Aerial view of the National Mall in Washington, DC

How the Government Shutdown May Affect Your Travel Plans

By now, you must be well aware of the partial US government shutdown, now the longest shutdown in American history. Before we can discuss how this affects travelers, it’s important to understand how we arrived here. Of course, there are a lot of complexities involved, but it all revolves around a wall that could inflict harm on a great number of people as well as on the environment and wildlife.

To start, this is a partial government shutdown because some agencies were funded for the 2019 fiscal year with legislation passed earlier in 2018. For those agencies that didn’t receive funding through earlier appropriations and their more than 800,000 employees, they have been left out in the cold because the president refuses to sign legislation that doesn’t include $5 billion to fund the construction of a wall along the southern border of the United States.

More than $1.3 billion has been offered by congressional leaders for other border security measures, but the president insists that only a wall will protect the country from migrants crossing the border—many fleeing gang wars, government persecution, and domestic violence to seek asylum (something that can only be requested once at the border). To the president and his supporters, this is a “crisis” that endangers our national security and needs to be addressed immediately, insisting that a border wall is the only way to do this. We use “crisis” in quotation marks because the reality is that there is no crisis in the national security sense, just a humanitarian one–which the wall would further worsen.

The more than 800,000 federal workers not receiving their paychecks aren’t the only people affected. The wide-reaching implications of the shutdown mean nearly every American will be affected in some way. Here, we break down some of the travel-related issues that may infringe your upcoming plans.


Two planes flying at sunset

Air Travel

The partial government shutdown means many federal workers have been furloughed without pay. But for many more deemed “essential,” they are required to still work even though they aren’t receiving their paycheck. Some of these people help protect millions moving through airports daily.

TSA. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for airport and airplane security. And while they are still required to show up for duty, many more than usual are calling in sick, meaning many airports are short staffed. Safety will not be compromised because of this—the men and women of the TSA will do their jobs to ensure passengers are well checked; however, if you’re flying during the shutdown, expect it to take longer to get through security checkpoints. To avoid having to rush for your flight, consider arriving at the airport earlier than you might normally.

ATC. TSA agents aren’t the only airport workers impacted by the shutdown; Air Traffic Control (ATC) also has controllers working through the shutdown without pay. And while controllers will continue to advise and guide flights, there was already a shortage of air traffic controllers before the shutdown. The shutdown has led the Federal Aviation Administration to close its training academy, which means the staffing shortage will continue. Controllers were already overworked, and with the shutdown worsening the situation, the heavier workload may lead to delayed flights. This may impact your arrival time or connecting flight.

FAA and NTSB. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are both shuttered during the shutdown, and this means inspections and investigations are affected. Many of the agents who work for these departments aren’t working at all, meaning vital checks on aircraft safety aren’t happening. The FAA employs aviation safety inspectors who are charged with “oversight of operations at airlines and repair shops.” They certify planes for flight and ensure that airplane maintenance is properly performed. NTSB agents are responsible for investigating aircraft incidents, as well as any incidents throughout the transportation sector. Investigations they perform lead to changes in regulations, and sometimes, structural changes to aircraft in order to improve airplane and flight safety.

Does this mean that flying is less safe? Not completely; it just means that the extra layer of protection inspectors provide to make sure procedures and regulations are met will be missing and left to the airlines, maintenance workers, and pilots. The airline maintenance workers are well-trained and work hard every day to make sure a plane is airworthy, and they will continue to do so. Pilots are also responsible for pre-flight checks, which includes a visual inspection of the entire plane. They, too, have families to go home to and will always do what they can to ensure you get home to yours. That being said, it’s inevitable that the longer the shutdown goes on, the more this may become a serious safety issue.


US Passport on a map of the United States

Travel Documentation

Passports and Visas. If you’re planning to travel abroad for the first time this year and you don’t have your passport, or if you need to renew the one you do have, you should start the application process as soon as you can. While State Department workers are included in the government shutdown, many are still working, and the State Department has said that the processing of passport applications and visas (if you’re a foreign national visiting or living in the US) will continue as long as funding collected from their fees covers operating costs.

This means your applications should be processed within the normal timeline of four to six weeks; however, it’s quite realistic to expect delays, and if the shutdown continues, this could eventually take much longer. If you need a passport for an upcoming trip, don’t procrastinate. And for those with a passport already, think about any upcoming trips and make sure your passport will be valid beyond your visit (many countries require at least 6 months validity beyond your trip).

If you need to visit a passport office in person, make sure you call ahead. While some of these offices will still be open, if they are housed in a federal building affected by the shutdown, they may be closed to the public. The State Department will still operate three of their passport and visa hotlines, so if you have any questions or concerns, give them a call:

Global Entry. If you’ve submitted (or were planning to submit) an application for Global Entry status, you may have to wait for the shutdown to end in order to obtain it. While many of their staff are furloughed, the Department of Homeland Security has announced that they are not accepting any applications. Additionally, many who have already applied, have had their interviews canceled. So, expect there to be a significant delay in the processing of your application and build in extra time to get through customs. This halt does not affect the TSA PreCheck though, as operating costs are covered by collected fees.


Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

National Parks

The partial government shutdown drastically affects the National Park Service (NPS), the agency responsible for maintaining national parks across the country. Almost all NPS employees have been furloughed, leaving only a skeleton crew to maintain the beauty and health of your favorite outdoor sites, provide education to protect visitors, and monitor behavior. Unlike the 2013 shutdown when all parks were closed, many parks have been kept open this time, despite not having enough staff. This is because, during the previous shutdown, some groups made a big stink about not being able to access national park sites, such as the war memorials on the National Mall. The results this time around? A detrimental impact to the environment in and around America’s parks as many still chose to visit—and don’t bother to pick up after themselves.

Even when fully operational, visitors should always try to minimize their impact on nature and wildlife. Unfortunately, without a fully-operational staff, trash is piling up (as is human feces on some roads) and outhouses and other facilities are overflowing with waste. People are vandalizing and damaging resources as well. The long-term effects of this limited maintenance are not fully known yet, but it is clear that it will take some time for these pristine natural wonders to bounce back. These sites were already suffering from a backlog of maintenance and care due to a lack of funding and a staffing shortage; the shutdown will only make it worse.

Because the lack of care paid by many visitors is already more than can be handled, some parks are starting to close to prevent further damage or blocking visitors from some parts for the remainder of the shutdown. This includes camping sites and other areas of popular winter destinations Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park. Some states are stepping in to provide emergency funding to their national parks: among them, Arizona is funding trash collection for the Grand Canyon, New York is making sure the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island remain accessible, and Puerto Rico is funding up to two weeks of operations for the San Juan National Historic Site. There are also groups across the country volunteering to help clean up these national treasures.

If you absolutely must go—we get it; you’ve had this trip planned for months—and your destination is still open, be respectful and vigilant of your footprint. Practice “Leave No Trace” principles and use common sense. Don’t be the Ugly American while here at home—don’t leave your trash anywhere in the park, no leaving your feces on the roads (we can’t believe this has to be said), try not to use the restrooms, don’t camp within the park, etc. And whatever you do, don’t be these jerks (seriously, who chops down trees in a national park?)!

But even though national parks are open, if you can cancel that trip, consider not visiting for the remainder of the shutdown. The strain on these natural resources may be too great. We know you want to visit some of the great places our country has to offer, but consider the greater impact of your visit before making those plans, especially if the government shutdown continues for much longer. Instead, look for some hidden gems or visit the state and local parks that remain fully operational.

By the way, if you’re in DC, this shutdown affects the National Mall. Don’t visit, and if you do, be respectful and stop leaving your trash everywhere.


Planes at the National Air and Space Museum, a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC
Planes at the National Air and Space Museum, a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC

Smithsonian and Other Federal Landmarks

If you are in the DC area or plan to visit, then you know some of the most popular tourist attractions are operated by the Smithsonian Institution, which is a federal organization. This means that many of the city’s incredible museums and the National Zoo are shuttered due to the government shutdown. The National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African History and Culture, and the National Portrait Gallery, among others, will be closed for the duration. 

This doesn’t mean you won’t have anything to do in the city. In fact, there are so many activities, sites, and museums that may normally be overlooked by the big names, and now is the best time to check them out. DC by Foot has a list of sites that remain open (this link also has a handy list of sites that will be closed in DC and around the country), and don’t forget to do some additional research on hidden gems around the city. While the government is shut down, the tourism sector of this city is suffering. Don’t let the shutter of federal sites stop you from visiting local shops and restaurants, especially around these tourist areas. Livelihoods depend on your patronage.  

Of course, the Smithsonian isn’t only located in DC. The institution has three other museums, two of which are in New York City, that will be closed. And the federal government has jurisdiction over other historical landmarks and museums around the country, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, PA, and the Statue of Liberty in New York City, NY. Some states are taking on the additional costs to maintain operations, such as with the Statue of Liberty, while others will be closed for the duration, as is the case with Independence Hall. Be sure to check if your destination is affected. 


These are just some of the ways the partial government shutdown is affecting everyday Americans and visitors from around the world. If the shutdown continues, there may be more ways travel is affected and closures could expand. If you’re planning to visit somewhere, make sure you do your research early—make sure your sites are open, apply for any documents you may need, and give yourself plenty of time at the airport. But hopefully, the government shutdown will end soon with a deal that doesn’t include destroying natural ecosystems and wildlife, and that won’t harm anyone attempting to seek legal asylum so that they can have a better life and contribute to our society in beautiful ways.


Has the government shutdown affected your travel plans? Let us know how in the comments.


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2 thoughts on “How the Government Shutdown May Affect Your Travel Plans”

  1. In the future leave politics out of your posts. It’s likely that half the country disagrees with you, whatever the issue. So all you do is shoot yourselves in the foot.

    Your take could just as easily and accurately have been written “…but it all revolves around a wall the absence of which has inflicted harm on a great number of people, including many Americans…”

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