(CNN) — The announcement that vaccinated foreign nationals will be allowed back into the US in November after an 18-month ban was welcome news for families struggling with cross-border separations, airlines itching to relaunch long-haul routes, and eager tourists and industry insiders. Trip planning is already in the works, too: According to newly released data from travel booking platform Hopper, user searches for all US-bound international flights rose by 27% on September 20, the date of the announcement, from the day prior, while searches for flights from Europe to the US spiked 68%.
But as excited as US-bound travelers may be to reunite with loved ones, attend an IRL business conference or snap selfies in front of landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, they should be equally prepared for a travel experience that's vastly different these days -- and still constantly changing.
First, there are new entry restrictions.
All foreign nationals must show proof of vaccination and a negative test taken within three days prior to the trip (unvaccinated US citizens, meanwhile, will be required to undergo more rigorous testing), as well as comply with enhanced contract tracing measures.
On the ground, safety and health regulations that vary wildly from sea to shining sea (staunchly anti-mask states like Florida versus state mask mandates and vaccine requirements for indoor dining and other activities in New York, for example) are all but guaranteed to generate confusion.
A patchwork of safety measures
"As Europeans, when we think of the US, we think of one big country," said Catherine Chaulet, a Boston-based French-American dual citizen who's president and CEO of Global DMC Partners, a network of independently owned destination management companies.
"And the reality is, it is many different states with many different personalities, and it will show in health and sanitation protocols more than ever."
Further complicating the picture are critical entry guidelines not yet announced by US government and health officials, namely how it will assess and verify vaccination status. For example, digital certificates, also known as vaccine passports, which are popular in many countries across the world, haven't yet taken hold in the US.
Incoming travelers must be "fully vaccinated," which according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes those who have received vaccines approved for use in the US as well as those listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization that may not yet have received such approval in the US, such as the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The bottom line? While the ban being lifted is "good news, it's still a very stressful and awkward time to travel," notes Robert Cottey, a London-based analyst at A2 Global Risk, an international security risk management firm. "Travelers shouldn't anticipate anything like pre-pandemic travel, not at this stage."
Here's what else travelers headed to the US for the first time in a while should anticipate, plus insider tips for a trip that's as safe and smooth as possible (hint: be sure to pack extra patience).
Visitors are likely to find smaller cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, less crowded as the US reopens its borders.
Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images
More people in popular destinations
Hungry to take a bite out of the Big Apple or spot A-listers in Los Angeles? Join the crowd: Domestic tourism in popular US destinations is already rebounding (remember Hawaii's governor advising tourists to stop coming in August?), even before overseas travelers return to beloved hotspots they've missed.
Smaller metropolitan destinations, sometimes known as "second-tier" cities, can offer an enticing alternative with a uniquely "American" flavor and fewer crowds, says Mario Tricoci, founder and CEO of Aparium Hotel Group, based in Chicago.
"Now's the time to stay in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis or Kansas City and visit somewhere where you normally wouldn't think about," Tricoci tells CNN. "They have a different culture. They've got that entrepreneurial underpinning. And the culinary scenes in many of these cities are world-class -- they're just as good as the restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco."
Get your wallet ready
Industry insiders say that increased demand from international travelers could drive prices for hotel rooms and vacation rentals higher this season, when domestic holiday bookings are already robust in many US markets.
According to the latest data from rental management software firm Guesty, reservation volume for vacation rentals in November and December is a whopping 377% higher compared to 2020, and 91% higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Meanwhile, the average nightly rental rate over Thanksgiving is $415, a 58% increase from 2019, and average Christmas rates in 2021 are $599, representing a sizable jump from their $332/night average in 2019.
All of which means that long-awaited Thanksgiving family reunion at a ritzy vacation rental, priceless as it may be, could put a serious dent in your holiday budget.
