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Travelers’ Coronavirus Questions Answered

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Unsure of how to proceed with your travel plans? We’re here to help.

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Unsure of how to proceed with your travel plans? We’re here to help.

We tackled some of the dozens of (heartwarming and heartfelt) questions our readers submitted regarding the current coronavirus outbreak—and how it might affect their travel plans.

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Ever since the coronavirus outbreak (officially known as COVID-19) landed on our collective radar a little more than a month ago, it’s been an emotional roller coaster ride to say the least. At first, it seemed like it might be contained to China. But as clusters of cases emerged in South Korea, Italy, Iran, the United States, and elsewhere throughout the world, it became clear to us, to global markets, and to travelers that this is an international health crisis.

We reached out to readers via social media and our email newsletter to see what questions you have as you look toward your year of travel. At AFAR we still believe wholeheartedly in the power of travel and travel as a force for good, and by the flood of comments and questions we received, we know that you do too.

To get a sense of how we at AFAR are proceeding with our travel plans amid the coronavirus outbreak, I polled our staff on Slack to see who was sticking with their spring travel plans and who was changing or canceling their spring trips. Twenty-seven AFAR staffers responded, and all 27 said they were sticking with their plans, including upcoming trips to Mexico, Europe, South Africa, the Caribbean, and throughout the United States.

As for your questions, a determined love of travel combined with a desire to get at the facts was a common thread throughout. It was also apparent that many of you are worried and uncertain about what to do. We feel your pain, we really do. We have tried to address as many submissions as we could, and those that were the most representative of the kinds of questions and concerns many of you were likely to have. We hope that these responses will help you in making decisions.

What should travelers know about quarantines?

What rights do you have if placed into quarantine? (via Facebook)

Currently, the only travel-related quarantines in the United States are for Americans returning from the Hubei province, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, and for those who returned from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, which experienced an outbreak onboard. Those returning from elsewhere in China are being allowed to self-monitor their condition, as are travelers returning from other destinations where there have been coronavirus cases.

Given the ever-changing nature of this outbreak, there is no way to know whether there will be additional quarantine measures instituted by the government, but quarantines are not taken lightly or instituted unless deemed absolutely necessary.

Those who are quarantined in the United States in order to prevent the spread of communicable diseases are required to comply by law, “for the benefit of society,” according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Breaking a federal quarantine order is punishable by fines and prison time.

Is there a standard protocol for the initial screening of travelers, and standard protocols for quarantine, treatment, hospitalization, and emergency travel? Do these protocols apply worldwide, and will the U.S. follow them? (via email)

According to Kristin Bratton Nelson, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Emory University, there is no universal protocol for traveler screenings or quarantines.

However, the International Health Regulations (IHR) was created in 2005 and agreed upon by 196 countries, with its stated purpose being “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease.” And it does establish some international guidelines for quarantines.

The 74-page IHR document has a section about the treatment of travelers, noting that participating countries should respect the dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms of travelers and should provide travelers who are quarantined for public health purposes with adequate food and water, appropriate accommodation and clothing, protection for their baggage and other possessions, appropriate medical treatment, means of necessary communication in a language that they can understand, and other appropriate assistance for travelers.

“Ultimately it is up to each country to establish their own set of rules and procedures,” said Nelson.

The rules and procedures that are applied in the United States are developed by the CDC and can often change in response to the level of risk. To get the latest on how the CDC is responding to the coronavirus, you can head to the agency’s coronavirus landing page devoted specifically to travel.

Should I be worried about traveling on airplanes and in airports?

I am traveling from Chicago to Singapore next week and would like to know the best way to prevent against coronavirus on long-haul flights and in airports? (via email)

According to our recent story on the safety of airports and airplanes during an outbreak, there’s no reason to avoid flying altogether as long as you take all the same precautions you would to avoid getting the flu or any other communicable illnesses. Wash your hands regularly and disinfect surfaces (such as armrests and tray tables) before you come into contact with them. And of course, try to avoid contact with anyone who appears sick or is coughing or sneezing.

Infectious disease experts quoted in the piece said that except for those seated close to you, a sick passenger elsewhere on the plane isn’t a threat due to the vertical circulation of air on airplanes. The bigger risk comes from crowding, such as the person-on-person pileups at the boarding gate.

