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16 Air Travel Rules You Need to Know for Flying During the Pandemic

These new rules will affect everything from where you go to what you’ll do once you get there. Be aware of them to avoid frustration—or worse.

air travel changes covid19 coronavirus flight plane Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Big changes in air travel

The rules of air travel are constantly evolving to address the concerns of both passengers and airline personnel as they arise. Some are more or less temporary, including temporary flight restrictions, no-fly rules, and certain travel advisories. Others, such as the huge changes made in the wake of 9/11, are now largely par for the course. While a panoply of new rules have cropped up in recent years to address, among other things, technological innovations, the availability of novel handheld devices, and new or newly identified consumer needs and demands, other major changes have resulted from the pandemic. Coronavirus has wrought countless changes to everyday life, and it is, unfortunately, showing no sign of going anywhere anytime soon. Here, we’ll be talking about the brand-new, COVID-related rules you’ll need to know before booking your next trip.

Male traveler wearing a facemask at the airportandresr/Getty Images

More than a dozen new pandemic-related rules

A survey of 3,500 people by Azurite Consulting found that 44 percent of international air travelers won’t fly again until there’s a vaccine. But for when you do decide to travel again, an entirely new set of rules meant to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 will apply, and you won’t be alone in feeling it’s all very new and strange. Even flight attendants are “shook,” according to Maeve (who asked that her last name not be used), an international flight attendant based in Dublin who is still reeling over the seemingly overnight changes. “The boarding process is slowed down to five passengers at a time to ensure social distance,” she offers as an example, “and we (the flight attendants) have to wear gloves and masks at all times.” This, she adds, has changed the dynamic between flight attendants and passengers. Here are 19 things you should never say to a flight attendant—especially now.

First flight as Turkey further eases COVID-19 restrictionsAnadolu Agency/Getty Images

Face shields may become part of the flying experience

In a move that may well catch on among its competitors, Qatar Airways has become the first airline to make plastic face shields mandatory for flight attendants and flight crew members. “As we continue to relaunch our U.S. markets, we will enforce our new PPE standards to ensure all our passengers arrive at their destinations safe and healthy,” explains Eric Ordone, SVP for the Western Region of Qatar Airways. Those new standards also include providing each passenger with an individual protective kit, which contains a face mask, disposable gloves, and hand sanitizer. Stay tuned for more airlines enforcing the wearing of plastic face shields and providing their own protective kits. So, which is better: a face shield or a face mask? We investigated.

Woman listening to music while flying on an airplane wearing a facemaskHispanolistic/Getty Images

Face masks have already become part of the flying experience

Many, if not most, commercial airlines around the world have already put into place rules regarding the wearing of face masks. The rules vary by airline, but here are two notable examples:

  • American Airlines requires all passengers over the age of two to wear face coverings on the plane. Masks also must be worn from the moment one enters the departure airport until they leave the arrival airport. No exemptions are available, and anyone who fails to comply will be banned from flying American.
  • Delta requires all airplane passengers to wear a face mask that meets the current CDC guidelines. Exhaust-valve masks are specifically not permitted. Masks must also be worn at all “Delta touchpoints,” including check-in and boarding gates. Masks are recommended in restrooms and security lines. Certain exceptions may apply, but Delta also points out that additional rules may apply depending on the jurisdiction.

Check out these 13 true stories that show what happens when you don’t social-distance, including what happened to one airline passenger who refused to wear a mask on board.

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The REAL ID deadline has been delayed

Beginning October 1, 2021, you will need to have a REAL ID-compliant license or another acceptable form of ID, such as a valid passport or U.S. military ID, to fly within the United States. This might not seem like news until you double-check the date. It’s been extended by a full year from the date originally envisioned by the Department of Homeland Security due to circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the related declaration of national emergency. What other changes can you expect in the near future? Here’s what airport security could look like in 10 years.

Empty airport check-in counter with protection glass.wsfurlan/Getty Images

You’re not welcome in most of Europe

On June 30, the European Union (EU) adopted a recommendation regarding the gradual lifting of restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU. Under the recommendation, starting on July 1, travel restrictions were lifted for countries that met certain criteria (discussed below). Guess which country was not on the list of “invitees”? That’s right—the United States. That means that for now, U.S. citizens are not welcome in the EU’s member countries. Learn more about the criteria for our exclusion and the list of countries you won’t be able to visit.

The list of countries whose citizens are permitted to travel for pleasure to Europe is updated every two weeks, and some experts, including Gregg Brunson-Pitts, former White House Travel Director and CEO/founder of the D.C.-based Advanced Aviation Team, believe the EU will soon open its doors to Americans once again. That, however, remains to be seen.

Air Canada Temporarily Lays Off 15,000 Employees As Coronavirus Takes Toll On Airline IndustryCole Burston/Getty Images

No air travel to Canada

In March, the United States and Canada jointly agreed to limit cross-border activity to “essential travel.” But while Canadians can still fly into the United States, Canada has basically banned U.S. citizens from flying into Canada. That ban is expected to continue, if not indefinitely throughout the pandemic, then at least for the foreseeable future. When travel north of the border resumes, these are the most popular spots in Canada you’ll want to visit.

