Complete guide to travelling during the deadly coronavirus outbreak
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
The novel coronavirus disease called COVID-19 has infected nearly 680,000 people around the world in 177 countries and territories. Since it first emerged at the end of 2019, it’s spread with dizzying speed. There have been more than 31,000 deaths as of 29 March 2020.
On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the viral outbreak a pandemic.
The impact far exceeds the SARS outbreak of 2003 in which more than 5,300 people were infected. Health officials say it’s still too early to predict when it will end.
At this time, experts and the FCO warn against all nonessential travel anywhere in the world in an effort to “flatten the curve“. The U.S. CDC has also advised people over the age of 60 and those who have preexisting medical conditions to “stay home as much as possible”. The U.K. government has enacted restrictions to avoid going out unless necessary. Events and attractions all around the world have been forced to cancel or close their doors.
We talked with several experts about what travellers should know about the virus and how you can protect yourself. We also have news about trip cancellation insurance, shuttered hotels, cancelled events and more.
What is this coronavirus?
It’s a newly discovered type of coronavirus that causes respiratory illness, including pneumonia. Symptoms can be as mild as those of the common cold, including runny nose, fever, sore throat, cough and breathing difficulties. Coronaviruses get their names from the crown-like spikes on the virus as it appears under a microscope.
Will travel insurance cover me if I cancel my trip?
Travellers are cancelling most trips.
Airlines and cruise lines around the globe have been cancelling, redirecting and reducing service. Several airlines and hotels are offering full refunds to anyone with plans to travel in the coming weeks and months.
Given that the government has now advised against all non-essential international travel, it could mean good news if you want to cancel a trip. If you have an upcoming holiday and hold travel insurance, the FCO’s announcement is significant. It usually means that you are able to make a claim on a travel insurance policy, as most policies require government advice against travel, as opposed to a traveller making a personal decision not to take a trip.
The Points Guy U.K. team recently studied policies offered by four popular travel insurance providers: AIG Travel Guard, Allianz Travel Insurance, Seven Corners and World Nomad.
The key is to study the fine print of insurance policies, or protection offered by credit cards carefully and ensure that any future concerns you have are covered.
Is it safe to travel?
We support the travel industry and want to be there for it and encourage more trips, but only when the time is right.
Instead of travelling right now, we suggest you use this time to plan your next holiday. You don’t have to book yet, but figure out where you want to go and map out the right strategy for building up the right points and miles for those trips.
TPG can guide travellers through this process. We’ll share the news when it’s time to start booking, but at least for the short term, let’s all do as much as we can to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. That includes hitting pause on travel.
Only you can make the very personal decision about whether or not to keep, postpone or cancel upcoming trips. Health officials do note, however, that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That means ceasing travel, except for essential and urgent reasons.
The Points Guy is not recommending any travel at this time, but we encourage you to get a list going of all the places you want to see when we emerge from the immediate crisis.
How is the coronavirus like SARS?
The coronavirus outbreak sparks memories of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis of 2003; this novel coronavirus and the SARS virus are in the same family of coronaviruses. Nearly 800 people across Asia died because of SARS between 2002 and 2003. Officials were slow to identify and report SARS.
So, how is the coronavirus like SARS?
“Both SARS and the 2019 novel coronavirus are types of coronaviruses and are thought to have emerged in humans from a transmission event from an animal carrying the virus”, Dr. Theresa Madaline, hospital epidemiologist and assistant professor of infectious diseases at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told TPG.
“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses and several known types cause mild respiratory symptoms like the common cold. However, similar to SARS and MERS, the 2019 novel coronavirus can cause more severe lower respiratory disease”. (MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — broke out in South Korea in 2015.)
Who is at risk?
“Everything is very preliminary and information is changing very quickly”, said Dr Julie Fischer, a research associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University. “What we do know is that the severe cases and the fatalities were with people who had underlying health conditions, particularly older people who have underlying health conditions”, Dr Fischer added.
“I think that’s the other thing we also learned from SARS — that older people who have chronic diseases like heart disease or respiratory disease or diabetes are probably at a higher risk … They should have a higher level of concern and be more prepared to seek medical care if they find themselves developing severe symptoms”, she said.
But she advises that everyone should take precautions, no matter their age or overall health.
How to stay safe while travelling
To reiterate, you should only be travelling right now for essential and urgent reasons. If you must travel right now, keep these tips in mind when you do.
Coronaviruses are transmitted through coughs and sneezes by infected patients and by touching contaminated objects.
Preventive measures that travellers can take include sanitizing their aeroplane seat and the surrounding area with disinfecting wipes, Naomi Campbell-style. Carry and use alcohol-based hand sanitiser and wash your hands frequently.
“You get sick when viruses on those surfaces are introduced to your nose and mouth”, Dr Fischer said. “So limit that risk by being really conscientious about hand-washing”. You should also try to avoid touching your face.
Do face masks protect against coronavirus?
Wearing a face mask is no guarantee against the transmission of the virus. You might think it’s a good idea, given that the virus can be transmitted through coughs and sneezes and many photos from China show people taking this measure. Many others who are travelling in a closed environment, such as an aeroplane, also take this precaution.
