Editor's Note: This post will be regularly updated with the latest news and updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on travel. Scroll down or click for previous updates and stay tuned for additional coverage.
- CDC Urges Travelers to Test Before Domestic Trips
- European Union Drops In-Flight Mask Mandate
- Delta Says White House May Drop International Testing Requirements Soon
- White House Says ‘No Plans' to Drop International Testing Rule
- American Airlines Brings Back Booze Next Month
- British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Drop Mask Mandates
- Flight Attendants Push to Extend Mask Mandate
- Hawaii Backs Away From Plan to Require Boosters
- Southwest is Bringing Onboard Booze Back Soon
- Airlines Urge Biden to Drop International Travel Testing Rule
- WHO Calls to Drop Travel Bans, Restrictions
CDC Urges Travelers to Test Before Domestic Trips
Thursday, May 19 at 11 a.m.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still requires all international travelers heading back to the U.S. from abroad to get a negative test before their flights, and there's no concrete word on when that requirement may end. But with COVID-19 cases on the rise nationwide once again, the CDC is encouraging all Americans to test before any domestic trips, too.
Despite some suggestions earlier in the pandemic, it's not a requirement to test before a domestic flight – and there's no penalty for failing to test. But the CDC updated its testing guidance recently to encourage all travelers to “consider getting tested as close to the time of departure as possible (no more than three days) before your trip.”
That recommendation applies to all Americans regardless of whether they've been fully vaccinated or boosted. The CDC previously only recommended testing before domestic travel for Americans who were not vaccinated.
The change in tune around testing comes as the U.S. faces its latest wave of COVID-19 cases. After dropping to record lows following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant this winter, the U.S. is recording more than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases daily, on average – and public health officials warn that the true tally is likely much higher due to the widespread use of at-home rapid tests.
Just last month, the federal mask mandate ended unexpectedly early when a U.S. District Court judge struck down President Biden's executive order, ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exceeded its regulatory authority. Within days, many travelers across the country were flying maskless. And though the Biden administration has appealed the court ruling, the mask mandate is not expected to be put back in place in the U.S.
Members of Biden's cabinet have repeatedly floated the idea of imposing a testing requirement for domestic flights over the last year but that proposal has gained little traction.
For international trips, testing requirements remain in effect: All travelers still must present a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than one calendar day before flying to the U.S., including fully vaccinated American citizens. Executives from major U.S. airlines including Delta had expressed hope that testing policy would end this spring or by early summer, but the latest surge in cases could throw a wrench in that.
Read all our coverage of traveling and COVID-19.
European Union Drops In-Flight Mask Mandate
Tuesday, May 17 at 8:30 a.m.
Weeks after the federal mask mandate abruptly ended in the U.S., the European Union has officially ended its own masking requirements in airports and on airplanes.
Mandatory masking officially ended throughout much of Europe ended Monday, May 16. The change was announced late last week by the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which cited the improving pandemic metrics as well as rising vaccination rates and immunity to COVID-19 acquired due to infection throughout Europe.
“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalization of air travel,” EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said in a statement. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”
While that decision paves the way for masks to disappear, the change in the skies may not be immediate. Some countries and individual airlines throughout Europe may slowly lift their own requirements, while others may keep them in place.
But on the same day that mask requirements ended, it was clear that many travelers across the continent were eager to ditch their masks for the first time in two years. Thrifty Traveler reporters making their way from Switzerland back to the U.S. on Monday saw few, if any, travelers wearing masks in the Geneva (GVA) airport.
But an EasyJet flight to Amsterdam (AMS) still required masks onboard due to local regulations in the Netherlands.
In the states, the federal mask mandate ended unexpectedly early on April 18 after a federal district court judge struck down President Biden's executive order, ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exceeded its regulatory authority. Within days, many travelers across the country were flying maskless. And though the Biden administration has appealed the court ruling, the mask mandate is not expected to be put back in place in the U.S.
A patchwork of individual regulations across Europe could make masking requirements on transatlantic flights tricky in the near future. While the U.S. and European regulators no longer have masking requirements in place, an individual country or airline requirement could mean masking is still required on select flights.
Delta Says White House May Drop International Testing Requirements Soon
Wednesday, April 13 at 11:15 a.m.