Taking a trip during troubling timesAdene Sanchez/Getty Images

Some airlines are dropping their change and cancellation fees

In a bid to win back customers, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines have all announced they will no longer charge customers to change their tickets. Previously, the fee had been $200 for domestic tickets and for some short-haul international flights. Other airlines are expected to follow suit. Make sure you know these 3 effective ways to get airlines and hotels to bend their rules.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General James C. McConville At Mass. Press ConferenceBoston Globe/Getty Images

Travel restrictions for service members

On March 11, the Secretary of Defense announced a 60-day restriction on travel for service members. This restricts all forms of travel to, from, or through areas designated as “Level 3” locations by the CDC. In addition, civilians and families of service members cannot travel to “Level 2” locations for 60 days. However, these restrictions are gradually being relaxed, according to Military.com, which reported the following in early June: “The Pentagon has lifted travel restrictions in a majority of states, the District of Columbia and five countries—a change that will allow service members to plan and execute duty station moves and military and recreational travel…Effective immediately, troops in 38 states and D.C., as well as Bahrain, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, are cleared for travel, subject to final decisions by local installation commanders.”

Low Angle View Of Airplane Flying Against Sky During SunsetChanin Wardkhian/Getty Images

No travel to Mexico and a lot of other countries

While Mexico has opened its borders to Americans, the U.S. State Department has issued a Do Not Travel Warning with regard to 50 nations, including Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, China, and Libya. (Some of these are the result of terrorism and civil unrest, not just coronavirus.) When it’s safe to travel there again, these are the most popular Mexico destinations you’ll want to visit.

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You’re discouraged from traveling to many places as well

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging U.S. travelers to avoid all non-essential trips to some 200 destinations it considers high-risk due to COVID-19. At the present, these are the only countries where U.S. travelers are not discouraged and/or banned:

  • Bonaire
  • Fiji
  • New Zealand
  • Saba
  • Saint Barthelemy
  • Sint Eustatius
  • Thailand
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Brunei
  • Cayman Islands
  • Dominica
  • Falkland Islands
  • French Polynesia
  • Greenland
  • Laos
  • Macau SAR
  • Mauritius
  • New Caledonia
  • Taiwan
  • Timor-Leste

That said, some of these countries have banned U.S. travelers, so the CDC’s discouragement is beside the point.

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If you fly to Ireland or the U.K., you’ll be required to self-isolate for two weeks

If you’re thinking of taking a quick trip to Ireland or the U.K. (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), you’ll need to reconsider your definition of “quick.” All travelers to the U.K. and Ireland are required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival, although exceptions apply for travelers from certain countries. Travelers from the United States are not among the exceptions at this time. FYI, here’s how to self-isolate if you live with your family.

Socially Distanced Portrait of Teenage Traveler in KN95 Maskxavierarnau/Getty Images

If you travel to these countries, you’ll have to self-isolate or present a negative COVID test

While travel to Croatia is open to U.S. citizens (it ignored the EU ban discussed above), you will have to self-isolate for 14 days unless you can present a negative COVID PCR test on arrival at the airport; the test also must be no older than 48 hours. If your test has expired, you can take another one at the airport and self-isolate until you get (negative) results. Similar rules apply for Cyprus, Russia, Abu Dhabi, Serbia, Turkey, and the following Caribbean countries:

  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Aruba
  • Barbados
  • Dominica
  • Jamaica
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Barts

So much for that dream beach foray while remote working. And if you had your heart set on the Bahamas, you’ll have to plan for either a very isolated vacation or one that lasts longer than 14 days, which is the length of time during which you are now required to self-isolate upon arrival. Find out which Caribbean countries have been relatively unaffected by COVID-19.

Woman walking the aisle on planeMesquitaFMS/Getty Images

Travel restrictions when flying into certain states

Even within the United States, many states are imposing restrictions on arriving air travelers. Though the list is constantly changing, the following states are those with restrictions in place, as of press time:

  • Alaska
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

Most of these states require a quarantine period upon arrival. Some require it only for travelers from states considered to be higher risk, and some exempt travelers who can produce a negative COVID-19 test. Since the travel restrictions in place for each state are so specific to each state, before traveling by air outside your own state, it’s a good idea to check your arrival state’s travel rules. Here are 22 things you should never do on an airplane, pandemic or not.

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No visitors from these countries

Visitors coming from the following countries over the last 14 days have been banned from entering the United States because of COVID-19:

  • China
  • Iran
  • European Schengen Area (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City)
  • U.K.
  • Ireland
  • Brazil

Exemptions apply, but even those are subject to restrictions, including which airports may be used for arrival and a recommended 14-day quarantine. Make sure you know these 13 things airlines aren’t telling you.

Airtravelers at the airport with luggage, wearing N95 face masksizusek/Getty Images

No new international students (who are taking online classes only)

U.S. immigration officials have issued guidance stating that new international students are not welcome to enter the United States for the purpose of study if they are taking an entirely online course load. To clarify, we’re talking about new students as opposed to students who are already here. Not that that’s a comfort to this international student at an American college who fears for her future, and justifiably so.

Rows of empty chairs at airportThomas Barwick/Getty Images

Fewer and fewer flights are available

Airlines have been responding to the pandemic (and the related travel restrictions and reluctance of travelers to fly) by eliminating more and more of their routes. This is true both internationally and within the United States. For example, early on in the pandemic, Norwegian Air suspended most of its transatlantic flights (and laid off half its employees), and five U.S. airlines ceased service on eight domestic routes, leaving no carrier to take their place. Now American Airlines is considering ending service to up to 30 smaller cities across the country as travelers continue to stay home. If you’re still not sure, find out what the words epidemic and pandemic really mean.

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Dwindling in-flight services are dwindling even further

Just when you thought the food offered on flights couldn’t get any more disappointing—or more expensive, for that matter—airlines are now planning to further limit their food and beverage services. Some are considering eliminating them entirely. Why, you might ask? As the Los Angeles Times puts it, “the culprit is COVID-19.” Next, find out the truth about recirculated air on airplanes.

For more on the pandemic and how it’s changing everyday life, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.