The Differences Between Essential and Non Essential Travel


These days, people talk a lot about essential travel versus non-essential travel. You hear people on the news all the time telling you that if you don’t have to travel, it’s best that you stay at home. You also hear plenty of information on restrictions about where you can and can’t go. It can be frustrating in the extreme because so much information is coming from so many different sources. By the time you’re done listening to it all, you probably don’t know where you can travel to or what is actually considered essential travel. It’s largely because the narrative seems to change somewhat depending on where you’re getting your information. This information overload can leave you with little more than a migraine and more confusion than you had when you started. Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place. By the time you’re finished reading this, you’ll have a much better understanding of the difference between essential and non-essential travel and why the whole thing matters.

Essential Travel Defined

Unfortunately, deciding the difference between essential and non-essential travel isn’t as easy as attaching a definition to one or the other and sticking to it. The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of different things that can potentially be considered essential travel, depending on the root cause of why you’re there. These reasons will obviously change for everyone depending on why they are traveling in the first place. While there are certainly some concrete definitions of non-essential travel (which will be discussed in the next paragraph), it’s not always as easy to define what is and is not essential. Typically speaking, truly essential travel is defined as something that you have to do because no one else is able to do it and it must be done. Let’s break that down a little bit further. Say that you have a family member that is extremely ill with something other than COVID and you’re the only person who can take care of them. If that were to happen, then you would be considered an essential traveler in most situations. The same can be true if something has happened at your primary residence or even a second home and it’s something that you must be present to deal with because you’re the only person who is capable of doing so. It would have to be something fairly major, such as major storm damage or some type of physical damage that can’t be handled via long distance. In some rare cases, you can be traveling for work and it can still be considered essential. That isn’t likely to be the case if you work in a boardroom, but it certainly might be the case if you are a healthcare worker or you’re involved with the delivery of medical supplies. There are also other times when travel might be essential because it simply cannot be avoided for one reason or another. It may not always fit a textbook definition, yet a situation might present itself where it is indeed necessary for you to travel because it’s something that you simply can’t put off or get out of. That said, essential travel does not include traveling just because you want to or because you’re tired of staying at home.

Special Circumstances and Non-Essential Travel

Did you know that there are sometimes special circumstances which are considered essential travel that might surprise you? One involves the necessity to travel when you are a graduate student and you’re working on your research project or your thesis. If you absolutely have to travel in order to gather information or oversee your project and you can’t get an extension, then this is typically considered acceptable. It’s also something that shocks a lot of people, especially when you consider the fact that people have been working from home for months now, business deals are not going through, yet graduate students are allowed to travel in order to oversee their projects. That’s the thing about determining the difference between essential and non-essential travel. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense. In fact, there are more than a few times where it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. Things become even more confusing when you realize there are some states that are essentially allowing people to flock to tourist destinations and travel to certain locations almost exclusively for tourism purposes, yet other states are refusing to let anyone have access into their borders without proof of not only the COVID vaccine, but also in negative test that has been conducted within the last 48 hours. In short, every single state has their own rules and in many cases, individual municipalities within those states have rules that are different still. This can make it almost impossible to figure out what you are supposed to be doing on your end. As a matter of fact, it’s so confusing that it has a lot of travelers taking one of two extremes. On the one hand, they have a tendency to merely throw their hands up in the air and decide that they’re not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. All the while, people on the other side of the spectrum are making an active decision to move forward with their travel plans because the rules are so confusing that they eventually decide to just go for it and see what happens.

