Increased fuselage sanitization process
Allegiant– Masks required for duration of the flight for passengers and crew while onboard, except when eating or drinking

Does the virus spread on planes?

Thankfully, new research has shown that the COVID-19 virus does not spread as easily on planes as some originally thought. Airplanes’ HEPA filtration systems do a remarkable job of filtering air, and thus travelers are relatively safe from COVID-19 when onboard an aircraft.

That being said, research is still developing about the confidence of these findings. The CDC also notes that while the airplane ride itself may be safe, consider how you travel to/from the airport and your airport visit — as these can be higher probability possibilities for virus exposure.

Do I have to wear a mask?

As you can see from the above list, face masks are mandatory when flying. On Feb. 2, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring face coverings in airports and on airplanes. You can be fined up to $1,500 for not wearing a mask when traveling.

Some flight attendants may not enforce masks inflight, but know that it’s in the rules inked by the government and the airlines.

United will actually place non-compliant travelers on a travel restriction list, in which customers will be reconsidered for future travel at a future date. In other words, you can effectively become banned from flying United Airlines. American Airlines has a similar policy, stating it may “deny future travel” for those refusing to wear face coverings.

Can you social distance on an airplane?

Airlines are doing their best to help you physically distance without filing Chapter 11. As stated in the list above, Delta is still blocking out middle seats from purchase (for flights through April 30), to ensure you’re not rubbing shoulders with anyone (you can still request to sit with family members, if you like). Other airlines are doing their best to fill every seat and minimize the fiscal bludgeoning of COVID-19.

The truth is, it’s hard to maintain a six-foot distance on a plane, even with a blocked-out middle seat. See, just as there are a record-low number of travelers nowadays, there is also a record-low number of operating aircraft. Airlines have grounded the majority of their flights in attempts to consolidate their customers on fewer planes. The airport terminal might seem empty, but your flight could very well sell out.

Are airlines serving meals?

Many airlines have shifted their meal services to pre-packaged foods with disposable flatware. Some airlines actually encourage you to bring your own food for the flights. But some airlines, like Alaska and JetBlue, are getting back to normalcy with plated food.

The TSA suggests the following for travelers bringing their own food: Put any carry-on food in a separate clear plastic bag or container. Food can cause an alarm during X-ray screening. If your food is in its own bin, the TSA officers shouldn’t have reason to rifle through your carry-on.

What if my flight gets canceled now?

In general, if airlines cancel your flight, you should receive full cash reimbursement.

Otherwise, you’ll find that you can change or cancel airfare with many U.S. carriers for absolutely free. Highlights include American Airlines, United, and Delta. The one catch with most airlines is that you cannot cancel for a cash refund. Instead, you’ll receive a travel credit with an expiration date (usually 12+ months) for use on a future flight. If your new flight costs more than your original flight, you’ll be responsible for the difference in fare.

If you have to cancel your an American or United flight, read our post on how to make American Airlines flight credits more valuable or how to use a United flight credit. And also note that you can reserve award flights with American, United, and Delta, and cancel them without incurring a miles redeposit fee!

Booking flights with a travel credit card that provides travel insurance serves as a precautionary measure in case anything goes awry.

Tips if you do fly

Again, the CDC discourages travel at this time. If you do need to travel for some reason, or if your travels take you somewhere that is simply not accessible by car, here are a few more tips you can take to be extra precautions:

  • Take advantage of the TSA’s leniency. The TSA is allowing you to place in your carry-on bag one container of hand sanitizer, up to 12 ounces. This is significantly larger than the standard rule of 3.4 ounces for liquids and gels. Just remove it from your bag and place it in its own bin when going through security.
  • Choose a window seat when you can — it’s farther removed from foot traffic when passengers need to use the lavatory and flight attendants are doing their crosschecks.
  • Arrive at your gate earlier than usual. Some airlines will take your temperature and not allow you to board if they think you may have a fever. Sprinting to your gate can absolutely raise your core temperature to a point where you may be denied boarding! These airlines will test you a couple of times to give you every chance to board, but if you show up at the last minute, they likely won’t give you time to cool down.
  • Bring an empty reusable water bottle through airport security and fill it up in the terminal. You won’t have to engage in transactions at the airport or drink water served by the flight attendants.
  • Practice common-sense sanitation. The CDC says basic sanitary measures are some of the most effective ways to stay safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19 when traveling. Make sure to:
    • Clean your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are unavailable, make sure to use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
    • Cover coughs and sneezes.

Questions after landing

How can I help prevent the spread of COVID after I land?

Don’t overthink it. Leave the airport while touching as little as possible. It’s the little things that can help.

You can use a service like Lugless to ship your luggage to your destination before you even arrive at the airport. This will keep you from hanging out at baggage claim with everyone else, not to mention dragging your belongings all through the airport, touching overhead compartments.

On a related note, stay in the know about what aircraft you’re flying and how that relates to your carry-on luggage. If you’re flying on a small plane, your carry-on may be stowed beneath the plane. This means when the plane lands, you’ll be twiddling your thumbs on the jet bridge with 20 other passengers waiting for the baggage handlers to throw your belongings into the hallway. No way is this social-distancing approved.

Also, consider renting a car as opposed to hailing an Uber to your destination. Rental cars are cleaned far more thoroughly than an Uber picking up dozens of passengers per day.

Does my destination require pre-screening?

My best success for identifying destination-specific coronavirus travel restrictions has been searching the internet for “Covid restrictions [your destination]” Unfortunately, there is no standardized site or resource for all traveler information–so you’ll have to do a bit of independent research before planning any trip. Your airline or hotel should also be able to assist with this information.

How to get a pre-screening test for my trip

Pre-screening tests are also highly location-dependent. I recommend that you contact your local health professional, reach out to a local pharmacy (such as CVS or Walgreens) or search the internet for local options to get tested before a trip.

Can I get tested upon arrival at my destination?

Testing today is significantly more prevalent than it was even three months ago. That being said, location-dependent testing capabilities are hard to know in advance without contacting local health providers. I recommend you reach out to local contacts (such as friends or family) or your travel providers (such as airlines or hotels) to get the most up-to-date information regarding testing options at your destination.

Some hotels are now offering on-site COVID testing.

Is it safe to use public transportation?

According to the CDC, public transportation is one of the more dangerous options for travel. This is as a result of dense spaces, exposure to numerous individuals and crowded waiting areas. Try to avoid public transportation if at all possible, and use masks and hand sanitizer if public transport is absolutely necessary.

Is it safe to use Uber?

As with most options, Uber can be safe or unsafe depending on how you use it and varying circumstances. If you’re wearing a mask, sanitizing before/after touching door handles and seat belts, keeping windows open and trying (as much as possible) to maintain a distance from your driver, Uber could be an acceptable option. If your driver is not wearing a mask, consider asking them to put one on or requesting a different ride.

Bottom line

Traveling during COVID-19 is slowly becoming easier. If you intend to engage in air travel, some common-sense decisions will lower the risk of contracting or distributing the novel coronavirus to others. Let us know if you’ve got any insider tips for traveling safely during this time. And send us your questions via our Facebook or contact page!

For more travel tips and guides, make sure to subscribe to our email newsletter.

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Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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