Today (March 13, 2020): Is it safe to travel during the Coronavirus pandemic?
The coronavirus pandemic is probably the worst health crisis in our lifetime. More than 80,900 people in China have been infected with coronavirus (officially named COVID-19) since it emerged in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province, in December. But while China has passed the peak of the epidemic, the virus is now spreading fast around the world, with hot spots in South Korea, Iran and Italy. The rest of Europe and the USA are now bracing for impact.
It is believed that symptoms of COVID-19 are showing up in people within 14 days of exposure to the virus. The virus causes no to mild flu-like symptoms (fever, dry cough, shortness of breath) in 80% of infected people, severe symptoms (shortness of breath) in 20% of patients, and death in around 3,5% of patients (mostly because of pneumonia). As of now, there is not a specific treatment for the virus. People who become sick from COVID-19 are treated with supportive measures t relieve symptoms.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is similar to the one that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak: both are types of coronaviruses. That said, COVID-19 seems to spread faster than the 2003 SARS and also may cause less severe illness. There are currently 114 countries where a total of close to 128,000 coronavirus infections have been confirmed, according to the outbreak-tracking website managed by Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the globe, taking thousands of lives, travelers are increasingly worried about travel restrictions and quarantines. Here’s what you need to know:
- Travel restrictions
- Flight cancellation policy
- What is the risk of getting infected during a flight?
- Hotel cancellation policy
- How to protect yourself and others from getting infected?
- Resources to make informed decisions about upcoming travel plans
Travel restrictions are being imposed around the world because of the coronavirus, and the situation changes daily. This is probably the single one reason why one may want to postpone travel plans since no one can foresee what the situation will be in the coming weeks. This Wikipedia page offers an excellent round-up of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most draconic travel restriction (and one that won’t have any effect on the coronavirus spread according to experts) is the 30 day travel ban to the USA for most Europeans, as unilaterally announced by USA president Donald Trump. The ban applies to foreign nationals from the EU Schengen Area, the UK, and Ireland. Americans and US permanent residents will still be allowed to fly to Europe and be allowed back into the US during this 30-day period, although they will be screened prior to entering the US and asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Other countries have also imposed quarantines and/or entry bans for citizens or visitors of the most affected areas of the pandemic. Some examples:
- Israel instituted a blanket 14-day quarantine on all visitors and returning citizens
- Vietnam suspended the visa waiver for citizens of Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Italy and United Kingdom
- Guatemala bans the entry of citizens of certain European countries, Iran, China and South Korea in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus
- India is suspending visas for all foreigners for a month starting today (Friday March 13th), with a few exemptions such as for diplomats, official or employment purposes.
- Oman bans travelers from all countries for a not-yet-specified time period.
As the travel situation regarding the coronavirus pandemic is rapidly changing from day to day, I advise you to inform yourself (and stay updated) about the most recent safety and security situation of your destination by consulting the website of the government of your home country. If your country does not have one, you can always consult the up-to-date travel advice on the excellent websites of the UK Government, the USA Department of State, and the Australian Government. For example, the US State Department raised the worldwide travel advisory to level 3 on Wednesday night – meaning US citizens should reconsider travel abroad:
“The Department of State advises US citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of Covid-19. Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. “Older adults and travelers with underlying health issues should avoid situations that put them at increased risk for more severe disease. This entails avoiding crowded places, avoiding non-essential travel such as long plane trips, and especially avoiding embarking on cruise ships,” the statement said.
FLIGHT CANCELLATION POLICY
The travel industry, and airlines in particular are badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, to the point that several airlines probably will go bankrupt. Flight bookings are down 70 to 90%, which is understandable as travelers face uncertain times at the moment. In response to this precipitous drop in demand, airlines all over the world have slashed flights amid the outbreak. For example, Cathay Pacific has cut 75% of its routes, and Lufthansa has cut 50% of its routes. In addition, in an attempt to deal with the crisis, several airlines have recently built more flexibility into new (and existing) bookings, and have decided to waive change fees for some travel periods. This Forbes article offers a comprehensive list of fee waiver policies for all major airlines, organized by region.
For example, United Airlines (one of the three large USA carriers), has the following policy:
- When you make a new booking for a flight with United before March 31, 2020, you can change it for free over the next 12 months.
- United is also waiving change fees for all tickets issued on or before March 2 – domestic or international – with original travel dates of March 9 through April 30.
- If you decide to cancel your ticket booked between March 3 and March 31, 2020, you can retain the value of the ticket to be applied to a new ticket without fee for travel up to 12 months from the original ticket issue date.