I plan on going to Mongolia this summer. My Air China flights connect through Beijing. The flights are still operating now. My question is how safe is it to connect through Beijing? (via email)

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Given that this summer is still months away, and so much can happen between now and then, it is very difficult to predict where the outbreak will be then, and whether this flight will still be operating. Mongolia, China’s landlocked neighbor to the north, has currently halted flights to and from China as well as China border crossings. Unfortunately, this feels like a wait-and-see scenario (at least for now).

What about travel and health cost reimbursements and refunds?

What are your thoughts on Cancel for Any Reason travel insurance? Is it worth getting for all destinations at this point if your trip is several months away? It seems there are new countries affected every day. (via Instagram)

With regards to the current coronavirus outbreak, travel insurance providers consider it to be a known event as of January 21, 2020. Travel insurance purchased before that date will cover disruptions resulting from the outbreak, but any travel insurance purchased after that date will not—with the exception of the Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) optional travel insurance upgrade. True to its name, this add-on option allows you to cancel your trip for any reason. So, if you have a trip planned or are planning one to a destination that is experiencing or could experience a coronavirus outbreak (which, let’s face it, are many at this point), you could still cancel your trip and recuperate some of your costs with CFAR coverage. So, in short, yes (though be sure to read up on all the limitations of CFAR). CFAR generally generally costs around 5 to 10 percent of the total trip cost—the price is determined by the cost of the trip and the age of the travelers.

Do typical travel insurance policies cover cancellations for things like concerns over contracting coronavirus? Even if there are no official restrictions on travel to the specific destination? (via email)

No, they don’t. The only type of coverage that will cover for something like “concerns over contracting coronavirus” is the Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) upgrade.

When traveling abroad how are medical costs covered when it is a pandemic? (via Twitter)

In order for medical costs to be covered when you are abroad, you need to make sure that you either have an international plan as part of your health insurance coverage, or you can opt for medical coverage either as a stand-alone travel insurance option or as an add-on option to a travel insurance plan. For the most part, medical costs should be covered regardless of whether there is a pandemic, according to Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director of travel security services provider International SOS and MedAire, a travel risk management firm.

“Medical costs are medical costs, pandemic or not,” said Quigley. However, he added that the only caveat is if someone is traveling in a destination that has an outbreak-related travel advisory in place, such as those issued by the CDC for China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. For those destinations (and any others that end up having a health-related advisory issued), you should contact your health coverage provider to find out whether your medical costs would be covered. Make sure to read the fine print about what kind of medical expenses are covered, because depending on the plan, certain costs will be covered and others may not be.

I live in Michigan and I am planning to go to Germany this spring or summer with a stop in Dublin. It is a very challenging time to plan. Are airlines changing tickets without penalty if an area has an outbreak? (via email)

When it comes to international flights to Europe, there are some recently established options that are more flexible. American Airlines this week announced that it will not charge any change fee for flights ticketed between March 1 and March 16, 2020, as long as the changes are made 14 days before your original departure date. And similarly, for any flights booked between March 1 and March 31, 2020, Delta will waive the change fee for any changes as long as the new travel is ticketed by February 28, 2021.  

Does Airbnb have a special policy for cancellations due to a health crisis? If so, what are the terms? (via email)

Airbnb has an “extenuating circumstances policy” that covers hosts and guests affected by the coronavirus outbreak (it also has an entire explainer devoted specifically to coronavirus). The policy covers government-mandated travel restrictions as well as health epidemics, and it allows hosts and guests to cancel an Airbnb reservation without charge.

Is travel to Europe safe?

If I have a trip booked to Barcelona at the end of March, should I be going? Or should I be avoiding Europe altogether? (via Facebook)

We can’t tell you whether or not you should go to Europe, and we hate that this outbreak has resulted in some agonizing decisions for travelers. We can only provide resources that will hopefully help you make an informed choice. The situation in Europe, as with the whole of the world at this point, is changing rapidly. We recommend that you check the latest situation reports issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) to find out the number of cases in each country. The CDC also offers comprehensive advice for travelers with regard to the coronavirus outbreak, including an interactive map indicating the risk assessment for each country.

