The spread of coronavirus has us all full of questions. But as news of travel bans and outbreaks in several countries hit the headlines, those holding plane tickets are particularly worried about what they should do.
If that’s you, your decision to cancel or reschedule your trip will largely depend on your destination and the risk you’re willing to take. Now, if you choose not to travel, know that a myriad of factors will determine your chance of a refund, and most of them are out of your control.
No matter your choice or your plans, chances are you’re just as confused as everyone else. Worry not, fellow traveler—we’re here to answer your questions.
What does the U.S. government say about travel right now?
Just because you have a plane ticket booked does not mean you have to cancel your trip. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been adamant that not all travelers should terminate their plans, and have said your decision should depend solely on whether or not you consider being really close to hundreds—if not thousands—of people an informed risk. To help passengers, the CDC has sorted destinations into three risk levels according to the severity of each particular outbreak. Any place that is not on this list is safe to visit, the CDC says.
As of March 4rh, the only place with a level 1 travel notice—the lowest—is Hong Kong. This means you don’t have to cancel or postpone your trips there, but you should exercise routine precautions to avoid infection: wash your hands thoroughly and often, avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose, and stay away from anyone who’s sick. Japan is the only country in alert level 2, which advises older adults and people with chronic conditions to consult with their healthcare providers as to whether or not they should go abroad. Travelers should be most wary of traveling to places listed in warning level 3, which includes destinations the CDC recommends not traveling to unless absolutely necessary. This category is populated by China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy.
Now, these are not travel bans—you can absolutely visit these places if you want to. In fact, you can open a new tab in your browser right now and buy non-stop tickets to Milan or Beijing. The CDC’s risk levels are just recommendations that you can choose to follow or not, depending on how you want to play the odds. What you should keep in mind is that you run a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 in all of these places, which could mean being quarantined and missing your flight back home.
The CDC’s recommendations also apply when any listed countries are part of your travel itinerary, but not your final destination. If you have layovers in Italian or South Korean airports, for example, the CDC recommends finding alternative routes. If this is not an option, you should stay in the airport and take routine precautions.
Meanwhile, the State Department has an interactive map on their website where you can see their recommendations for every country in the world—and sometimes even regions within the same country. On the map, regions with the highest warning level are colored red, and clicking on them will give you more information as to why they’ve gained that status.
Keep in mind that the State Department uses COVID-19 risk as just one of its parameters for labeling a country—most are red for political reasons, and others, like Italy, are not red at all. Still, in the context of COVID-19, the White House has issued travel bans for anyone entering the US who visited China or Iran in the past 14 days.
How do I find out the latest on cancellations and travel bans?
Yes, there’s a lot of information out there, and because it changes within days, if not hours, it’s hard to keep up.
The best way to keep track of all State Department regulation and advisory notices is to follow the agency on Facebook and Twitter, but it also has other platforms you can check regularly. The CDC has a strong social media presence, too, but you can go further and get them to email you live updates by signing up for their COVID-19 newsletter. Setting Google Alerts and following certain topics on Twitter are also great ways to get everything delivered to you.
If you’re about to leave for the airport, you can always check for live updates on cancelled flights all over the world at Flightware.com, where you can also see their misery map. Another way to get push notifications on your phone about your upcoming flights is to download the app for the airline you’re flying, or to add your flight information to your calendar. On Android phones, the Google Assistant will proactively notify you if something about your flight has changed. On iPhones, Siri will similarly keep you updated when you add your boarding pass to your wallet.
So, you decided to travel. What now?
What precautions should I take in busy transit hubs?
Airports congregate a huge number of people from all over the world, so no matter the city or country you’re in, it’s a good idea to take some precautions against COVID-19.
But, contrary to what you might think, these precautions are nothing special. They’re just the CDC’s basic recommendations on how to avoid COVID-19. If you need a reminder, here’s the shortlist:
- Don’t wear face masks—these are only recommended for people who are actually sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Cover your coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using any regular household cleaning product. Having portable disinfectant wipes in your bag at all times is a good idea when you’re away from home.
- Wash your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. Use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds, but if you need special instructions for this—most people do—here’s a thorough guide.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60 to 95 percent alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Does COVID-19 act or spread differently on planes than it does on cruise ships?
Yes. Airplanes and cruise ships are both enclosed vessels, but they differ in that aircraft environments are much more controlled. According to the CDC, most viruses and germs don’t spread easily on airplanes because of how air circulates and is filtered.
And it’s also a matter of odds, really. The population on a large cruise is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 people (not including the crew), whereas a trans-Atlantic flight from New York City to London on a British Airways 747, for example, will only have around 300 passengers on board.
Because cruise ships house a larger number of people who are in frequent and close contact with each other, getting COVID-19 from an infected person is statistically more likely. Still, the CDC’s preventive guidelines for crew members and passengers do not differ much from the basic ones we should all be following.
And even though the likelihood of infection while flying is low, don’t think you should forgo preventive measures. The biggest risk you run on an airplane is close contact with sick passengers, especially because you don’t have much control over where you sit. If you find yourself in this situation, know that flying on the same plane as a COVID-19 patient doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be infected—it’s all about proximity.
According to the CDC, you’re at medium risk of infection if you’re seated in the immediate radius of a sick person—up to two seats in every direction (about 6 feet). Anywhere beyond that is considered low to very low risk.
If you’re still nervous about sharing an closed environment with so many people for a handful of hours, know the same preventive guidelines apply here as in any other situation. And disinfectant wipes and alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol are always good ideas.