And another example is the Air France-KLM group, who offers the following offers for bookings made by 31 March 2020 for travel until 31 May 2020:
- You need to change your travel dates? Your new departure date should be no later than 31 May 2020. The costs of any applicable fare differences will remain.
- You prefer to travel after 31 May 2020 or change your destination? You can exchange your ticket for a voucher. This is redeemable for tickets from Air France, KLM or Delta Air Lines.
WHAT IS MY RISK OF GETTING INFECTED DURING A FLIGHT?
Your chances of contracting COVID-19 on a plane are very small. Most aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art circulation systems, similar to those found in hospitals, which use a high-efficiency (HEPA) filter to circulate the air and removes up to 99.7% of airborne particles (including coronavirus). Most airlines have also adjusted their onboard service to further avoid onboard transmission of the virus, such as:
- Flight attendants are wearing gloves during food and beverage service and pick-up.
- Flight attendants hand all beverages directly to the customer, instead of allowing the customer to take their own from the tray.
- All tableware, dishes, cutlery, carts and glassware are washed and sanitized
- Crews may make use of gloves, masks, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, wipes, foaming hand soap, and disinfectant wipes.
Airlines across the globe have also stepped up their sanitation efforts of aircraft (before and after a flight) to stem the virus’ spread. The cleaning procedure include a thorough wipe down of all touch-points (lavatories, galleys, tray tables, window shades and armrests), including effective, high-grade disinfectant and multi-purpose cleaner. When someone traveled onboard who developed coronavirus symptoms during the flight, that aircraft is taken out of service and sent through a full decontamination process that includes standard cleaning procedures plus washing ceilings and overhead bins and scrubbing the interior.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also recently released guidance on aircraft cleaning.
HOTEL CANCELLATION POLICY
In case you booked a hotel but want to postpone or cancel your travel plans in the light of coronavirus pandemic, you will rely on the cancellation policy of your booking. Some rates are non-refundable (which normally can’t be canceled anytime after booking) while some flexible rates are also not refundable anymore when cancelling within 30 or 15 days of your stay. However, because of the crisis, several hotel chains have announced special term and conditions on new and existing bookings:
- Hilton is allowing all bookings, even non-refundable ones, to be canceled; this is valid for stays through April 30, 2020, when canceling at least 24 hours before scheduled arrival
- IHG is allowing all bookings, even non-refundable ones, to be canceled, for stays through April 30, 2020
- Hyatt allows all reservations (including advance purchase bookings) for stays between March 14 and April 30, 2020 to be changed or canceled at no charge up to 24 hours in advance.
- Marriot – whose brands include Westin, Sheraton, Residence Inn, Courtyard by Marriott and Ritz-Carlton – is allowing full changes or cancelation free of charge up to 24 hours before arrival (changes have to be made by April 30).
- Four Seasons, saying in a statement it wants to make the travel experience “as worry free as possible,” has lifted cancellation fees until April 15. The hotelier said this applies to any of Four Seasons hotels or resorts in the Asia Pacific region and Europe, except for the United Kingdom.
In case you have a non-refundable hotel booking that you would like to cancel, I suggest you contact the hotel directly to consider your options, and to push for either a cash refund or a credit (similar to what you paid) towards a future stay.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND OTHERS FROM GETTING INFECTED
According to the CDC and the National Safety Council, and the World Health Organization, there are several measures you can take to protect yourself and others from getting infected:
- Wash your hands often – and thoroughly – with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content is a good secondary option
- Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing
- Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes with unwashed hands
- Use gloves and masks as needed
- Get a flu shot if you haven’t already
- If you’re sick – stay home
RESOURCES TO MAKE INFORMED DECISIONS ABOUT UPCOMING TRAVEL PLANS
- This Wikipedia page offers an excellent round-up of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The U.S. Department of State offers the latest information for U.S. citizens and permanent residents overseas, including recent changes for inbound travelers from affected areas.
- The Centers for Disease Control offers guidance for travelers returning from high-risk countries and country-specific travel health advisories. In its “Frequently Asked Questions for Travelers” section, the CDC offers recommendations on postponing or canceling travel, screening and quarantine procedures on arrival, and exposure risks/prevention strategies during travel.
- The World Health Organization offers updates on current outbreak of coronavirus and more information for non-U.S. travelers.
- This Forbes article offers a comprehensive list of fee waiver policies for all major airlines, organized by region.