Your up-to-date guide on international travel during the pandemic
Will omicron affect your travel plans?
This story has been updated. It was originally published on November 10, 2021.
In the last year, vaccines, rapid tests, and a growing body of scientific research have allowed us to get back some sort of normalcy as the COVID-19 pandemic trudges on.
With vaccination rates growing in some areas of the world, people started flying again, both domestically and internationally. At the beginning of November, confidence was so high that the US government even lifted its ban on non-citizens traveling from places like Europe and Brazil.
Whether you’ll be able to go on that long-awaited trip you had planned will depend on your destination and itinerary, and how comfortable you feel about traveling. But one thing’s for sure—you’ll need to prepare in advance.
Vaccines make travel so, so, so much easier
Depending on your destination, you may not be able to travel or do much if you’re not fully vaccinated against COVID. That means you’ve received the correct number of shots (two for mRNA vaccines like Moderna’s and Pfizer’s; one for mono-dosage inoculations like Johnson & Johnson’s), and that at least two weeks have passed since the last one.
[Related: Flight bans won’t stop Omicron]
But not any jab will do. Some places won’t recognize certain vaccines (Australia doesn’t accept travelers immunized with Novavax, for example), so you’ll need to keep an eye on which countries accept which shots. Most of the world will accept vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, but you may still have to validate your shots with local authorities. France, for example, will recognize your Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card, but you’ll still need a local health pass that’ll set you back 36 euros ($41). You can check if your shot is accepted at your destination here.
Vaccines are not technically mandatory in most countries, but they’ll definitely make your life a lot easier. The US, for example, is asking non-citizen travelers for this prerequisite. If you still have a shot left or only recently received your second one, you can still enter the country by providing a negative COVID test taken no more than one calendar day before departure. Keep in mind that “one calendar day” doesn’t mean 24 hours—if you’re flying on a Friday, your COVID test will be valid as long as the sample was taken any time Thursday. Because of the omicron variant, starting Dec. 6 all travelers 2 years of age and older must provide a negative COVID test taken no longer than a day before departure. This affects everyone entering the country by air regardless of nationality or vaccination status.
Other countries such as France are only allowing unvaccinated people under very compelling reasons and won’t let you in unless you test negative for COVID both before departure and after arrival. Italy has a similar protocol, but there—as in other European countries—the problem is not setting foot in their territory, but being able to go places once you’re there.
In Italy and France, you won’t be able to go to museums and theaters, or enjoy other activities such as indoor dining, unless you have a local health pass. The easiest way to get one is to provide proof of vaccination. A less convenient way to get around is to get a local permit via a negative COVID test. This will only buy you 72 hours of fun, but you can get a new pass after taking a new test.
Do your research and stay up to date
What you need to do in order to travel will depend on where you’re going, but can also change depending on where you are. The omicron variant has changed the game in this regard. Currently, a list of countries including the US, the UK, Canada, India, and most of the European Union, have announced bans and restrictions to travelers coming from South African nations. The amount of banned territories varies from six to 10 depending on where your destination, and usually includes countries like Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. Some may also include Tanzania and Madagascar.
If you’re flying from any of these countries or have been there in the past two weeks, you may be denied entry to your destination if you’re a non-citizen. If you are, there may be a mandatory 10- or 14-day quarantine and a PCR test waiting for you at the airport. Your safest bet is to check regulations in your destination’s official government websites and plan ahead.
As of Nov. 29, the CDC has classified eight African nations as “red countries” and advised against any travel to the region. However, if you need to fly there, know that it’s hard, but not impossible. On Dec. 3, CNN reported there are still two airlines (Delta and United) flying from the US to Johannesburg and Cape Town. These flights may not be available for long, so if you absolutely need to, book your tickets soon.
South Africa has resented the reaction of the international community to their alert on the omicron variant but has made it clear its borders are still open. Travelers only have to present a negative COVID test taken no longer than 72 hours before the time of departure. You won’t be as lucky if you’re traveling to Zimbabwe, though. The African nation has entered lockdown and all international travelers, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status, must provide a negative COVID test upon arrival and self-isolate for 14 days.
Keep in mind that layovers in certain countries can prevent you from getting admitted into your final destination, so consider that when creating your itinerary. To keep things easy, stick to direct flights when possible.
Once you have your tickets, most airlines do a good job of informing you about what you’ll need for your trip, and alerting you of any complications. Still, it is your responsibility to stay up to date with guidelines and regulations, so keep an eye out for announcements from the CDC, the Department of State, and the local health authority at your destination.
Traditional news outlets and specialized traveling sites like Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, and Sherpa are constantly publishing stories and resources as news develops, so checking them regularly is also a good idea.
Book in advance
The travel industry has been hit hard by COVID, and even though people feel safer taking a plane and going abroad, that doesn’t mean tourism has bounced back.
“It’s a strange time to travel. A lot of attractions, resorts, or restaurants are still understaffed, so there’s not the same availability you’d expect,” says Pauline Frommer, the editorial director at Frommer’s.
Due to shortages, a lot of places are functioning at a lower capacity—some that used to be open throughout the week are now only open on weekends or accepting fewer people in an attempt to keep travelers safe while also accommodating them correctly.
This is definitely not the time to be a “winging it” kind of traveler, and Frommer says it’s more important than ever to make bookings and reservations in advance: from hotels and tours to museums and other spots of interest.
Get some travel insurance
You might have gotten the gist of it already: things, they are a-changin’. At the beginning of the pandemic, airlines waived fees and implemented extra-flexible measures to lure people into traveling. And even though some of those measures are still in place (at least until Dec. 31), travelers no longer have such an upper hand.
American Airlines, for example, will refund you for the full price of your ticket if your flight gets canceled for any reason, but will not book a seat for you on a competing airline. This means you may get stranded during a layover or end up paying a lot more money for a new ticket on a new airline to get to your final destination.
This is why travel insurance is more important than ever, and Frommer says more and more people are getting it when planning a vacation. Keep an eye out for prices, as high demand might have driven them up. You can always go for the insurance your airline or online travel agency offers you, but it’s better to shop around and read the fine print to find an insurance policy that works for you.
And when you step out of your home to embark upon your trip, know that things are still far from normal. Wherever you’re going and whatever your vaccination status is, be sure to wear a mask on planes, in airports, and anywhere social distancing is not possible. Abiding by local regulations and doing your homework will help make your trip a truly fun and relaxing experience.