Last year was a challenge, to say the least – and 2021 isn't exactly off to the most optimistic start. But don't lose faith, travelers: There are better days ahead.
With a little luck and a lot of science, we will travel again in 2021 – and hopefully sooner rather than later. Vaccines are making their way into arms across the globe. After a year of grappling with the pandemic, it's clear that widespread vaccination is the silver bullet to getting back to normal, in travel and in life.
Of course, not everyone has given up on travel in the meantime. Close to 1 million travelers move through U.S. airports each and every day, according to TSA data. Thousands of travelers are still crossing their fingers tightly for a trip this winter.
But the unpredictability of the virus's course, new restrictions on international travel, and other looming rules and regulations could make any trip in the near future much more complicated. Here's what to watch for if you plan to hit the skies anytime soon.
Tests Required to Get Back Home from Abroad
The latest travel restrictions could seriously complicate your trip down south this winter or spring.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it would require all travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to the U.S. That includes U.S. citizens returning from an international getaway as well as foreign visitors.
That new requirement is set to take effect Tuesday, Jan. 26. And with an unclear timeline of when it may be lifted, it's safe to assume it will stay in place for the foreseeable. No test result in hand? You won't be allowed to board your flight home.
And after taking office last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that would also require travelers to self-quarantine for seven to 10 days after returning from abroad. That could throw yet another wrench into international travel plans, though it's unclear exactly how it may be enforced.
Airlines and airports in popular tourist destinations haven't yet laid out concrete plans to solve this vexing new issue. But it's clear that many resorts and hotels in popular tourist destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere are stepping up with onsite testing.
Many resort chains big and small have informed guests they'll offer testing with turnaround times of 24 hours (or faster) onsite – some even offering tests for free, with minimum stay requirements.
Hyatt Ziva and Zilara resorts – our favorite all-inclusive properties bookable with points – scattered across Mexico and the Caribbean are offering free rapid antigen testing on all stays of three-plus nights through April 2021. The resorts will offer 50% off room rates if you're forced to quarantine after contracting COVID-19. Other resort chains, including Ocean Hotels, will offer a free 10-day stay if you need to quarantine.
But that's no guarantee. And that means you absolutely need to contact your hotel, resort, or accomodations to inquire about testing options for an upcoming stay.
More Countries Are Locking Back Down
International travel has been limited for the last year as countries around the globe required negative COVID-19 tests for entry, forced visitors into mandatory quarantines, or banned travelers from certain countries outright.
Many countries loosened those restrictions over the summer and fall. But as the world braces for fast-spreading variants of the virus until vaccines are more widespread, things have gone the opposite way.
Chile and Peru both recently reimposed mandatory quarantines for visitors after allowing visitors to skip isolation with a negative COVID-19 test in hand. The Netherlands is shutting down nearly all international travel until at least April. Israel is shutting down almost all flights in or out of the country.
The trend is clear: Until the virus is under control, most international travel will be on pause.
Are Restrictions on Domestic Travel Coming?
Nearly a year into the pandemic, there have been few restrictions on domestic travel within the U.S. Some states like Hawaii (and even individual cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C.) may require quarantines or a COVID-19 test for entry.
But to this point, we haven't seen any overarching federal restritions around flying within the U.S. That may change. Depending on the rules surrounding travel in your home state and your destination, you can still easily take a trip without jumping through any additional hoops.
That could change. Biden's executive order last week signaled that his administration is looking into adding federal domestic travel restrictions. If put into law, that could introduce more complexity into any flight from state-to-state.
In fact, that's nothing new. As Reuters reported this weekend: “CDC officials have for weeks discussed the possibility of adding these testing requirements before U.S. domestic flights.”
Needless to say, requiring tests before any flight would be disastrous for upcoming domestic travel plans, and airlines are surely lobbying against it for just that reason. It's unclear what other potential restrictions may be under consideration under the new administration.
But one small change has already taken effect: Federal law now requires flyers to wear a face mask on planes and in airports, in addition to other forms of public transport across the country.
Airlines made face masks mandatory way back in the spring of 2020, so it won't be a massive change for most travelers. But airline industry groups and flight attendant unions have begged the federal government to put that requirement into law for months – especially after a slew of unruly flyers highlighted potential problems in the air.
Are Health Passports In Our Future?
To kick off the year, we predicted that so-called “health passports” would shape travel in 2021 and beyond – especially international travel. In the weeks since, that's only become more clear.
Call it a COVID immunity passport or digital health passport, it's a way of proving you've been vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter a foreign country. Countries and even individual airlines across the globe have been making clear it will be critical, eventually replacing testing and quarantine requirements.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the world’s largest airline trade group, is working on a digital health pass app with British Airways that will store travelers’ test results – and eventually, vaccine records called the IATA Travel Pass. United Airlines just rolled out a brand new “Travel-Ready Center” with quick access to tracvel restrictions and a spot to upload test results.
Australian airline Qantas, meanwhile, plans to make vaccination a must to get onboard – a sentiment echoed by airline executives in both New Zealand and South Korea. The Seychelles have already made vaccination an official form of entry that allows visitors to skip quarantine – so long as you received your second dose of the shot at least two weeks prior to arrival.
Beyond the massive questions of health privacy that surround this new technology, there's also a major question mark over the mechanics of how travelers can easily prove their vaccination status. Will there be a consolidated resource to prove your vaccination status if your destination requires it? Or will it vary from airline-to-airline, country-to-country?
Biden's early actions last week also suggest movement there, too. Buried in his executive order requiring testing and quarantines for international travel was a directive to start working with the World Health Organization on its International Certificates of Vaccination and Prophylaxis (ICVP) – better known as the Yellow Card.
These are the paper booklets used to prove you've been innoculated against yellow fever when traveling to several countries in Africa and South America. Biden's administration is pushing to include COVID-19 in these forms – and make it digital.
Only time will tell if this becomes the primary way to prove you've been vaccinated against COVID-19 on your next big trip abroad. But whatever shape that takes, some kind of health passport will be part of international travel.
Better days are ahead. But prepare for even more uncertainty and complications for travel in the near term.