Ted Cruz made headlines last week when the junior senator from Texas was spotted flying to Cancun, Mexico, while his home state was battling a crippling winter storm. 

A quick weekend trip with family and friends quickly became a political scandal as Cruz had planned to stay abroad for multiple days instead of returning right back to Texas, where millions of his constituents struggled without power and water. The senator promptly changed his flight and returned home after being discovered. But Cruz was not the first American seeking to escape the harsh realities of daily life during the pandemic by traveling to Mexico, and he won’t be the last. 

US citizens flying south of the border for vacation has been a common practice since the early days of the health crisis, despite all the warnings against non-essential travel. 

One of the few countries open to Americans

The onset of the pandemic saw most nations take the drastic step of closing their borders to the world, with countless remaining closed today. As of late November, an Insider investigation found that less than 100 countries had reopened their borders to Americans and some had instituted strict parameters for travelers, including a negative COVID-19 test taken before departure and upon arrival.

But even as the US, Mexico, and Canada agreed to close their shared land borders to non-essential travel at the pandemic’s peak, a loophole continues to allow air travelers to cross both borders. Travelers arriving in Canada are faced with a quarantine and testing requirement while those bound for Mexico do not have to endure either, opening travel opportunities to the latter. 

For the most part, Americans never experienced a lack of air travel options to Mexico even as the pandemic shuttered countless global air links and the land border remained closed throughout. 

No COVID-19 testing required

Traveling to Mexico during the pandemic is actually easier than traveling between some American states. In New York, for example, most arriving travelers must produce a recent negative COVID-19 test to avoid the state’s mandatory quarantine, with National Guardsmen even patrolling some New York airports and stopping passengers at their arrival gate to ensure compliance. 

No such arrangement exists in Mexico, a country largely dependent on American tourism for revenue. Health screenings may be performed upon arrival in certain circumstances, according to the US Embassy in Mexico, but Americans need not produce a negative test as a prerequisite for entry into Mexico. 

Ryan Ewing, the founder and president of the aviation news website AirlineGeeks, traveled to Mexico twice during the pandemic with no issues getting in or out. 

“Mexico was a safe vacation spot for me,” Ewing, who flew to Mexico in July and December, told Insider. “Access was easy and straightforward with a small health form to fill out and no additional quarantine measures, unlike some U.S. states which require stringent testing measures.”

The US Embassy says the additional health checks may include a temperature screening and passengers showing symptoms may be required to quarantine. 

Cheap flights galore

Air travel has seen a drop in demand that rivals the worst economic periods in American history, leading to some seriously low prices for airfare. Those needing to take to the skies have likely been paying some of the lowest rates in their lifetime on normally expensive routes, especially those to Mexico. 

As Scott Keyes, founder of the flight deal website Scott’s Cheap Flights, noted on Twitter, a last-minute flight from Cancun to Houston on United, the same routing and airline as Cruz, could be had for as little as $101 on the day of the senator’s return.

With rates like that, it’s no surprise that Cruz found himself without a complimentary upgrade to business class as a United Airlines elite status holder. 

Airlines have been shifting their focus to leisure destinations and have often been dropping the price of tickets to encourage travel, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against non-essential travel. Non-stop flights from New York to Cancun can be found for as low as $130 one-way and from Los Angeles as low as $106, at the time of writing. 

A breakdown of a similarly priced $102.11 fare from Cancun to Houston for February 22 on United shows the airline is only bringing in around $30 in airfare while the rest is taxes and fees that go to the US and Mexican governments. 

What airlines lose in airfare, however, they hope to make up for by selling extras. The $102 basic economy fare doesn’t include items like checked baggage allowance, advance seat assignments, and other ancillary products that airlines want to sell as the revenue generated isn’t taxed. 

New CDC testing requirements force travelers to adjust plans

The CDC, however, began requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test for entry into the US in late January to prevent the importation of the virus from abroad. Inbound arrivals, including American citizens, now need to show they tested negative for the virus within the three calendar days leading up to their US-bound flight. 

The requirement has affected airlines flying to international leisure destinations, including Mexico.

“The demand trends have not really changed much in most places, including overseas,” Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, said in a recent earnings call in response to a question about the CDC’s order. “Where they have changed is in the Mexican beach resort destinations and certain Caribbean resort destinations.”

Some foreign resorts and hotels, as a result, now offer COVID-19 testing to help travelers easily secure a test in compliance with the new rules, as Insider’s Brittany Chang outlined in January. 

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