Despite mixed signals from the White House publicly, top officials from Delta say the U.S. could soon drop the rule requiring all travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before flying to the U.S.
Those longstanding testing requirements have been a thorn in the side of international travelers and airlines alike. Regardless of where you go or your vaccination status, all travelers heading to the U.S. still need to get a negative test to fly back home. As the Omicron wave swept across the world, it got even tougher: You now need a test just one calendar day before departure. Previously, travelers had a three-day window to get a test.
Airlines have been pushing to drop that requirement for weeks, arguing it's out of date and ineffective. Delta told investors on Wednesday that they're making headway in in their discussions with the White House to make that requirement a thing of the past.
“We’re getting a strong indication that the pre-departure testing will be phased out in the near future, which is quite encouraging,” Delta Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Peter Carter said Wednesday during a call discussing their quarterly earnings. While there's clearly no firm date yet, Delta President Glen Hauenstein mentioned the airlines' optimism that the testing requirement ends within a matter of weeks.
That contradicts what top White House officials said just a week ago, when White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said there were “no plans to change the international travel requirements at this point.” But politics in the pandemic have changed rapidly, especially as COVID-19 case counts dropped over the winter months.
The requirement to find a negative test abroad – and the prospect of being forced to quarantine in a foreign country if you test negative – has kept international travel at bay throughout the last year. While other countries including nearly all of Europe have dropped pre-travel testing restriction for fully vaccinated travelers, that requirements remains in place even for fully vaccinated American citizens returning home.
Hauenstein said that's clearly weighing on travelers' minds as they plan trips for the summer and beyond.
“I think that is the next leg up that we see in the demand,” he said of the prospect of pre-departure testing ending. “We are hearing good signs from Washington.”
White House Says ‘No Plans' to Drop International Testing Rule
Wednesday, April 6 at 7:30 a.m.
President Joe Biden's top pandemic official says there's currently no plan to drop the rule requiring all travelers heading to the U.S. – including fully vaccinated citizens returning home from abroad – to get a negative COVID-19 test.
Getting a test in order to fly back to the U.S. has been a mandatory piece of international travel since Biden took office in January 2021. As the Omicron wave swept across the world, it got even tougher: You now need a test just one calendar day before departure. Previously, travelers had a three-day window to get a test.
Calls have been growing to drop that requirement as the nation shifts to a new phase in the pandemic and other countries drop their own travel restrictions. Asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether that testing rule could disappear, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients shot down any speculation that change would come soon.
“No, there are no plans to change the international travel requirements at this point,” Zients said, according to video of a panel captured by The Post Millenial.
White House COVID Advisor Jeff Zients says "there are no plans to change the international travel requirements at this point." pic.twitter.com/UHSQSmkhfT
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) April 5, 2022
But this is politics in a pandemic, and things can things change fast. Just because Zients said there are no plans to drop testing requirements “at this point” does not mean that will be true next month – or even next week. Notably, Zients is set to leave his role as the White House's lead COVID-19 czar at the end of April.
Nothing has kept international travel at bay more than this testing requirement. The stress of finding a test abroad – and, most importantly, the prospect of being forced to quarantine for a week or more in a foreign country – has scared many travelers off from a big international trip. That requirement currently has no published end date.
Fortunately, the U.S. rules gives travelers several options to get a test by allowing rapid antigen tests – including select at-home test kits with a supervised telehealth appointment. But as COVID-19 cases have plummeted, pressure has grown to drop the testing requirement.
Late last month, CEOs of all the top U.S. airlines called on the White House to drop both the testing requirement as well as the federal mask mandate, which is currently set to lapse April 18.
“The U.S. inconsistency with these practices creates a competitive disadvantage for U.S. travel and tourism by placing an additional cost and burden on travel to the U.S. Further, many outbound travelers are not willing to risk being stranded overseas,” the executives wrote.
The U.S. rule looks increasingly out of step with policies in place across the globe. Many countries in Europe have dropped pre-travel testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers, while other countries including the United Kingdom, Iceland, and Ireland have dropped all travel restrictions altogether. Even Australia, which locked down harder than almost any country on the planet, will drop its pre-travel testing requirement later this month.
