Ask a Travel Nerd: Can I Travel Without a COVID Vaccine?

Traveling while unvaccinated, whether domestically or internationally, will introduce some challenges.
Elina Geller
By Elina Geller 
Edited by Meg Lee

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Between constantly changing entry requirements, mandated quarantines, testing rules and vaccine provisions, traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t easy. If you’re not vaccinated, it's even harder. Some countries flat-out don’t admit unvaccinated travelers, while others require a mandatory quarantine and extra tests.

If you plan on traveling and aren't vaccinated, here’s what you need to know.

Domestic travel for unvaccinated travelers

As recently as Jan. 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend delaying travel until you’re fully vaccinated.

Requirements are up to each city and state. For example, while Illinois doesn’t have statewide restrictions, its recommendations differ based on the daily COVID-19 case rates of the state the traveler is arriving from. Unvaccinated travelers arriving from states with higher case rates are encouraged to secure a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of travel to Illinois. At the city level, unvaccinated travelers going to Chicago are asked to get tested for COVID-19 before and after arrival and to quarantine upon arrival.

Meanwhile, all travelers 16 and older who enter California via Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport or Los Angeles Union Station are required to fill out a City of Los Angeles Traveler Form, agreeing to follow CDC travel guidance — or face up to a $500 fine.

Other states may be more flexible and have no recommendations or requirements related to vaccination, quarantine, forms or testing for visitors.

Tips for traveling domestically without a vaccine

  • If the required time frame for getting a COVID-19 test ahead of travel is less than 24 hours, check if an urgent care center near you offers a rapid results option. In addition, check if a PCR and/or antigen test will be accepted. Generally, results from an antigen test can be provided faster. If you have insurance, the test may be covered.

  • Before heading to your intended destination, check the city and state requirements and recommendations, because they may differ (like Chicago and Illinois). Find out if your destination has any special requirements based on the state you’re arriving from.

  • Some businesses require proof of vaccination for entry. Be prepared to be turned away from restaurants, bars, stores and other establishments if this is the case.

  • Check if there are any ongoing testing requirements. For example, unvaccinated travelers staying in Puerto Rico longer than a week must submit weekly COVID-19 test results.

International travel for unvaccinated travelers

Traveling internationally may present a greater number of obstacles, especially due to different systems and a potential language barrier. Some countries don't allow unvaccinated travelers to enter, period. For example, travel to the majority of European countries is possible only to those who are vaccinated. If you’re not vaccinated, make sure the country you want to visit will allow you entry.

In addition, before returning to the U.S., you’re required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of the flight's departure. While abroad, you’ll need to go to a COVID-19 testing center. Unlike getting tested in the U.S., COVID-19 tests abroad aren't covered by insurance, so you'll need to budget for the out-of-pocket cost.

Furthermore, you should book your accommodations wisely. Does the hotel you want to stay at allow unvaccinated guests? Will you be able to dine at the hotel restaurant? Can you use the spa or gym facilities? These are important questions you’ll need to consider before booking an international hotel stay.

Scrutinize your access to activities and other places you’d like to visit during your trip, too, like restaurants and museums. On my recent trip to Germany, I had to show my proof of vaccination and identification in every bar, restaurant, shop and hotel I entered.

If you’re unvaccinated, you may be refused entry to all these places, which can ruin your trip.

Tips for traveling internationally without a vaccine

  • Get travel insurance with Cancel For Any Reason coverage since entry requirements are changing constantly. What happens if you book a nonrefundable flight and hotel, and a week before your departure, your destination stops allowing in unvaccinated travelers? If you have travel insurance with CFAR, you’ll be able to cancel your trip and get your nonrefundable deposits back so long as changes aren’t made at the last minute. For example, with CFAR coverage from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, "you may only be eligible if you purchase CFAR at the time of your base policy purchase, insure your full trip cost, and cancel more than 48 hours prior to departure," according to the company's website.

  • Confirm entry eligibility for your must-have experiences, like restaurants, museums, shopping malls or bars and clubs. Double-check that your hotel will allow you entry as well.

  • Research COVID-19 testing sites in the area before departure. Will you need to travel far to get your test? Consider travel time when making a test appointment.

  • Check if there's an app that your destination country uses that will accept your pre-departure negative COVID-19 test result. This step could make it easier to visit any bars, hotels, shops, restaurants and museums you’d like to check out.

Final thoughts on traveling without a COVID vaccine

Traveling domestically and internationally may pose a new set of challenges for those who are unvaccinated. Be sure to keep up to date with the latest requirements to make sure that your trip goes smoothly. International travel may result in many more difficulties, so if you’re not prepared to deal with all the uncertainties of being abroad, consider travel to a location within the U.S.

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