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I love that you guys are taking questions because I’m feeling pretty lost. I was planning to take my son to Italy in early April. I am not concerned about the actual virus. However, I don’t want to use over a week of vacation and spend thousands of dollars, only to discover that things are cancelled or closed. I am also concerned about “ruining” my 11-year-old’s first international trip with hazmat suits and other scary things. (via email)

For lovers of travel who wish to bestow that love onto the next generation, this one hits close to home. Things are changing—quickly. At press time, the CDC had issued a Level 3 warning for Italy, advising against nonessential travel to the country. The New York Times has been doing some great coverage of coronavirus—what it is, what the risks are, how it spreads, and how to protect yourself. For anyone in an area of potential risk, we highly recommend reading this story about how to prepare. Knowledge is power.

Is it safe to cruise?

I’m booked on a cruise to Japan in May. CDC advises to avoid all cruises to Asia, especially for seniors like me. Can I avoid losing my deposit and air? (via Facebook)

Most cruise lines at this point have canceled most or all of their Asia cruises into March, April, and May and even for the remainder of 2020. We’ve been referring our readers to the cruise review and news site Cruise Critic, which has been gathering the changes and cancellations to cruise line itineraries in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in an online story that it is updating regularly. Contact your cruise line. Chances are your cruise has already been canceled and you are due a refund. As for your airfare, while airlines have canceled and refunded numerous flights to and from China, they have not done so for Japan. You’ll have to check with your airline, but if you don’t have travel insurance, you will likely be charged a change or cancellation fee.

I’m taking a cruise up the Rhine River at the end of March, from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam. Will it be safe? (via Instagram)

The Diamond Princess quarantine has made people pretty nervous about cruising. Who can blame them? That being said, there are still ample cruises in parts of the world that have not been as affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and cruise lines are going to be working overtime to win back travelers’ trust by going above and beyond to ensure the health and hygiene of their passengers. Time will tell if they will be successful in doing so. As for the specific countries in Europe you will be traveling through on this cruise, you will have to assess those individually. As mentioned above, we recommend that you check the latest situation reports issued by the WHO to find out the number of cases in each country. The CDC also offers comprehensive advice for travelers regarding the coronavirus outbreak, including an interactive map.

What about travel to Asia during the coronavirus outbreak?

How are we feeling about Japan travel? (via Instagram)

Aside from the numbers of coronavirus cases in Japan (make sure to check the most updated situation reports provided by WHO), one of the challenges with Japan is the number of events and gatherings being called off as officials hope to contain the spread of coronavirus in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics Games. If the outbreak progresses, it’s likely that the annual cherry blossom festivals that are typically held throughout the country between March and May will be toned down this year, if not entirely canceled.

The CDC has issued a Level 2 alert for Japan, which calls for travelers to practice enhanced precautions like avoiding contact with sick people and vigilant hand washing. (The CDC has issued a Level 3 warning for China and South Korea advising against all nonessential travel to those destinations.)

My daughter will be traveling to Thailand in late July. What are your thoughts on how safe it will be to travel to this location? (via email)

As mentioned previously, a lot can happen between now and then. Check the change and cancellation policies available for the flights and hotels you have booked, and if you can, maybe wait and see for a few weeks to see how things develop.

Where should we go if we haven’t already booked travel?

My husband and I are planning a sabbatical at the end of the year to finally take our honeymoon (two years late) and essentially travel for six weeks. The plan, before coronavirus, was to visit Sydney, Singapore, Maldives, and Thailand. Since nothing is booked yet we have flexibility of being able to completely change it. Should we avoid that side of the globe? Should we wait to book? Should we go ahead and book refundable travel? (via email)

Here at AFAR, we are going to continue to work to inspire our readers to travel, whether that means destinations closer to home for now (these crowd-free national parks are calling out to us), or to places considered less at risk (Antarctica, anyone?), or simply for future travel (eventually travel to Asia, including up-and-coming destinations like Mongolia, will be back, and so will travel to Italy). We can’t know how long this outbreak will last, but we hope that the places we write about, the personal stories we unearth, the cultures we cover, the food we tempt you with, will always offer ideas on where to go next—whether that’s in the near-term or a bit further out.

A final note

As the situation evolves, we’ll provide information to help you make informed decisions. But whatever happens in the coming days, weeks, and months, we want you to know that we are here, we are listening, and we want to assist any way that we can.

>> Next: Need to Change Your Travel Plans Due to Coronavirus? These Are Your Options

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