American Airlines Brings Back Booze Next Month
Friday, March 18 at 7:30 a.m.
American Airlines is planning to resume selling alcohol to economy passengers on April 18, the final major U.S. airline to bring back alcohol throughout the plane after a nearly two-year pandemic pause.
Airlines stopped almost all inflight service at the start of the pandemic due to safety concerns – but some cost-cutting measures, too. But even as airlines like Delta and United eventually brought alcohol back onboard, American and Southwest resisted, pointing to the rise of unruly passengers in the skies and flight attendant safety concerns.
Southwest restarted buy-on-board alcohol last month. And now – many, many months after resuming free alcohol for flyers up in first class – American Airlines is set to finally bring back onboard booze sales come April 18, the airline confirmed the news to CNBC.
Alcohol sales will be available on all flights 250 miles or longer. The airline says prices for beers, wines, and liquor will be the same as they were pre-pandemic. American also plans to resume buy-on-board food offerings, starting with simply snacks like chips and almonds on its longer domestic and short-haul international flights.
The April 18 timing is no accident. For months, officials at American have insisted they won't bring back onboard alcohol in economy until the federal mask mandate is lifted.
After an extension late last week, the mask mandate is now set to lapse on April 18. And with pressure building to scrap it even earlier, mid-April could spell the end of masks on planes and the return of alcohol sales across the U.S. skies.
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Drop Mask Mandates
Tuesday, March 15 at 8:30 a.m.
Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will drop their inflight mask mandates, a landmark moment in post-pandemic travel as they're two of the largest carriers to allow travelers to ditch their masks on planes and in terminals. But there's a catch…
London's massive Heathrow (LHR) airport kickstarted the trend this week with an announcement that it would ditch its own mask mandate starting Wednesday, March 16. Executives from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, England's two major carriers, signaled they'll follow suit as well.
“In recognition that the pandemic is not over, Heathrow strongly encourages those at the airport to continue wearing a face covering – particularly when coming into close contact with others – although this will no longer be a firm requirement,” the airport said in a statement.
It's the latest amid a series of rapid changes in Britain, where officials have dropped all testing and quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travelers in recent weeks as well as overarching mask mandates. Come Friday, the U.K. will even drop its testing requirement for unvaccinated arrivals as well as mandatory passenger locator forms for all travelers – the final pieces of its longstanding COVID-19 travel restrictions.
While some small airlines worldwide beat them to the punch, British Airways is easily the largest carrier to ditch inflight mask mandates to date. But whether you can go maskless onboard an upcoming British Airways or Virgin Atlantic flight will depend on where you're going.
After another monthlong extension last week, the U.S. still requires masks on planes and in airports through April 18. Other countries have similar policies in place too. And that means British Airways will continue to enforce mask requirements on flights to and from the U.S. and other countries with mandates in place.
“We’re working through these and from Wednesday March 16, customers will only be required to wear a face covering on board our flights if the destination they’re traveling to requires it,” British Airways' Chief Operating Officer Jason Mahoney said in a statement. “For destinations where the wearing of a face covering is not mandated, our customers are able to make a personal choice, and we kindly request everyone respects each other’s preferences.”
Virgin Atlantic confirmed it would still require masks onboard all flights to and from the U.S. through April 18.
Flight Attendants Push to Extend Mask Mandate
Thursday, Feb. 24 at 12 p.m.
After several extensions since first being implemented in January 2021, the federal mask mandate on airplanes and in airports is currently set to end on March 18. The nation's largest union of flight attendants say that's too soon.
The Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A. is pushing President Joe Biden's administration to extend the mandate again, arguing that allowing passengers to go maskless could endanger vulnerable travelers and children who still can't get vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines have only been authorized for use in children 5 and older.
“The layered approach to safety and security includes masks,” the union wrote in a statement, according to The New York Times.
That push comes as the latest wave of COVID-19 cases subsides, leading even major cities from California to Minnesota to drop their own mask mandates. But masks have been a mainstay on planes even before those mandates, including the federal mask on public transportation.
