Travel

Navigating COVID-19 testing and vaccine requirements for travel in the U.S. and abroad

“I had a caller today who insisted there was a COVID vaccine requirement to fly to Phoenix,” said Duane Bannock.

Bannock hosts a daily call-in radio show on KSRM in Kenai. He and his wife love to travel, so we talk often about deals and destinations.

“Smart travelers get vaccinated before they fly,” I said. “But there’s no vaccine or testing mandate for domestic flights.”

Both Bannock and I had traveled in the last week, and we could confirm that no vaccines or test results were required to board our Alaska Airlines flights.

In fairness to the KSRM caller, regulations are changing all the time. This is particularly true for international travel. Right now, though, the only COVID-19 mitigation requirement is that everyone at an airport or on a plane, bus or train must wear a mask.

Before calling me, Bannock checked the CDC website for domestic travel guidance. In fact, the website plainly states, “Delay travel until you are fully vaccinated.”

That’s solid advice, especially since the omicron variant is spreading like wildfire. Omicron infections reduced airline crews, forcing them to cancel flights during the holidays. Bad weather was an unwelcome multiplier, causing many to delay or cancel their trips. Also, some travelers had to extend their trips at their own expense until they could get seats rebooked after thousands of flights were canceled.

[28,000 canceled flights later, airlines still looking for upper hand against omicron, weather]

The bad weather has subsided, but omicron is in full bloom. Alaska Airlines canceled 10% of its schedule through January to compensate for crewmembers who call in sick. Also, on flights that do operate, flight attendants are cutting back on meal and beverage service during flights to limit possible COVID-19 exposure from passengers.

More changes are on the way, too. At the end of January, Alaska’s free on-site testing facilities at airports will shut down. In Anchorage, free testing will soon be available around the clock at the Alaska Park facility’s indoor site, adjacent to the Coast International Inn. In Juneau, free tests will be available at the Alaska Industrial Hardware store just around the corner from the airport.

Because of the rapid pace of omicron infections, countries are changing their entry requirements for visitors. Many towns and cities are changing their COVID-19 mitigation plans, including some communities in Alaska.

Travel to St. Paul Island, in the middle of the Bering Sea, is prohibited unless you fall under the “essential worker” category. All prospective visitors must fill out a travel form for the city and agree to a testing regimen and a five-day quarantine.

Liz Perry is the head of Travel Juneau, the local visitors bureau. While there are currently few community-wide pandemic restrictions, she said that “different businesses have different rules,” particularly regarding masks. “We’re trying to be nice to each other,” she said.

That’s important since the Alaska Legislature is gaveling in this coming week. Unlike last year, plans call for the Alaska State Capitol building to be open to visitors who agree to wear masks. Other restrictions may apply.

Alaska Airlines is offering a 20% off coupon code for Alaskans to go to Juneau during the legislative session. The airline last week emailed each Club 49 member a unique code that can be used just once.

Travelers to Hawaii must quarantine for five days on arrival. Vaccinated travelers can bypass the five-day quarantine without testing in advance by uploading proof of vaccination to Hawaii’s Safe Travels site. To avoid quarantining on arrival, non-vaccinated travelers must upload the results of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of their Hawaii-bound flight. The test must be administered by a “Trusted Testing and Travel Partner.”

On the ground in Hawaii, restaurants and bars require you to show your vaccination card (or recent negative test results) to enter. Masks are required indoors.

In Seattle recently, all the restaurants we visited asked to see our vaccination cards. Many other communities are taking a similar path, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., among others.

Even though cases are up, England has eased COVID-19 restrictions for fully vaccinated U.S. travelers. If you’ve received your shots and your booster, no pre-travel test is required. However, arriving travelers still are required to get tested on or before day two of their visit. And there’s no longer a requirement to isolate while waiting for the test results.

Headed to Canada? It’s simple: You must be fully vaccinated, having received at least two vaccine shots.

Travelers to France from the U.S. must be fully vaccinated. Additionally, travelers must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours. Tickets to Paris are on sale with Delta for as little as $585 round-trip. Travel between Jan. 28 and April 28.

Cheap tickets (in basic economy) are available for under $600 round-trip to many European destinations from Anchorage, including Barcelona, Rome, Athens, Madrid and Lisbon. Each country has its own COVID-related entry protocols.

If you want to fly to Amsterdam, or travel anywhere in the Netherlands, you must be fully vaccinated. Additionally, travelers must present results of a negative COVID-19 test. Plus, travelers arriving from the U.S. must quarantine for 10 days. You may be eligible to get out of quarantine after five days if you present another negative test.

If you’re headed to Mexico, there are no special pre-travel requirements such as tests or vaccines.

Getting to your international destination is one thing. Getting back is another. Travelers returning to the U.S. must have the results of a COVID-19 test taken the day before you travel. Depending on where you are and the availability of tests, this could be expensive. That’s where the quick antigen tests come in handy, since a telehealth appointment is included for verification.

I cannot fault Bannock’s caller on KSRM for thinking there’s a vaccine mandate on flights within the U.S. It’s confusing to sift through the information to find an accurate description of the current requirements.

Both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have world maps that show the travel entry requirements for each country.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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