With travelers on high alert, the coronavirus outbreak has caused many to consider canceling plans. If you’re unsure about upcoming travel, check out these tips and then decide if traveling right now is OK, and how to do it safely.
If you have a big trip coming up soon, it is very likely that you’re wondering if you should pack your bags, or pack it in. Should you cancel your trip? Postpone it? Or douse yourself in hand sanitizer and grab your passport?
I’m in the exact same boat. March is a busy travel month for me – in the next 10 days, I have scheduled flights that go through seven transit points. And up until two days ago, I also had a trans-Atlantic flight planned to get me back to the U.S. from Europe via Milan (MXP).
I was finally going to take that culinary trip I hinted at last week, to visit the small Italian town from which my paternal great-grandparents emigrated. For now, however, that piece of my trip is up in the air. As the outbreak spreads to destinations I’m headed to in the next few weeks – and the first cases of the virus have popped up in my hometown of Portland, Oregon – I’m definitely paying closer attention and washing my hands more.
As a traveler with no claim to medical credentials, I can’t offer any science-backed advice of what level of travel anxiety is warranted in these present circumstances. What I can offer is my own experience, resources from people smarter than me and a reminder that it’s okay to travel – or not travel – with whatever level of risk you are comfortable.
See related: Coronavirus: Can credit card travel insurance help?
How to travel (or not) during the coronavirus outbreak
How to travel (or not) during the coronavirus outbreak
Unless your trip has been canceled because travel has been banned or suspended to or from your destination, the choice to travel (at this point) is primarily a personal one.
Assess your comfort level with risk. Some travelers will cancel their plans for the perceived safety of staying home, regardless of the out-of-pocket loss, while others will jump on the downturn in ticket sales and empty hotels as an opportunity get a bargain. There isn’t a right or wrong answer.
In all cases, the best antidote to fear is facts. Here’s how to arm yourself with information:
1. Check reports and advisories on your destination and transit points
Get the facts for the places where you’re going as well as the cities through which you’ll be traveling. The two best tools for this information are the CDC country travel advisories and the daily-published WHO situation reports.
Emily Scott, a registered nurse serving on a COVID-19 response team and co-founder of Two Dusty Travelers, recommends reading up on where exactly the cases are within the country you’re visiting. “Beyond looking at an individual country’s statistics, consider going to a completely different city than where the outbreak is.”
For my trip to Italy, the village I was planning to visit is a remote town of 2,000 people – more than 500 miles away from the outbreak in the Lombardi region. The risk in the destination is low, but the risk of traveling through Milan is much higher.
2. Evaluate your itinerary
Beyond researching the destination, consider what activities you have planned and what the trip means to you.
In terms of risk, taking a cooking class in a small Italian village is different from attending a large fashion week event in the center of Milan. Likewise, postponing your honeymoon would be a more complicated decision than canceling a visit to see relatives.
“One person might feel fine about traveling to Italy for a trip they’ve already paid for and are super excited about, and they’ll just take precautions while they’re there. Someone else might decide the same trip isn’t worth it because they’re immunocompromised or they know they’re generally anxious and worrying about it would ruin their trip,” Scott explained in an coronavirus Q&A on Instagram.
3. Research your options for changing flights and hotels
Arming yourself with information and the options your travel providers are offering will likely play a part in your travel decisions.
Airlines and the hotels are continuously updating their own travel advisories, which determine the ability to change or cancel your flights and hotels. You can find a link to the travel advisory for each airline or hotel group on their home page or via a Google search: [insert airline] + travel advisory.
Travel advisories and fee waivers tend to apply unilaterally, whether you’ve paid cash for your ticket or booked your ticket with points, but they will vary from airline to airline.
If you’ve used miles to book an award flight through a program like American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards, you should be able to cancel or change the flights according to the travel advisory of the airline on which you’re ticketed (you will change the flight through the program in which you booked).
At the time of writing, JetBlue and Alaska are offering the most liberal waivers, allowing you to change or cancel at no cost if you no longer want to fly (this is the ongoing change policy of Southwest as well).
Note that even airlines have different advisories about the same countries. American Airlines has suspended its flights to destinations across Italy, while British Airways is currently offering free flight changes for just the north of Italy.
Because I was using AAdvantage miles from my AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard to fund my ticket home from Milan, the suspended flights from MXP was the piece of information that tipped me to change my travel plan. Plus, I didn’t want to risk being quarantined on arrival back to the U.S. if a travel ban is issued while I’m away.
4. Know what your travel insurance covers
Before you assume that someone will cover your costs if you have to cancel, you’ll want to research the details for the travel insurance policy you have – whether it’s through a provider like World Nomads, or via a credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
You’re much more likely to be eligible for reimbursements through trip cancellation insurance if the airline cancels your flight than if you personally choose to cancel.
5. Assess your health and wellness
If you are sick or not feeling well, stay home. If you’re immunocompromised and are more prone to getting sick, ask your doctor as part of your fact-finding mission.
What science has told us about the disease, so far, is that the elderly and those with chronic medical problems are most at risk. If you’re healthy, be a responsible traveler (and human) and make decisions that will keep you that way.
Wash your hands and take an extra minute to be situationally aware of your own travel habits. Use those antibacterial wipes you’re hoarding in your carry-on to wipe down everything you regularly touch when you travel – the handle of your carry-on, your phone and your computer keyboard.
For me, staying healthy also means prioritizing rest when I’m jetlagged, taking my vitamins and drinking lots of water on the plane instead of the free-flowing red wine that comes with business-class award tickets.
“Do I think everyday people living and traveling outside of outbreak hotspots need to be actively worried? No. Be aware of it like you’re aware of the flu, and get on with your life,” says Scott.
At the end of the day, I’m keeping an eye on all the facts for now. COVID-19 isn’t a travel-specific disease and worrying about your health and safety shouldn’t be something you only do when it comes to traveling.
Even though I modified my plans to cancel travel to Italy this month, I’m also very aware that I could just as easily get the virus staying at home in Oregon.
To steal the words of another one of my favorite points travelers, Tiffany Funk from One Mile at a Time, “Your focus should be less on whether or not you should go ‘somewhere’ and more on what you can do to be prepared ‘anywhere.’”
Whether you’re staying at home or staying safe on the road, I wish you happy and healthy travels.