CDC Recommendations

Of course, the CDC is still recommending (even now, after vaccines have been available all these months) that you don’t travel anywhere unless you absolutely have to do so. Again, it makes it hard to figure out what is considered essential and non-essential. That’s especially true when you realize that some people seem to be moving forward in their circles as if things were almost back to normal, yet others seem to have slammed on the brakes and come to a screeching halt once again. One of the issues that surround a lot of CDC recommendations is that they are clear as mud. The agency hasn’t helped themselves throughout this entire pandemic by recommending that people do one thing and then turning around and reversing course, sometimes as little as 24 hours. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of people have more or less stopped listening to their recommendations because they feel that there is a certain amount of misinformation being given and this causes issues with trust. Even people who are trying to follow the recommendations to the letter often don’t know what those regulations are because they change so quickly. It doesn’t help that there are so many of them. What’s perfectly acceptable in one location isn’t acceptable in another. To make matters even more confusing, what’s considered normal business as usual today may completely change by this time tomorrow so that you have to adapt to a whole new set of regulations. At the same time, you have people that are on the news telling you that much more strict regulations are going to be put in place because the numbers are climbing again instead of going in the right direction, yet none of those restrictions are going to take place until after Christmas. That begs the question, if things are so bad right now, why are we allowed to do whatever we want for the next two weeks, only to be plunged into another lockdown? There is so much information coming in that just doesn’t make sense. That fact, coupled with what is often referred to as compassion fatigue, when someone has heard about the same subject for months and months, are combining to make a lot of people decide to carry on with travel plans with little or no thought to any of this.

Ever-Changing Restrictions

One of the things that makes it so hard to determine what’s acceptable and what isn’t is the fact that everything about COVID is changing on a minute-by-minute basis. That’s especially true with a new Omicron variant that is taking the world by storm. People don’t know what to expect so there is a lot of talk of more restrictions and even the possibility of lockdowns becoming a reality yet again. At the moment, the federal government in the United States is defining non-essential travel as anything that involves traveling merely for pleasure. In short, if you’re traveling for fun and it isn’t something that’s related to your job or for educational purposes, then there is a potential that you could be restricted from traveling. Again, a lot of decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. The only thing that’s constant here is that there is almost never one rule that fits every situation. It’s highly likely that as things continue to evolve with the virus, even more restrictions will come into place, but it’s not likely that those restrictions will be put in place for everyone across the board. A lot of it has to do with what a person does for a job and whether or not that particular job is continuing to move forward with what they’re doing. By the same token, people who are over 60 years of age or under five years of age are told that they shouldn’t be traveling, even when it is essential, in much the same way that people who have pre-existing health conditions are being told to stay home regardless of the circumstances at hand.

International Travel

If you think that things are confusing while traveling right here in the United States, it gets even more confusing when you start talking about traveling abroad. You may or may not be allowed to board an aircraft that’s going to a destination overseas. There are so many moving parts that it’s almost impossible to tell right up until your plane is ready to takeoff. For starters, you have to have proof that you had a vaccination and in all likelihood, you will eventually have to show proof that you’ve had the booster shot. In many cases, you also have to show proof that you had a negative test within the last 48 hours. Depending on where you’re going, you may or may not be allowed to board the plane. Even if you are, you still might be forced to self isolate for anywhere from 10 to 14 days after your aircraft lands before you’re allowed to be out and about in the public. It changes with respect to each destination. More importantly, it changes on a weekly or sometimes even daily basis, depending on how things are going with the way the virus is behaving. In short, you might get away with traveling overseas right now, but two weeks from now, you might be told that it simply isn’t something that can be done. Your best course of action is to look up the information on a daily basis with regard to your specific destination.

As you can see, determining the difference between essential and non-essential travel isn’t always easy. Even if you’re not on an aircraft, it is not always as cut-and-dried as it might seem at first. People travel to go to the shops and get food so their families can eat. They travel so they can go to work in order to make money. Not every job is a job that can be done from home. By the same token, people still have to keep up with medical appointments, veterinary appointments for their pets, so on and so forth. By the same token, you still have public events going on, with municipalities encouraging people to come to these events, even as government officials are telling you not to attend them. It’s confusing in the extreme, even to the point of being absolutely maddening. At the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to making up your own mind and asking yourself hard questions about whether or not your travel plans are absolutely necessary.

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