How a Government Shutdown Could Affect Travel

A government shutdown could impact operations at TSA, the national parks and passport processing centers.
Published
Profile photo of Sean Cudahy
Written by Sean Cudahy
Writer
Profile photo of Meghan Coyle
Edited by Meghan Coyle
Assistant Assigning Editor
Fact Checked

Many, or all, of the products featured on this page are from our advertising partners who compensate us when you take certain actions on our website or click to take an action on their website. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

MORE LIKE THISTravel

If Congress cannot reach a spending deal by Oct. 1, a resulting government shutdown could significantly impact travel and not in the best way.

The U.S. Travel Association warns a shutdown could come with “dire consequences,” costing the industry an estimated $140 million per day.

Some of the aviation industry’s most essential workers — air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration officers — would be required to work without pay. Past shutdowns have led to more federal employee absences, longer security lines and more flight delays.

“The federal government is already failing the traveler,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement. “A shutdown would be further proof of Washington’s inability to find reasonable solutions to problems that affect Americans nationwide.”

How would a government shutdown affect air travel?

Even though thousands of federal workers would be furloughed in the event of a government shutdown, air travel is supposed to continue like normal. Both TSA officers and air traffic controllers would continue working. However, those workers would not get paid during a shutdown.

That shouldn’t lead to delays for travelers immediately. But if the shutdown drags on for weeks, some federal workers may refuse to work without a paycheck.

One day during the nation’s longest-ever shutdown from December 2018 to January 2019, TSA reported that 10% of its officers were missing work for an unscheduled absence.

The saga forced some airports to close security checkpoints and caused long waits for some travelers.

Some air traffic controllers also missed work during the 2019 government shutdown, which led to a temporary halt at New York-LaGuardia airport, as well as major delays at Newark, Philadelphia and Atlanta airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already faces a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers, which airlines blamed for delays and cancellations earlier this year. With more unscheduled absences, flight delays and cancellations could only worsen during a government shutdown.

Long-term consequences for air travel

A government shutdown could also have more long-term ramifications for air travel. For example, training new controllers, which takes up to three years, is crucial to closing that staffing gap and getting air travel fully back on track.

“If there is a government shutdown, that is going to disrupt that process, and the disruption is profound,” Acting FAA Administrator Polly Trottenberg told reporters on Sept. 13. “If we shut down for a couple of weeks, it takes a lot more than a couple weeks to recover.”

However, she emphasized the agency is “not going to compromise on safety” if there is a shutdown.

Would national parks close during a shutdown?

It’s not entirely clear what a shutdown would mean for national parks, which are overseen by the Interior Department. At this point, the National Park Service isn’t commenting on specific contingency plans in the event of a shutdown.

During the 2013 federal government shutdown, all 400-plus national park sites were closed, according to the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. But it was a different story in 2018 and 2019, when some parks remained partially open, albeit not functioning like normal.

“We witnessed unnecessary damage to resources and wildlife because parks were left open without adequate staff,” Angela Gonzales, the organization's associate director of communications, said in an email, noting overflowing trash cans, human waste, vandalism and looting in parks.

Given the uncertainty, if a shutdown occurs and you’re considering going to a national park, your best bet may be to check your specific park’s website or social media feed. However, they may not be updated regularly with employees furloughed. If you do attempt to visit a park or site, don’t count on access to restrooms or a visitors center.

Can I get a passport during a shutdown?

It appears passport processing would continue during a shutdown.

Passports are handled by the State Department, and the department’s shutdown contingency plans online say consular operations, including passports and visas, “will remain 100% operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations.”

However, keep in mind a government shutdown may further delay processing times. The State Department estimates that even expedited passport application processing will take several weeks, so it’s wiser to give yourself six months of lead time before an international trip.

Can I still get Global Entry and TSA PreCheck during a shutdown?

Applications for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck will remain open during a government shutdown. TSA PreCheck is a fee-funded program, so it will continue to enroll members.

Global Entry is a different story. During the 2018 to 2019 shutdown, Global Entry appointments at some enrollment centers were canceled with no rescheduled date in sight. Any disruption could be painful for new applicants because U.S. Customs and Border Protection is still working through a continued backlog of Global Entry applications from recent years.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.