“Most of the evidence with the use of surgical masks is that it’s helpful for people who already have respiratory symptoms, not to infect others”, said Dr Fischer. “But they’re not so effective at protecting people who are healthy from those who are sick. It might be better to convince people who have respiratory symptoms to wear masks so that they are not sneezing and coughing out in the open”.
Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., an expert in the field and a frequent flyer, seconded what Dr Fischer said, adding, “It’s not guaranteed to protect you against any virus, especially if you don’t ensure it fits properly”. The coronavirus particles are smaller than those filtered by most of these masks. Coronavirus particles measure 0.1 micron, as opposed to the 0.3 micron blocked by most masks.
Should you wear gloves to protect against coronavirus?
If masks are helpful for those who are sick, do gloves make a difference for travellers?
“Gloves are useful in that they remind people not to touch their own noses and mouth”, said Dr Fischer. “Because when you’re wearing gloves, you become hyper-conscious of that. But the best protection for individuals is to be very careful about hand-washing”.
How to protect yourself against coronavirus in a hotel
If you’re travelling for an essential reason right now and need to stay in a hotel, there are some tips you’ll want to keep in mind.
According to Dr Fischer, the initial spread of SARS internationally in 2003 happened when a clinician who had been infected travelled to Hong Kong for an event and transmitted his infection to other hotel guests. Most of those guests were international travellers and boarded planes and flew home to their respective countries while incubating the virus.
So what can you do?
“Again … hand-washing is the most effective way to prevent illness”, said Dr Fischer. “And you can take other general precautions like avoiding large crowds and close spaces”.
What to do if you feel sick
Common symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, dry cough, mild breathing difficulties, stomach issues, diarrhoea and general body aches, according to the CDC. If you experience these symptoms, take these measures:
Prevent transmitting to others around you. Wear a mask, avoid large crowds and situations where you might come in contact with a lot of people and surfaces.
“Also, if you have travelled to affected areas and become sick, or have had contact with someone who has [been] or is under investigation for coronavirus, let your health care provider know”, said Dr Goodman. “Many clinics prefer that, if possible, you call ahead if you have a respiratory illness so they can take steps to avoid the spread of infection in health care facilities”.
What coronavirus means for travel and tourism
The SARS outbreak had a huge impact on the Chinese economy, leading to a 64% decrease in revenue from domestic tourism, according to Rory Green, an economist who specializes in China and South Korea. And the novel coronavirus is similarly sending shock waves through the industry. Already it is much, much worse with many travel companies in serious financial trouble. The government is looking into bailouts.
Airlines respond to coronavirus
Airlines are slashing capacity and offering unprecedented change and cancellation fee waivers.
As coronavirus spreads, and fears about contracting the disease grow, airlines are increasingly giving passengers a chance to retool their travel plans by waiving change fees or allowing their customers to cancel even nonrefundable tickets.
Airlines have been forced to cope with the decline in demand around the world by parking planes, slashing routes and reducing frequency. Here’s what we know about what airlines are doing to alter their schedules.
Hotel brands respond to coronavirus
Even major hotel brands are offering free cancellations.
Major hotel chains — as well as Airbnb and other travel providers — have also put incredibly flexible change and cancellation policies in place, though some are more customer-friendly than others.
You can read the most updated policies here.
Cruise lines respond to coronavirus
Cruising is more or less suspended right now, with major cruise lines such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, as well as Disney Cruise Line, halting operations through at least the end of March.
At the same time, the pace of new bookings has plummeted while cancellations skyrocket, in part because the U.S. government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now are recommending Americans should not cruise until further notice.
As a result, cruise lines are offering unprecedented change and cancellation flexibility, as well as incentives.
How Coronavirus is affecting events around the world
The coronavirus outbreak has led to the cancellation of major events around the world, including the closure of many attractions and museums.
Some of the most prominent include:
- The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed until 2021
- Tokyo’s Nakamerguro district cherry blossom festival has been cancelled
- Carnival was cancelled in both Nice, France and Venice, Italy
- St. Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland were cancelled — as were parades in the U.S. cities of New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, among others.
- March Madness has been cancelled
- The Boston Marathon is cancelled
- All Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. will be closed
- The Louvre, Palace of Versailles and Eiffel Tower are closed indefinitely
- Tokyo Disney Resort remains closed
- Shanghai Disney Resort is closed indefinitely
- Hong Kong Disneyland is closed indefinitely
- Universal Studios Japan is closed until at least early April
- Universal Orlando is closed indefinitely
- Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Paris are closed indefinitely
- Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park in California is closed indefinitely
- Disneyland Paris is closed indefinitely
Countries acted quickly to control the coronavirus outbreak by implementing screening at airports and restricting travel. The best thing you can do right now is follow CDC recommendations and announcements from the World Health Organization (WHO). The CDC is closely monitoring the outbreak and updating its website and announcements often.
For more on the coronavirus outbreak, see:
- Lessons from lockdown: What it’s like in Spain during the mandatory quarantine right now
- Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?
Additional reporting by Nicky Kelvin, Katherine Fan, Clint Henderson, Liz Hund, Melanie Lieberman, Carissa Rawson, Samantha Rosen, Gene Sloan, Benji Stawski, Ethan Steinberg, Victoria M. Walker and Joseph Hostetler.
Featured photo by Thanit Weerawan/Getty Images.