Blog, Travel Tips, & News

Changes for travel in 2021

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I had a quiet weekend in the midst of a busy week of research and updates with the travel-related announcement from the CDC last week. I’ve been on hours-long webinars learning the latest news, which has been handy since I was planning to provide an update on the state of travel this week.

Changes for travel in 2021

As we move into 2021 and anticipate opening up travel, safety will remain as the top priority, while we strive to regain a feeling of normalcy based on the rollout of vaccines and anticipated border openings in the spring.

“Change is the only Constant” – Heraclitus

Actually, there are few constants amidst the change. The constants while traveling will be a focus on how to stay safe and prevent the spread. The precautions we have gotten used to will be in use for a while – masks while flying or in public areas, social distancing, and encouragement to stay outdoors. I took a few trips in 2020 to see what the travel experience was like, and most of that is still reflective of current travel, so check out the flight and resort property experience from my travels to Mexico in late October and what flying was like when I went to South Dakota in June. If you are a airport lounge member, you can check out the protocols there from this article in Business Traveler where I provided some insights.

The changes going forward will be the approaches of how allow travel and to open the world, while limiting the spread. As governments around the world continue to navigate the pandemic, the requirements and protocols will continue to evolve for quite a while — but all with the hopes of slowly moving to a somewhat normal travel environment.

With the ongoing changes over the coming months, there will likely be a substantial difference between travel in the first half of the year, and the experience in the second half of the year once the vaccine has been implemented in the broader population. So let’s talk first half of the year…

Last week was a huge announcement that sent travelers and travel suppliers scrambling.

The CDC announced the requirement that anyone – including Americans – arriving on an international flight must have a negative COVID-19 test. While some see this as disconcerting and it left many travelers anxious to figure out how to comply, it actually can be viewed as a positive development. The way we get back to travel is to have an effective testing system in place for travelers, so this is one little step in moving forward.

Changing Requirements in the US and in destination

Before delving into the details of this new requirement, first let’s look at the broader picture of international travel requirements.

Each destination has its own requirements for arrival into that country. Now the US has a requirement to return from international travel.

In regard to arriving in other countries, you may or not be aware that numerous countries have been allowing Americans to visit. Close destinations include Bahamas, Costa Rica, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Turks and Caicos, with most requiring PCR tests. Mexico’s land border is closed, but flights are allowed, so this has been a popular destination and doesn’t require PCR tests for arrival.

Other international destinations that are open include French Polynesia, The Maldives, Morocco, Turkey, Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Egypt, Dubai, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. All require PCR testing with various timeframes specified.

Anyone who has traveled to these destinations over the last three to six months has had to meet the requirements for arriving in that country. Typically this has caused travelers to find a hometown facility to conduct a PCR test before their departure from the US to be allowed into their destination. Their return home has been easy, just flying back into the US, with a few airports requiring a form to facilitate contact tracing.

Now the big change is the requirement to have the negative COVID-19 test to arrive back in the United States.

It’s been one week since the CDC announcement requiring the negative COVID-19 test for all international arrivals, so the details and implementation are still emerging, but here are the current highlights:

  • Effective January 26, passengers 2 years or older must provide proof of negative COVID-19 test administered within 3 calendar days.
  • Acceptable tests are PCR and antigen rapid test. Antibody tests are not valid to meet the requirement.
  • If someone has had COVID-19 in the last 3 months, they must provide documentation of their positive viral test results and a letter from their healthcare provider or public health official stating they have been cleared for travel.
  •  Documentation can be paper or electronic (on a smartphone), must include the type of test, the date, the name of the passenger, in addition to the provider (i.e., lab name) contact information.
  • Those unwilling to be tested will be denied boarding by the airline.
  • Vaccination does NOT qualify as proof of meeting this requirement; documentation of a negative or positive test (with recovery) is still required.
  • The requirement applies to all nationalities and includes those only connecting in the US (i.e., a Canadian connecting in a US city before continuing to Toronto would still need to meet the requirement).

The requirement doesn’t apply to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or US Virgin Islands – only to international destinations.

The documentation procedure is actually handled by the airline at check-in, so this will alter the typical process. Online check-in will no longer be allowed since the negative COVID-19 test must be verified at the airport. This also means that arriving at the airport 3 or more hours ahead of time is very important. While the testing documentation is handled by the airline, it may be requested at landing in the US, so travelers should keep the paperwork with their passports.

The key thing to remember about the CDC order is: It’s about ENTERING (returning to) the US. It’s not about entering other countries. They each have their own requirements.

So, those are the rules and the logistics – what about the reality of how you return from an international destination?

Because Mexico and the Caribbean are actively hosting US travelers, the tourism boards and travel suppliers there have quickly acted to respond to this new CDC requirement. This a great example of what you can expect to see going forward in the travel industry.

In the one week since that announcement, many of the hotels and resorts have put plans in place to solve the issues presented by the new regulation.

There are many resorts and properties that provide testing on property for $0 cost, with test results within 30 minutes to 24 hours. The inclusion of the Antigen or Rapid Test as an acceptable test option helps considerably, as it is a lower cost and a faster turnaround than the PCR test.

The next logical question is – what if I test positive in the destination? Some resorts offer discounted or free rooms if a guest tests positive and must quarantine at the resort before returning to the US.

Obviously, there are a lot of details and terms to be sorted out here, but the good news is the travel industry knows how to respond to these challenges, so we’ll continue to see solutions and innovations that move us to future travel.

I gave an example of how Mexico and the Caribbean have quickly adapted to the new rules, but what if you are going to another destination? Other locations and travel providers are also addressing the new landscape to facilitate American travel.

Delta will be identifying testing resources for every market they serve, and they are working with their partner airlines. They are also working on some partnerships with labs. They want to ensure that their customers know where to go to get the tests they need.

One key point is that the airlines don’t recommend that folks wait to get tested at the airport before departure if there happens to be a testing facility there. They prefer that folks get tested in their destination before arriving at the airport.

There is more to the future of travel that I wanted to talk about, but this article is getting way too long. In a few weeks, I’ll talk more about other travel topics that are of interest for the future. There is discussion of a ‘Travel Pass’ that electronically notifies passengers of the tests required at their destination before travel and also provides a way to share their test results when crossing borders. The European Union is discussing a ‘vaccination certificate’ as a way to prove you’ve been vaccinated and facilitate travel.

The key to future travel in the first part of this year is adaptability and flexibility, and access to the most current information. The reentry requirements do require careful planning. As a travel professional, I have resources to access the latest developments, and so I’m working to ensure the safety and health of my clients who chose to travel. I take care of worrying about all details about this for my clients, but if you are a nerd like me and want to read all this, or you just want to understand some of the best recommendations for traveling safely, you can download the 57-page Vacation Health and Safety Guide.