What do I do if I can't get back into the country?
Unfortunately, this is the kind of question that falls into no man’s land, mainly because there are a lot of reasons why you might not be able to return to the US after traveling. The main one, according to Pauline Frommer, a travel expert and editorial director of Frommer’s guidebooks, is a lack of coordination between the U.S. government and service providers such as airlines.
“The Trump administration has, in the past, been very unorganized in the way it has dealt with the travel industry,” she says. “Look at what they did with [the travel ban to] Cuba—instead of giving cruise ships advanced warning that they were going to disallow a travel to Cuba, they instituted the ban overnight.”
That announcement caught thousands of people midway to the Caribbean island and many ships had to turn around or house passengers on board for way longer than expected before everything was sorted and they could return to the US.
There’s no telling how the virus will continue to spread, what measures governments will take, or how they’ll impact Americans abroad. If you’re traveling and the country or city you’re in gets quarantined, your safest bet is to follow instructions from local authorities and, if possible, ask for help at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. If the airline you’re flying abruptly cancels flights back home, they have to provide a solution. Whether that’s an alternate flight itinerary or another method of transportation will depend on the reasons why your original flight was cancelled. From here on out, it’s just a guessing game.
What should you do if you get sick overseas?
First of all, be extremely careful not to spread the disease any further. Seek medical attention and avoid contact with people as much as possible. If you have to go outside, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and cover your nose and mouth. Wear a mask if you can—this is the right situation for one. After that, you’re in the hands of local authorities and subject to whatever measures they’re taking with infected patients—possibly quarantine in a specific facility or some other kind of isolation. Then you should notify the nearest local embassy or consulate about your condition.
American COVID-19 patients on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined in Japan, and other U.S. citizens in other parts of the world, have been repatriated by the State Department. However, it is important to know that if you get sick while abroad, you may not be able to count on the agency coming to the rescue.
“While the U.S. government has successfully evacuated hundreds of our citizens in recent weeks. Such repatriation flights do not reflect our standard practice and should not be relied upon as an option for U.S. citizens under potential risk of quarantine by local authorities,” Ian G. Brownlee, the secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, said at a CDC press conference on February 21.
American citizens are still under the care of local officials in Japan, so it’s still unclear what boxes must be checked for repatriation.
I’m going to a country that hasn’t had any cases of COVID-19 yet. Should I still worry?
No. According to the CDC, you should still follow the general prevention guidelines mentioned above, but you should only consider cancelling or rescheduling your trip if you don’t feel comfortable traveling.
Does travel insurance cover any medical costs if I get sick abroad?
In general, if you bought travel insurance and got sick during your trip, yes, you should be reimbursed for all (or a percentage of) medical costs related to your particular illness. This is how insurance works.
But, if you have travel insurance and contracted COVID-19, your policy will not cover it. Sorry. Generally insurance coverage does not extend to what are called “named events.” Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and epidemics, including COVID-19, all qualify as such.
“Say you're going to the Caribbean and you didn't buy insurance,” Frommer says. “And then a hurricane is forecasted. If you try to get insurance, they will not sell it to you because that's considered a named event.”
But there’s something to keep in mind here—COVID-19 was declared a named event on Jan. 22. So, technically speaking, if you have any expenses associated with COVID-19 (such as medical treatment, emergency evacuation, or flight delays) and you bought insurance before that date, it’s possible you’d still be able to file a claim. If you bought your insurance after that, there’s nothing you can do.
Better safe than sorry: Let’s cancel some plans
What are your refund or ticket-changing rights as a consumer?
This is another question that lives in no man’s land, mainly because every airline has its own guidelines. Even within each airline, different policies sometimes apply to different tickets. So, when you buy a ticket, you’re basically agreeing to play by the airline’s rules.
“[As consumers] I don't think we have any rights when it comes to situations like this one,” says Rick Steves, travel writer and owner of Rick Steves’ Europe. “It's just how aggressive airlines want to be.”
Frommer has a similar outlook. “For many destinations, if you try to cancel travel right now, most airlines will not give you your money back,” she says. “It is considered that you are canceling because you’re afraid of traveling, and you’re usually not covered in those cases.”
But things are changing. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, bookings for flights, hotels, tours, and cruises have dropped dramatically. This has made airlines way more flexible—some have even lowered ticket prices and waived itinerary change and rescheduling fees if you stay in the same cabin class.
“What we're seeing is panic in the travel industry, and so many sellers are putting forth deals that allow people to cancel because they've seen their bookings fall off a cliff,” Frommer says.
Airlines have adopted April 30 as somewhat of a deadline, so if you have a flight between now and then, it’s likely you qualify for a fee waiver. Of course, this will depend solely on the airline you’re flying, so the first step will be to contact them directly and see what they’re offering.
How far ahead should you book travel with the disease going around?
There’s a short answer for this one: it’s unclear.
“It's a really difficult situation,” Steves says. “There's no way to know how's going to pan out.”
Since the COVID-19 situation is changing so rapidly, it is hard to know exactly when to reschedule your trip for. The (somewhat) good news, Frommer says, is that the outbreak of coronavirus has hit the tourism industry so hard that right now is a pretty good time to take a leap and book a vacation.
“If you are nervous, you'll probably get a very good deal and a rock-solid guarantee that if things get worse you'll be able to get all your money back,” she says.
Worst-case scenario, you end up locked up at home avoiding a virus and watching Netflix. Best-case scenario, you’re sunbathing on some Greek island. There are worse deals.
Written by Sandra Gutierrez G. for Popular Science and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.