Tourists are finally returning, but the US hospitality and tourism industry is still struggling to fill millions of jobs for laid-off cashiers, front desk staff, housekeepers and other employees who left the sector for work elsewhere. As a result, customers may notice longer lines for check-ins and scaled-back amenities like daily housekeeping.
In light of those widespread labor shortages, Tricoci encouraged travelers accustomed to the high level of customer service the US hospitality industry has traditionally been known for to manage their expectations, a sentiment echoed by many of his peers.
At the same time, he noted that the impending arrival of foreign guests offers another incentive for the industry to adapt to its staffing shortages. "At the end of the day, they're traveling, they're spending money, and it's up to us to solve the issue," he tells CNN.
Rental cars for visitors to Florida and other popular destinations may be hard to come by.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Rental cars are in shorter supply, too
Visitors craving a quintessential American road trip (or simply an added layer of protection from coronavirus exposure) may have to pump the brakes on those plans, thanks to an ongoing rental car shortage that experts warn could again be problematic this winter, especially in warm-weather destinations like Florida and Hawaii. Michael Meyer, president of Rate-Highway, which provides car rental real-time rate management intelligence, advises anyone needing a rental car to book ASAP -- and pre-pay if possible, noting the ongoing supply shortage is likely to continue with the increased demand from international customers.
"Prepaid is not a 100% guarantee, but most operators will prioritize these rental types over pay-upon-arrival rentals," Meyer told CNN via email.
Navigating differing (and confusing) health regulations and protocols
One key resource for anyone planning to travel to the US: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's county-level coronavirus data tracker, which provides helpful data about case numbers in specific counties, as well as local mandates and hospitalizations. More difficult to make sense of, however, are differing state regulations for vaccination and mask requirements. And mandates are also common on the city level -- places including New York City, San Francisco and New Orleans have their own vaccination requirements for certain indoor spaces, including restaurants.
Restaurants in New Orleans and some other US cities require proof of vaccination.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
In federally regulated spaces like airports and on airplanes, masks are mandatory, as well as on regional and local transport like trains and subways. But the actual enforcement at places like hotels is tricky to assess from afar -- which is where a travel advisor or agent can be invaluable.
"As a travel advisor, my job is to be able to gauge the comfort level of my client and to know not only the destination, but the properties themselves," said Maria Diego, co-founder of Miami-based luxury travel agency Diego Travel.
"Who has taken this down time to renovate and innovate versus who has let things deteriorate? I'm able to stay up to date with what the hotels are truly enforcing, because I have access to agencies that are constantly doing site inspections. It's one thing to put on your website your policies, and it's another thing to practice it."
Limited options for testing
Many Europeans are accustomed to quick, inexpensive (or free) Covid-19 tests, with multiple testing centers in major cities. And while testing capability is expanding in the US, including at-home options, it's not quite as convenient, especially in rural areas, as some overseas visitors may be used to. Advance planning is a must for obtaining necessary test results in adequate time before a return trip.
In addition, overseas visitors will need to remember that all passengers, including children two years of age and over, entering the US also will be required to show a negative test. That's a marked difference from many countries in Europe and elsewhere, which generally exempt children under the age of 12.
In addition, don't forget that with the Delta variant surging, the EU in early September dropped the US from its safe list, with some countries imposing a ban on nonessential travel from there. As a result, travelers returning to their home countries from the US may be subject to quarantines, extra testing or other potential complications.
Flexibility continues to be key
As celebrated as the news of the relaxed entry restrictions into the US has been for the travel industry, its related complexities underscore a point that industry insiders continue to emphasize: No matter where they're headed, travelers must stay as flexible (booking refundable airfare, lodging and other expenses) and informed (staying on top of rules) as possible.
"Changes can happen in the blink of an eye," Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director of consumer advocacy nonprofit Elliott Advocacy, tells CNN. "Even if the US is intending, at least as of now, to allow vaccinated international travelers entry starting in November, there is no guarantee that it will actually come to fruition or for how long. If Covid taught us anything, it's to be prepared for the unexpected."