As COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up, AAA warns 2021 travel will likely be a different experience for many

The ongoing COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the U.S. has fueled hope for a return to some sense of normalcy this year, including potential travel plans. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet issued guidance on travel for vaccinated Americans over concerns of travel-related surges and currently still cautions people to avoid non-essential travel.

Still, a growing percentage of American travelers say they plan to take at least one leisure trip in the next three months. A weekly survey, called the Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index and conducted by Destination Analysts, reported Monday that more than 84% of Americans already have tentative trip plans for the remainder of 2021, with June through October being the peak months for trips.

Experts from AAA say that as more people consider planning a future trip with the confidence boost of being inoculated against the virus, there will be several pandemic-related restrictions in place and some things will look a lot different than the last time many people traveled. 

"The entire travel experience has been transformed by COVID-19," said Paula Twidale, AAA Travel’s senior vice president.  "If you’re considering travel sometime this year, it’s more important than ever to do your due diligence ahead of any trip to ensure it is safe and enjoyable."

20bc4868-New Orleans Celebrates Mardi Gras During COVID-19 Pandemic

FILE - Tourists leave the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon St. as people celebrate Mardi Gras on Feb. 16, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras parades were canceled, bars were closed and Bourbon Street was barricaded to try and prevent

Twidale added that as vaccines against the virus help revive the travel industry, there are masks and social distance requirements in place for tourists. Face coverings are required on planes, buses, trains and all other forms of public transportation traveling into, within or out of the U.S., as well as while inside airports and stations. 

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Road trips across America continue to be the preferred way for many to travel amid the ongoing pandemic, AAA says — which provides real-time guidance on state and local travel restrictions across the U.S. The organization also shares rest stops, gas stations, restaurants and hotels open along a planned route.

If renting a car, experts advise asking what has been done to clean the vehicle and bring disinfecting wipes for door handles, steering wheels, shifters and control panels.

For hotel stays, travelers should call ahead to make sure the facility remains open and ask about what precautions they’re taking to protect guests, such as capacity limits, hotel staff requirements to wear masks, and if any amenities are available — such as restaurant dining. 

Air travelers who haven’t been on a flight during the pandemic will certainly notice changes. Some airlines continue to limit flight capacities or block middle seats to allow for social distancing. AAA says many in-flight amenities, including food and beverage services, may be limited or unavailable. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) currently allows one over-sized liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger, in carry-on bags, rather than limiting those to 3.4 ounces. 

For international air travel, all passengers arriving to the U.S. — including U.S. citizens — are required to have a negative COVID-19 tests result or documentation of recovery from the virus before boarding a flight. 

All air travelers aged 2 and older must comply with the requirement, regardless of vaccination or antibody status, according to the CDC. The order also applies to those briefly entering the U.S. for a connecting flight.

Travelers who don’t provide this will be denied boarding by the airline. To date, there are no COVID-19 test requirements for domestic flights. 

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While the pandemic brought travel to a standstill, it particularly devastated both the airline and cruise industries. The CDC has since lifted a no-sail order for cruise ships, but many cruise lines, including Carnival and Disney, have voluntarily extended their suspension of sailing operations further into 2021.

Last month, the Canadian government extended a ban on cruise ships through February 2022, which is expected to block many ships from visiting Alaska this year.

AAA advises that anyone considering a cruise vacation in 2021 should consult with the cruise line or a travel agent to fully understand the cancellation policy and what to expect on a cruise when they start sailing again. 

"Vacations are an investment in memory making. COVID-19 reminded us that safeguarding those investments, where possible, is important," Twidale said. 

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Roughly 1 in 4 U.S. adults have now received their first vaccine against the virus that has killed more than 530,000 Americans and disrupted the lives of countless more. As supplies of the vaccines continue to increase, President Joe Biden announced that he will direct states and territories to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.

As more receive their shots, the CDC issued guidelines this week for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The agency says these individuals can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing.

The recommendations also say that vaccinated people can come together in the same way with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

The agency defines fully vaccinated as those who are two weeks past their second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, or two weeks past the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

However, the CDC has not yet issued new guidance on travel for vaccinated Americans, citing travel-related surges of the past, and said it will do so once more people are inoculated.

On its website, the agency says Americans should "delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, even if you are vaccinated."

It does provide guidance for those who "must travel," saying in part that individuals should get fully vaccinated if they are eligible, get a viral test one to three days before the trip, wear a mask in public, and get tested three to five days after the trip. Upon return home, travelers are advised to self-quarantine for a week even if their test is negative, according to the CDC site.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.