All major U.S. airlines made masks mandatory for flyers early in the pandemic way back in the spring of 2020, long before Biden took office and set it into federal law. Biden extended that mandate for a third time back in December in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
While transmission of COVID-19 on planes appears to be fairly low thanks to hospital-grade filtration systems, public health officials have argued that masks are critical in preventing further spread of COVID-19 through travel.
Mask requirements have become a major flashpoint in the skies, helping fuel a drastic surge in unruly passengers and a zero-tolerance crackdown from the Federal Aviation Administration. Airline unions and even some major carriers, including Delta, have also been pushing for the creation a national “no-fly list” to ban those travelers from all airlines.
Hawaii Backs Away From Plan to Require Boosters
Thursday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 a.m.
Weeks after suggesting getting a COVID-19 booster shot would become mandatory to bypass testing requirements, Hawaii's governor now says that's no longer in the works. And the island of Maui has dropped its rule requiring boosters to enter restaurants, bars, and other indoor venues.
Gov. David Ige announced this week that boosters would not be necessary to be considered up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccination through the state's Safe Travels Hawaii Program. After reopening to travelers in the fall of 2020 with testing requirements, Hawaii began allowing fully vaccinated travelers to enter more easily last summer.
“In making this decision, we considered declining COVID-19 case counts in Hawaii, the continental U.S. and Europe,” Ige said in a statement. “Hospitalizations have also dropped. In addition, we looked at Hawaii’s robust vaccination rates and the continued push by businesses and organizations to get their employees vaccinated and boosted for the safety of their families and the community.”
Ige said Hawaii's indoor mask mandate will remain in place for now. At the same time, Maui Mayor Mike Victorino dropped the island's booster requirements, changing it to a recommendation of being boosted to visit restaurants and bars.
The governor's change in tune on boosters comes at a pivotal turning point for travel during the pandemic. Across the globe, many countries are loosening entry requirements or dropping pre-travel testing measures while focusing on proof of vaccination as the key for resuming tourism.
The United Kingdom will end its convoluted testing system for travelers later this week. From Greece to Switzerland, requirements that even fully vaccinated travelers get a negative COVID-19 test before departure have faded away in Europe. The Netherlands recently dropped a policy that required all American visitors to quarantine upon arrival for up to 10 days.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, Hawaii still has the most restrictive entry requirements of any U.S. state. Its Safe Travels Hawaii program requires travelers from the mainland to present proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours prior to departure for the islands. Otherwise, tourists face a mandatory 10-day quarantine upon arrival.
Despite those measures, travel to Hawaii has surged over the last year as travelers have focused on destinations closer to home – and those that don't require a negative COVID-19 test to fly back to the mainland. Plus, a recent trend of cheap fares to Hawaii surely haven't hurt.
Data from Airlines for America shows that while tourism from Japan and other international countries remains low, domestic visits from the mainland to Hawaii hit a record-high in July 2021.
Southwest is Bringing Onboard Booze Back Soon
Friday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 a.m.
Almost two years after cutting most inflight service due to the pandemic and then hitting pause on resuming alcohol sales due to unruly passengers, Southwest Airlines is getting ready to begin selling booze onboard again.
The Texas-based airline announced this week it will resume selling beer, wine, and liquor on flights longer than 175 miles as of Feb. 16, and will also bring back other beverages like tonic water, hot cocoa, tea, and Coke Zero.
It's a long-awaited move, as Southwest had only been serving soda, juice, coffee, and water for many months. Southwest's decision leaves American Airlines as the lone holdout not selling alcohol in the economy cabin during domestic flights – that's only available in first and business class, or longhaul international flights.
“Customers have expressed a desire for more beverage options, so we’re delighted to restore additional on-board offerings as a part of the Southwest Hospitality that our Customers know and love,” Tony Roach, Southwest's vice president of customer experience and customer relations said in a statement.
For $6 to $7 each, Southwest will sell Miller Lite, Blue Moon, Lagunitas IPA, sparkling wine, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, vodka, lime vodka, Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Bacardi Rum, and Bacardi Tequila. Through Dec. 31, 2021, the airline will also honor any drink coupons that expired in 2020 or 2021.
Serving alcohol on planes has been a touchy subject throughout the pandemic as airlines first sought to minimize interaction between crew and customers, then tried to tamp down a rise in explosive onboard incidents. Earlier in the pandemic, several airlines had to crack down on flyers bringing their own miniature booze bottles onboard – while you can bring them through TSA checkpoints, federal regulations prohibit drinking alcohol that wasn't served by the airline.
