This story has been updated. It was originally published on November 10, 2021.
In the last two years, 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 still growing around the world and many major airlines are dropping on-board mask mandates in the US, people are flying again, both domestically and internationally. As we move toward an endemic phase of the pandemic, some countries have relaxed their COVID travel requirements, while others have eliminated them altogether, making it easier for travelers to go abroad even if they’re not vaccinated.
But there’s still an abnormal level of uncertainty. The fluctuating nature of this health crisis, plus massive flight cancellations and an industry-wide understaffing problem, ominously threatens to spoil your long-awaited vacation, so your best bet is to stop improvising and prepare well in advance.
COVID-era requirements are easing and even disappearing
Depending on your destination, you may not be able to travel or do much at all if you’re not fully vaccinated against COVID. “Fully vaccinated” 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. Boosters are not a part of a complete vaccination schedule in the US, so if you don’t have any, you’re still good to go. This may not be the case in other countries, though, so make sure you know what “fully vaccinated” means at your destination.
It used to be that some places wouldn’t recognize certain vaccines, but some countries have been adding more brands to their approval list—Australia, for example, has added Novavax. (You can check if your shot is accepted where you’re going by using Visa Guide World’s handy reference page.) Americans have it easy, as most of the world will accept any vaccine approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, but you may still have to validate your shots with authorities at your destination.
In some countries, like Chile, the validation process takes place online before you arrive. It can take up to 48 hours, and it’s absolutely necessary if you plan to do anything indoors. In others, like France, you can take your Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card and your passport to any pharmacy to get your shots validated, though you’ll only need to do this if you’re stepping into a hospital or any medical establishment during your stay.
Vaccines are not technically mandatory in most countries, but they’ll definitely make your life easier. And depending on your destination, you may not need a vaccine or even a test. As of June 1, Italy lifted all of its COVID travel restrictions, which means you could be untested and unvaccinated and still be able to visit the Colosseum. The central Mediterranean peninsula is only the latest country to do this, and joins a list of European territories that include the UK, Sweden, Iceland, and Croatia.
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. As the pandemic evolves and waves come and go, restrictions that were once lifted may be reinstalled, so you’ll need to keep up.
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.
Understaffing is also one of the major reasons airlines are canceling huge numbers of flights. Frommer says one of the culprits is a pilot shortage that predated COVID, but that has worsened with airlines forcing some of their staff into retirement. Even if this shortage is not directly linked to COVID, it is a result of a crisis deeply intertwined with the pandemic, and makes it even more likely that your flight will be canceled or delayed. That’s why being cautious is key.
Consider getting 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, 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.
[Related: What’s next for China’s zero COVID policy]
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, we encourage you 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.
Updated June 13, 2022 at 11:04 AM: This story has been updated to reflect that as of June 12, 2022, the US has lifted its mandate requiring all international travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the country.