Another September, another government shutdown threat. If Congress fails to approve the spending bills necessary to keep the government running, or if they fail to pass a continuing resolution, at the stroke of midnight on 30 September the government will shut down. But not really. At least...not completely. Non-essential government employees will be furloughed, but essential services will continue, and that means minimal impact for most travel.
Perhaps the biggest travel impact will be on tourists planning to visit any of the national parks. During government shutdowns most National Park Service employees are furloughed, and that means the national parks will likely be closed for the duration of the shutdown . If your travel plans include a visit to a national park, it is a good idea to defer your travel if you can until the impasse is resolved. If you’ve already booked that trip of a lifetime to Hawaii and were hoping to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, you may be disappointed. The Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which includes the USS Arizona, is part of the National Park System, and during past government shutdowns it was closed. If you can’t completely defer your national park travel plans, the next best thing is to flex your schedule and put the national park visit as late in your trip as you can. Most government shutdowns don't last long, so if you can defer your visit even by just a few days you might get lucky. Of course, once a shutdown starts there is never a guarantee as to when it will end.
International travel will continue through a government shutdown, but it won’t be without impact. Mostly what you will encounter is longer than usual lines and wait times at border control points. Immigration and customs agents are considered essential employees, but the administrative staff that supports them aren’t. When those non-essential employees are furloughed, critical administrative functions will fall to the remaining essential employees, taking some of them off their duties of processing incoming and outgoing travelers. Each border point will be responsible for determining how they manage their local workforce, with could mean some curtailment of services such as airport TSA Pre-check and Global Entry as well as fewer agents stamping passports.
Another impact to international travel involves getting a passport. If you are waiting for a passport or passport renewal to be processed, a government shutdown may make that wait even longer. During the last government shutdown, the U.S. Passport Agency remained open and continued to issue passports, and that isn’t expected to change this time around. However, in true government fashion some passport services are performed in buildings run by another agency that is shut down, and those services won’t continue during a shutdown.
With the State Department’s current passport processing backlog, any curtailment in one area will have an effect throughout the system. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the Passport Agency uses the U.S. Postal Service to deliver applications and completed passports. The USPS is an independent entity that is self-funded, so as long as your passport makes it from the Passport Agency to the mail, a government shutdown won’t impact its delivery to you.
Perhaps the greatest unknown impact will be to air travel. Air traffic controllers are considered essential employees and they will continue to work throughout any government shutdown. But as with the immigration and customs agents, administrative tasks normally performed by employees considered non-essential will fall to the essential employees to execute. And that means some air traffic controllers will be taken off of their primary duties of managing the nation’s skies to manage the critical administrative functions necessary to keep their operations running. You can expect that to translate into more flight delays and cancellations.
If there is a government shutdown and you experience a disruption to your air travel, don’t expect the airlines to help you out beyond rebooking you on another flight. Airlines are not obligated to provide hotels or meals for delays and cancellations that occur due to factors beyond their control, and a government shutdown is beyond their control.
You may or may not get help with travel disruptions from your trip insurance. Travel insurance companies vary in how they treat claims for travel disruptions caused by a government shutdown. It is best to check with your provider on the specifics of your policy before you travel. For TravelSafe, the third-party trip insurance we sell, a government shutdown is generally considered a covered event, but claims will still be subject to the coverage limits spelled out in each policy.
Travel during a government shutdown can be frustrating, but planes, trains, and ships will continue to come and go, and the nation's borders will remain open. Delays are possible...maybe even likely, but there is nothing you can do about that.
I’m cautiously optimistic Congress will come to their senses and avoid yet another government shutdown. But if they fail to do so and you have plans to travel the first week or two of October, be sure to pack your patience.