International tourists are (finally) coming back: Expect bottlenecks at airports under strict entry rules – USA TODAY

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  • The United States reopens to foreign visitors from dozens of countries on Monday.
  • Airlines and CBP ​​​​​​​expect the new travel rules will lead to a spike in travel.
  • International travelers should be ready to face bottlenecks once the new travel rules go into effect.

Planning to travel internationally next week? Be prepared for busier airports and border crossings.

Airlines and U.S. Customs and Border Protection expect a spike in travel starting Monday, the day the U.S. reopens to foreign visitors from dozens of countries, and U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico reopen to nonessential travel.

Add in a slew of new entry requirements for international visitors that must be verified by airlines – proof of COVID-19 vaccination, a negative coronavirus test and attestation forms – and bottlenecks are inevitable.

“It’s going to be a bit sloppy at first, I can assure you,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said last week at a U.S. Travel Association conference. “There will be lines, unfortunately.”  

Get ready to travel ✈️, starting November 8, non-citizens traveling by air to the U.S. must:

💉be fully vaccinated

📁provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination status

✅proof of a negative COVID-19 test

Learn more about updated rules for air travel ⬇️

— Homeland Security (@DHSgov) November 3, 2021

‘Flights will be fairly full’

Airlines are prepping for a big increase in travelers eager to vacation in the United States or reunite with loved ones.

Many of Virgin Atlantic’s U.S.-bound flights on Monday, including its first flight to the U.S. that day from London to New York, are sold out, according to spokesperson Andrew Scott. 

United Airlines expects more than 30,000 people to fly into the U.S. that day.  That equates to a peak summer day for the airline. 

Most of the flights will be “fairly full,” according to spokesperson Nicole Carriere.

Delta Air Lines said many of its Monday flights to the U.S. are sold out and that planes are expected to be relatively full in the following weeks. The airline has seen a 450% increase in bookings by travelers who live outside the U.S. in the weeks since the reopening was announced, spokesperson Morgan Durrant said. The most popular destinations: New York, Atlanta, Boston and Orlando, Florida. 

British Airways is operating 26 flights to 15 destinations including New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles on Monday, flights that will now include a mix of passengers from both sides of the Atlantic instead of primarily U.S. citizens. Countries in Europe and the U.K. reopened their borders to U.S. citizens in stages and with varying entry restrictions over the summer.

► Covaxin gets green light for US travel: Travelers vaccinated with Covaxin can enter US after WHO grants emergency use listing

‘We know international travel feels a bit different now’ 

Airlines expect some international travelers to be unfamiliar with all the new rules or rusty from 20 months without an overseas flight, which could slow things down at the airport. Most are advising passengers to arrive at least three hours early.

Long lines were common in popular vacation destinations like Cancun, Mexico, earlier this year when the U.S. began requiring proof of a negative coronavirus test or recovery from the virus for all passengers flying into the country, including U.S. citizens. And there has been continuing confusion over Hawaii’s strict COVID-19 restrictions and airport lines as documents are checked.

► New US travel rules: Unvaccinated Americans to face tighter COVID testing requirements

In emails and on their websites, U.S. and foreign airlines are reminding passengers with upcoming international flights from previously banned countries about the entry restrictions and pointing them to mobile apps where they can upload vaccination proof, test results and other required information so things go smoothly at check-in.

American Airlines sends alerts to travelers about the new U.S. entry rules when they book and follows up a week, 72 hours and 24 hours before departure.

🗣 Travel Advisory:

Starting Monday, November 8, foreign national air travelers will be required to be fully vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination status prior to boarding flights to the U.S.

For more details, visit ➡️

— Kennedy Airport. Wear a Face Covering. (@JFKairport) November 5, 2021

Travelers anticipating a ‘bit of a wait’

Sam Nagy is flying from Manchester, England, to Orlando on Monday with his wife and 2-year-old for a vacation they had to reschedule four times during the pandemic.

