Travelling in the COVID Era: What You Need to Know Before Boarding an Airplane to the U.S.

Airport Travel

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it very clear that in order to board a plane or a train, proof of vaccination will be required. Photo: gilaxia/GettyImages

What’s it like to travel on an airplane now? Of course, it depends on the destination, as each country has its own set of requirements. 

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it very clear that in order to board a plane or a train, proof of vaccination will be required. And, a negative PCR test is needed up to but not beyond 72 hours of your flight’s arrival back into Canada if you’re flying beyond our borders. 

This is important to note because some people may think they can manage with one test, say for a short 3-4 day jaunt to New York or LA,, but the 72-hour rule is taken very seriously. With a PCR test, where the swab is inserted deep into the nasal cavity and is sent to a lab for examination, it can take as much as 24 to 48 hours for results. Yes, it’s more accurate, but it’s all about timing. It’s also more expensive. Anywhere from $150 to upwards of $250 if you are willing to pay for the results more quickly (which may just make an overnighter to NYC possible). 

A side note: regardless, you will need one of these before you return to Canada. And, you may still be randomly selected to be tested again upon arrival. This may also involve a request to quarantine until the results come in.

But at this time, some other countries, such as the United States, only require Canadians to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recent recovery (within the last three months) from COVID-19, not proof of vaccination. To facilitate this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a form that acts as signed attestation as a passenger disclosure, which can be downloaded.

My first foray into the world of flight since lockdown came with an invitation to the IPW conference, a U.S. Travel Association trade show showcasing California, Florida, New York and, well, pretty much all the states.

The destination? Las Vegas. Bright lights, show girls, casinos, the domain of the Rat Pack. Sin City was slowly coming back to life. But, I accepted with a hint of trepidation. The Delta variant was raging south of the border, and every state in the U.S. has its own set of rules (or none whatsoever). Fortunately, wearing a mask indoors is a requirement right now in Vegas, so that helped give me the nudge I needed.

So, what do you need to do before you get on a plane to the U.S.?

A Negative Test


First, a negative test, within 72 hours of your flight. The U.S. accepts a negative rapid antigen test. And, although it may not be as accurate as a full-on PCR test, it is a kinder, gentler test that is also much easier on the wallet. I chose this test because I would be away for more than 72 hours, which meant I would still have to get the required full-on PCR test for my return.

Your Passport


Armed with my passport, I did a walk-in at my local Shoppers Drug Mart; the pharmacist took a swab of the front area of my nasal passages, and told me to go for a walk. Twenty minutes later, I had my negative results, on a printout with all my information (including my passport number), for about $40. What’s also good about this test is that you don’t have to be stressed about the timing. 

Because most travel is still not considered “essential” by the Canadian government, the test is as much a necessity as a luxury, hence the cost for the service. Of course, if you’re experiencing symptoms, don’t confuse this pay-to-play service with a clinic or hospital that provides the testing for free to ensure you are healthy. And, I don’t recommend you try to play the system to avoid the cost. In some cases, the clinic or hospital may ask you to remain in quarantine until you receive the results. They will track you.

Proof of Vaccination


Next, each airline requests you complete the list of government-provided health questions during check-in, along with the CDC’s attestation and, in Canada, your proof of vaccination. If you don’t have connectivity, you will be asked these questions at the airport when you check in. The questions are very similar to the COVID-19 checklist questions that we are all, by now, familiar with. Symptoms, recent diagnoses, contact with others who may have been diagnosed with COVID-19, etc.

And of course, always wear a mask. I found it surprisingly unremarkable over the five-hour flight. I recommend double masking if you can. My trick was to wear a soft, cotton mask closer to my skin, and then a surgical (blue) mask over it. And I tossed the top layer after a few hours and replaced it with a fresh blue mask. 

On my Air Canada flight to Vegas, the airline supplied each passenger with a little safety kit. It featured two surgical masks, wipes and hand sanitizer packets. 

Finally, please be patient, and plan to arrive at the airport a little earlier than you may have during pre-COVID times. We’re all navigating a new world, and things will just take a little longer. Lineups at the airport are to be expected, as the staff is doing all they can to keep us safe. If you’re a frequent flyer, I suggest you apply for the Nexus program as, where available, there are dedicated lanes and customs officers for those using the Nexus card (along with your passport) for entry. 

Don’t Forget

  1. Wear a non-medical mask, preferably three layers (I doubled-up on the masks for my flight). Take more than one, so if you’re on a long flight, you can change it up after a few hours. You can remove the mask to eat or drink. Dispose of used masks as soon as possible post-flight. And please snip the strings, as our animal friends can get caught up in the pesky ear loops if they’re digging around in the trash.
  2. Check your airline’s website for tips and specific requirements for the destination to which you are travelling (see links, below). 
  3. Regardless of what the airline may provide from a safety perspective, pack a carry-on size bottle of hand sanitizer and wipes. 
  4. I suggest you print out your documents in case you are unable to access your proof of vaccination and your negative test results on your phone. That may be easier said than done when you re-enter Canada, as most labs will send the results electronically. Ask your hotel if they can print the document out for you when you check out.
  5. And don’t fly if you’re not feeling well. Fortunately, most airlines are offering flexibility on fees or free changes. 

For more information, check out the website for Air Canada and Porter Airlines’ Travel and COVID-19 page.