4 tips to keep international travel during COVID as smooth as possible

Let us be clear about one very important thing: the pandemic is not over. Still, vaccines, rapid tests, and a growing body of scientific research have allowed us to get back some sort of normalcy.  

People are flying again, both domestically and internationally. And with the end to the travel ban the US had on non-citizens entering from places like Europe and Brazil, everyone can now enjoy some time away from home. 

But traveling is far from being what it was before COVID-19 hit, so if you’re already planning an escape, you’ll need to prepare in advance. 

Vaccines will 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: Fully vaccinated people can safely travel, the CDC says]

But not any vaccine 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 is asking non-citizen travelers for this prerequisite, but 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. 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 theatres, 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. Before you buy any tickets, make sure you do a deep dive into the regulations you’ll need to follow and your airline’s requirements. 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 December 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 they 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: Choose the best seat on any airplane]

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 while traveling is back, 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.

Your up-to-date guide on international travel during COVID-19