Earlier this week, he received an email from Virgin Atlantic outlining the steps he needs to take ahead of the flight “to ensure your upcoming departure and arrival into the US goes smoothly.”

“We know international travel feels a bit different right now, with all the measures in place to ensure you fly safe and well during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the email said. “By carefully checking the entry requirements for your travel to the US and following the requirements, you’ll be all set for your journey and can start looking forward to your trip, be it for leisure, business or reuniting with loved ones.”

Nagy said via email that he expects some hassles on his first trip to the United States since 2018.

► New US travel rules: CDC says unvaccinated foreign tourists under 18 will not need to quarantine

He expects a long check-in line at the Manchester airport as some travelers struggle with their documents and a “bit of a wait” to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Orlando International Airport as that can be “hit and miss at the best of times.”

He plans to take any issues in stride on the trip to the family’s “favourite place in the world.”

Their first stop in Orlando after picking up the rental car: the Islands of Adventure theme park at Universal Orlando Resort.

“It’s become our go-to thing,” he said.

Flying into the US as travel ban is lifted? ‘Be prepared’

For U.S. citizens and international travelers from countries not subject to the travel ban, clearing the CBP process upon arrival at U.S. airports has been a relative breeze.

With a much bigger pool of travelers now eligible to visit, those lines are going to get longer especially during peak travel periods.

“Now, are you going to see an increase in wait times … because we have more people coming in,” said Aaron Bowker, director of Office of Field Operations Communications for the CBP.  

But Bowker said lines will simply begin to return to normal, not become “astronomical.”

He said CBP staffing at airports remained the same during the pandemic but workers were given different duties. With travel volume expected to increase, they will head back to the front lines as needed.

“This is nothing new for us,” Bowker said.  

► From vaccines to testing: What travelers need to know before the new US travel system on Nov. 8

Bowker said CBP can match staffing with expected crowds at airports because they know in advance how many travelers are arriving and when thanks to the airline passenger manifests it receives. 

That’s not the case at land borders since travelers arriving by car don’t make reservations.

Another big difference: CBP officers at airports will not have to check for vaccine proof or coronavirus test results because that is being handled by airlines in the departure city.

Bowker’s advice for people catching international flights to the U.S. in the near future is to be prepared and don’t expect brief pandemic wait times such as an average of 20 minutes at New York’s JFK airport.

Land border officials ask travelers to ‘be patient’

It’s a different story for CBP officers at land crossings because they will be tasked with verifying documents.

The U.S. land borders and ferry ports are set to allow travelers to pass through for nonessential reasons for the first time since March 21, 2020, so long as they are fully vaccinated. 

“For travelers making the trip to the United States, we ask that you are patient with our officers as we embark upon further reopening cross border travel,” CBP executive director of admissibility and passenger programs Matthew Davies said in a Tuesday press conference. “CBP is anticipating an increase in travel volumes and wait times across the border.”

► Who is exempt?: These select groups of unvaccinated foreign travelers can enter the US

CBP officials said even though their staff faces an impending deadline for federal vaccine mandates, the department has enough staffing to handle the uptick.

“We know and expect that there will be wait times as traffic increases but we do expect to have a full complement of staffing to handle the surge as travel resumes,” Davies said. 

The CBP suggests travelers who are crossing the border come prepared with the correct documentation in hand. Travelers can also take advantage of CBP programs such as its facial biometrics or its CBP One mobile application.

► US borders with Canada, Mexico reopen: Travelers in Mexico and Canada plan their next US visit after new land border policy announced

Which countries were included in the US travel ban? 

The U.S. first imposed travel restrictions were first imposed in early 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, and were reinstated by President Joe Biden in January after then-President Donald Trump rescinded the restrictions days before the end of his term. The country prohibits entry for most travelers from:

  • 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 and Vatican City)
  • United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)
  • Republic of Ireland
  • Brazil
  • South Africa
  • India