Your travel-related COVID-19 questions, answered

It’s all about managing risk.

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The spread of COVID-19 has us all full of questions—especially when it comes to traveling. If you’ve been looking forward to a summer trip, wondering if you should stick to your plans or not, now might be the time to make some decisions.

The fees and conditions associated with canceling and rescheduling have changed dramatically in the last few weeks, but travelers have the upper hand right now.

The TL;DR answer to your travel questions is that, for now—and it’s essential to understand nobody knows exactly how long “now” is going to be—you should definitely avoid any non-essential travel.

But beyond that catch-all answer, there’s a little more nuance. Worry not, fellow traveler—we’re here to guide you.

Staying informed

A couple weeks ago, just having a plane ticket booked didn’t mean you had to cancel your trip. Well, now it kind of does. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a global travel warning advisory recommending people to cancel or reschedule all nonessential travel, both on airplanes and cruise ships.

The CDC’s map of travel recommendations sorts destinations into three risk levels based on the severity of each particular outbreak: from Level 1 (lowest) to Level 3 (highest). At the beginning of March, Level 3 only included Italy, China, South Korea, and Iran, but now it includes the entire world.

But if you take a look at the map, you’ll see that in a sea of orange, some countries are painted dark fuchsia—those are the ones travelers should be extra careful with. This has nothing to do with worse outbreaks or higher chances of infection, but mostly with travel restrictions. This list includes the Schengen area (which is most of Europe), the UK, Ireland, China, and Iran.

If you’re a foreign national—meaning you’re neither American nor have American citizenship—and you’ve been to any of these countries in the last 14 days, you most likely won’t be allowed back into the US. That means you’d have to make a two-week stop in another country not on this list before you can re-enter.

If you’re a US citizen and you’ve been to the fuchsia countries in the last 14 days, you will be allowed in, but you will be screened upon arrival and told to go into quarantine at home. This means no going out—not even for essential shopping or recreation—and no contact with anybody. It’s not clear whether or not authorities are actually enforcing the quarantine order and checking if passengers are abiding by it. But they do have contact information and addresses for anybody entering the country, so they might decide to check on you randomly.

Now, these are not enforced travel bans, which means you can visit Level 3 places if you need to. You will, however, find there are fewer transportation options since airlines have severely reduced their flight schedules. Also, the Department of Homeland Security has ordered all flights coming from these countries to land at 13 specific airports where the federal government has focused its public health resources. These include big hubs such as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Chicago O’Hare International Airport in Illinois, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington and more.

The CDC’s advisory also applies when any listed countries are part of your travel itinerary, even if you only touched down for a brief layover. If you have layovers in a European airport, for example, the CDC recommends finding alternative routes.

Meanwhile, the State Department has an interactive online map where you can see their recommendations for every country in the world—and sometimes even regions within the same country. Regions with the highest warning levels are colored red, and clicking on them will give you more information about why they’ve gained that status. But even though the State Department has different levels of warning for each country, they have issued a global health advisory, recommending all travelers cancel or reschedule any nonessential international trips.

What about travel within the US?

The CDC’s request that everyone avoid all nonessential travel includes travel within the US.

The agency has left it up to individuals to assess the risk of traveling domestically, but authorities say if you must go out, you should take precautions. You should also consider factors including outbreak severity (both at home and at your destination), exposure to crowded places such as airports, and possible contact with the elderly or people suffering from pre-existing conditions, the government says.

The only exception to this somewhat relaxed approach are New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There, the CDC has issued a domestic travel advisory urging people to stay within state borders for 14 days unless they’re considered essential workers.

How do I find out the latest on cancellations and travel bans?
Misery Map
This is Misery Map, where you can see all delayed and cancelled flights in the U.S. and feel sorry for yourself or all the people on them. Sandra Gutierrez G.

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 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:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth mask around others.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • If you blow your nose or cover your coughs or sneezes with a tissue, throw the tissue in the trash afterward.
  • 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 at least 60 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?
the ocean at sunset
We know you want to just venture out on the open seas, but maybe now’s not the best time. Joseph Barrientos via Unsplash

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 a 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 question 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.

If you’re abroad 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. According to their website, the State Department continues to help American citizens abroad by working with airlines and “arranging evacuation flights,” though they warn that as the situation worsens, their ability to do so may be limited.

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?
a person's feet with a person under the covers in a hotel bed
Curling up under the blankets and staying inside is a great option if you get sick on vacation, no matter what you’ve got. Pixabay

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. Always wear a mask when around others. If you have access to surgical masks, even better.

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. You can find it and its contact information on the State Department’s website.

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,” says Pauline Frommer, a travel expert and editorial director of Frommer’s guidebooks. “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?
Flight board
Flight got cancelled? You might still be able to get your money back. JESHOOTS.COM via Unsplash

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.

“It’s just how aggressive airlines want to be,” says Rick Steves, travel writer and owner of Rick Steves’ Europe.

But in the midst of a true crisis for the travel industry, aggressiveness between carriers, agencies, and other service providers, only means good news for users.

“A large number of travel operators are doing their best to make travel as enticing as possible—that means ‘worry-free,’” says Frommer. “We’re seeing unusually generous cancellation and change policies. But not from every carrier. You really do have to read the fine print.”

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 it’s going to pan out.” Since the COVID-19 situation is changing so rapidly, it is hard to know exactly when you’ll be able to travel again.

There is (somewhat) good news, though. According to a report by Dollar Flight Club, COVID-19 is responsible for a drop in demand of 80 percent and has hit the tourism industry so hard that right now is a pretty good time to take a leap and book a vacation. Travelers should expect airfares around 65 percent off, on average, in both 2020 and 2021, the report says.

“Prices are through the floor right now, so yes, you’re going to get a good deal,” Frommer says. “If you are nervous, you’ll probably get a rock-solid guarantee that if things get worse you’ll be able to get all your money back.”

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.

Updated April 12 at 3:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to bring the answers to these travel questions up to date.

Sandra Gutierrez G.

Sandra Gutierrez G.is a Chilean journalist and the assistant DIY editor at PopSci. She has previously worked as an editor for MSN.cl, and a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. When she's not putting baking soda on things, she's walking her 10-year-old beagle, Lucas. Contact the author here.