Both Delta and United resumed full drink service many months ago. In fact, Delta has tweaked its onboard drink offerings several times while both American and Southwest resisted resuming alcohol service.
Executives at American Airlines have previously said they won't bring back alcohol in economy until the in-flight mask mandate ends. But with an uncertain timeline and all their competitors beating them to the punch, they could wind up doing so sooner.
Airlines Urge Biden to Drop International Travel Testing Rule
Thursday, Feb. 3 at 8:30 a.m.
After more than a year in place, the nation's largest airlines and other business groups say it's time to drop the requirement to get tested for COVID-19 in order to fly back to the U.S. from any international trip.
No matter your vaccination status or citizenship, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulations require anyone flying to the U.S. from abroad to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than one calendar day before their flight. That one-day window was tightened in December with the emergence of the Omicron variant: Previously, travelers had three full days to secure a negative test before flying home.
But in a letter to the Biden Administration this week, airlines, travel organizations, and major business groups argued that policy is now doing more harm than good. Reuters first reported the letter from Airlines for America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, International Air Transport Association, Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. Travel Association and other groups.
“Surveys of air passengers indicate that pre-departure testing is a leading factor in the decision not to travel internationally. People simply are unwilling to take the chance that they will be unable to return to the U.S.,” the groups wrote. “Clearly COVID is widespread throughout the U.S. and attempts to control its importation via air travel under today’s circumstances are unlikely to change that fact.”
The request to drop testing requirements for international travel was sent to the White House's lead coronavirus response coordinator, Jeff Zients. The White House declined to comment to Reuters on the request.
It's clear that the risk of being forced to quarantine has led travelers to put off major international trips. While domestic leisure travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the U.S., international travel was still down 38% last week compared to 2019, according to Airlines for America – the nation's largest airline trade group representing carriers like American, United, and Delta.
Elsewhere, the most onerous travel restrictions are starting to fade away as the worst of the Omicron-driven wave of cases recedes. The United Kingdom will end its convoluted testing regime for travelers next week. Several other European countries have dropped pre-travel testing requirements for entry as they pivot to only requiring proof of vaccination. And just last week, the World Health Organization called on countries across the globe to drop all international travel restrictions, calling them ineffective and economically harmful.
The group of businesses petitioning the White House to drop current testing requirements said “pre-departure testing could be easily reinstituted” if a new variant emerges.
“Travel and aviation’s recovery is dependent on the government taking steps to remove travel restrictions that are no longer justified by current circumstances,” they wrote.
WHO Calls to Drop Travel Bans, Restrictions
Monday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 a.m.
The World Health Organization is calling on countries to drop travel bans or loosen entry restrictions, saying those policies have harmed countries around the globe while failing to stop the spread of COVID-19.
That pronouncement comes months after the emergence of the new Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa. Within hours, many countries around the globe issued blanket travel bans against several countries in Southern Africa. Nonetheless, the fast-spreading variant made its way across the globe, and countries rescinded those travel bans.
“The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time,” the WHO's International Health Regulations Emergency Committee wrote in a recent report. Travel measures (e.g. masking, testing, isolation/quarantine, and vaccination) should be based on risk assessments and avoid placing the financial burden on international travelers.”
That report also urged countries not to make proof of vaccination mandatory for international travel, citing the uneven distribution of vaccines around the globe that could disadvantage some travelers. VOA News first reported the WHO's remarks.
All around the world, there's a patchwork of entry regulations, testing and vaccination requirements, or outright travel bans that vary from country to country. Many countries across Europe have both vaccination and pre-travel testing requirements for foreign visitors. The Netherlands shut out most Americans late last month, requiring travelers to quarantine upon arrival for up to 10 days.
The U.S. only began allowing Europeans and many other foreign nationals late last year after more than a year off-limits. And now all travelers flying to the U.S. from abroad need a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than one day before departure – including fully vaccinated American citizens.
The WHO didn't weigh in on any specific entry measures or travel bans. In recent days, some countries have dropped additional pre-travel testing requirements for entry.