Looking to travel again in 2021? If it’s been a while since you’ve flown, you’ll find flying to be somewhat different than it was pre-pandemic. From testing requirements to inflight service, here’s what to expect when flying in 2021.

How Flying is Different During the Pandemic

Many of the new procedures are similar to what you’ll find in everyday life these days. Even though 2020 is behind us, expect many of the same precautions such as mask wearing and distancing to continue well into 2021. One of the biggest changes to flying during the global pandemic are testing requirements.

Do I Need a COVID-19 Test to Fly?

Depending on your airline and destination, you may be required to take a COVID-19 test before you fly. Specific rules vary, but when it is required, you typically need to take an approved test within 72 hours of your flight.

International Travel

Most international destinations that are allowing international travelers require an approved test to be taken before travel. Some destinations may also require a second test to be taken upon arrival.

Starting January 26, 2021, the CDC requires all passengers arriving in the U.S. from a foreign country to get tested no more than 3 days before departure and provide proof of a negative test result or documentation showing a recovery from COVID-19 prior to boarding the flight. This includes U.S. citizens returning home after traveling abroad. The airline is responsible for checking these documents and shall deny boarding if they are not presented.

Domestic Travel

Requirements vary for domestic U.S. travel between states. Some states require quarantine or testing for out-of-state visitors, while others do not. The CDC still recommends getting tested 1-3 days before your flight and also getting tested 3-5 days after travel.

Make sure to check on any specific requirements for your airline and destination before you fly as these rules are likely to keep changing throughout the year.

What Type of Test is Required for Travel?

A viral test is required as it tests for current infection, whereas an antibody test only shows if you’ve had the virus in the past and is not an acceptable test for travel. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is the most reliable and is the gold standard for what is generally accepted as an approved test for travel. Of course, the requirements vary by destination so be sure to look up any rules for your specific itinerary.

At the Airport

Once you arrive at the airport, expect to see signage requiring all travelers to wear a mask and to stay 6 ft. away from others whenever possible. Some airlines are offering a touchless check-in experience at kiosks where you can check-in online and then simply scan a barcode on your phone to print your bag tags.

If you need assistance from a ticket agent, you may find them to be standing behind a plexiglass barrier as an added precaution to help stop the spread of the virus. Many airports will also have markings on the floor set 6 feet apart to help travelers keep their distance while waiting in line, but don’t expect everyone to actually heed the markings.

Airports are still pretty empty compared to pre-pandemic levels, but I expect this to gradually increase throughout the year. You’ll notice that many shops and lounges inside the airport may be closed and there will be fewer dining options. It’s best to eat a good meal before you leave for the airport so you can minimize taking your mask off throughout your travel day.


At the boarding gate, there will be fewer seats available since airports are usually blocking every other seat in the terminal to avoid crowding. Many airlines have adopted a back to front boarding policy so passengers won’t need to pass by a plane full of passengers to reach their seat in the back.

If you’re flying Southwest, don’t expect to line up at the gate in the usual “cattle call” style. Instead, passengers are being called to board 10 at a time in their boarding order. Other airlines are conducting similar boarding procedures where they are calling only a few rows to board at a time to allow for more distance and a more pleasurable experience.

On the Plane

Airplanes are flying at a much lower capacity overall compared to before the pandemic. Although the number of flights has decreased dramatically, airlines are still having trouble filling the planes to capacity. This means you’ll likely have more space to spread your legs and keep a small distance from others while inflight. Of course, this isn’t guaranteed since most airlines have stopped blocking middle seats and are selling all available seats. Notably, Delta is still blocking middle seats through March, 30, 2021.

Across the board, airlines are conducting more rigorous cleaning procedures. High touch points such as tray tables and seat back screens are being disinfected between each flight. A few airlines have even started using UV wands and electrostatic spray to fight against bacteria. And to top it off, you may even be given a sanitizing wipe as you board so you can ensure that your area is clean before you settle into your seat.

Do I Need to Wear a Mask When Flying?

All major airlines are requiring passengers to wear a mask while onboard with the exception of small children. I expect this requirement to continue through most of the year, if not the whole year. It may even become mandated by the FAA at some point. Masks may only be removed while eating or drinking and must be put back on immediately. This is starting to be enforced more strictly and several passengers who have failed to comply have been banned by airlines.

Inflight Service

After takeoff, service will be minimal. On domestic flights, you’ll probably only be given a pre-packed snack kit with a bottle of water. Don’t expect a full beverage cart to come down the aisle unless you are on a long-haul international flight. Airlines are trying to limit the interaction between its crew members and passengers in order to complete each flight as safely as possible.

What is lost in onboard service is gained with a little more peace and quiet. Since flight attendants are no longer coming through the aisles as often and passengers aren’t chatting as much, it can be a great opportunity to catch up on sleep and be well rested when you reach your destination.

Vaccine Passports 

While vaccines have begun to rollout in the U.S. and throughout the world, there is still a long way to go for widespread vaccination. When that time comes, it seems likely that traveling internationally in the future will require some sort of vaccine passport. The president of Australian airline Qantas has even stated that the carrier will most likely require international passengers to be vaccinated.

Proof of a vaccine is nothing new to international travel. The International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (also known as a “Yellow Card”) has been used for many years by travelers entering countries that require certain vaccines, such as a yellow fever vaccine, due to increased health risks.

Whether proof of the COVID-19 vaccine is included on the Yellow Card, on its own vaccination certificate, or in some sort of digital format, I believe that once the vaccine is widely available, we will likely have to show proof of vaccination in order to enter most countries for the foreseeable future.

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