Health Education

COVID-19 and travel: Should you cancel your plans because of the coronavirus pandemic?

Avatar By | March 20, 2020
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Hudson, APRN, NP-C

For many around the world, this time of year means spring break, family vacations, and escaping your familiar surroundings with an adventure. This year, COVID-19 (or novel coronavirus) has thrown a wrench into the travel industry. Some popular tourist attractions are closed, like Broadway in New York City, Disneyland in California, and Disney World in Florida. Even entire countries, like Italy, that are usually popular destinations for explorers have gone on lock down. Where does this leave people who have travel plans or were wanting to go on vacation? The simplest way to put it is: If you don’t have to travel—don’t. But of course, it is more nuanced than that. 

Should I cancel travel plans?

“I would cancel all non-essential travel for at least the next month,” says Georgine Nanos, MD, MPH, the CEO of Kind Health Group and an expert in epidemiology and public health. “It’s hard to predict what the situation will look like beyond that. It’s hard to know where the next big cluster of COVID-19 will take hold and it would potentially be more difficult to be quarantined or sick away from home.”

This is especially important for high occurrence areas, but is recommended for any non-essential travel to anywhere.

Is it safe to go on a cruise?

While the cruise line industry has suspended operations in the US through at least April 11, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend going on international cruises at this time, especially for people in high risk groups such as older people, people who are immunocompromised, or people with underlying health conditions. COVID-19 spreads easily between people in the close quarters of a ship.

Why is limiting travel important?

“Traveling usually involves places where large groups of people are in small spaces, and these days from many countries. It just increases the risk,” says Hamid S. Syed, MD, FACP, an acute and primary care physician for Reagan Medical Center in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

In addition to potentially catching or spreading the virus, traveling can pose other risks. “Getting sick away from home is actually complicated,” says Dr. Nanos. “It may be harder to access health care or financially difficult to stay someplace for an extended period of time when you didn’t intend to.”

What would happen if someone got sick outside of the United States?

“They would have to follow the guidelines of local health authorities in whatever country they are in,” Dr. Nanos explains. “Depending on where they are this might be particularly challenging if there are language barriers, problems with access to adequate health care, or financial limitations to staying away from home for an unanticipated long period of time.”

What happens if there is a sick passenger on a flight?

Federal regulations dictate that pilots must report all illnesses and deaths to the CDC before arriving at a U.S. destination. The CDC will then work with local, state, and international health agencies and organizations to notify any passengers and crew who may have been exposed to a public health risk. For this reason, it is important to make sure the information you give when booking your ticket is accurate and up to date. The protocols aboard the airplane are the same for COVID-19 as they are for any other infectious diseases.

How are passengers coming to the United States screened?

Before leaving some countries, passengers may have their temperature taken and be asked questions about their health and their travel history.

Coming into the United States, the protocol used is dictated by which country the passenger is coming from and what level of travel health notice (1, 2, or 3) that country has. These notices change, so be sure to check current notices frequently.

For a level 1 health notice, you are expected to practice the usual precautions of travel, no extra protocol or caution is necessary.

For a level 2 health notice, you will be asked to monitor your health, and practice social distancing (staying away from crowds, avoiding group gatherings, staying home as much as possible, keeping a distance of six feet between you and other people, etc.)

For a level 3 health notice, you will be asked to stay home for 14 days from the time you return from travel, to monitor your health, and to practice social distancing.

These protocols apply to layovers as well. If you have a layover, try to stay in the airport. If you have a layover in a level 2 or level 3 health notice country, you may be subject to screening or monitoring when you enter the United States.

Additionally, there are coronavirus travel bans in place for certain countries. Many countries have begun closing their borders to non-citizens. Check the U.S. Department of State site for the most up-to-date list of restrictions.

While monitoring your health, you will be looking for coronavirus symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, or coughing.

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Is it safe to travel by means other than flying?

“[With] trains, buses, ships, etc., we get into the same situation where a large number of people from different regions are in a small place, which does increase the risk,” Dr. Syed says.

Experts recommend avoiding non-essential travel by any means at the moment. For essential local traveling, going by car when possible is better than using public transit.

Coronavirus travel tips: What should people do if they have to travel?

If travel absolutely can’t be avoided, Dr. Nanos recommends the following steps to try to minimize the risks and avoid coronavirus transmission:

  • Wash your hands at every opportunity and especially before eating or touching your face. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.
  • Disinfect your phone after you have disinfected your hands or whenever you are picking it up from a potentially contaminated surface.
  • Carry disinfectant wipes with a high alcohol content or straight alcohol wipes and wipe everything down as soon as you sit: tray table, back of the seat, entertainment screens, seat pocket. And then wipe your phone or iPad before you set it down on any of those surfaces.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • It’s better to bring your own food and beverage on the plane if you can plan for it. It’s less about the beverage itself and more about the transaction between you and the flight attendant and every other passenger in the plane that they have been exposed to.
  • Try to limit the number of personal items and clothing exposed to the airplane seat and floor environment unless you know you have access to laundry facilities on arrival at your destination.
  • Probably the most important thing in a hotel room is not to drink from any of the glass or ceramic cups. You just have no idea when they were last washed or who touched them last. 
  • When it comes to coronavirus and other viruses that are similarly transmitted, the key is to always think about first your hands and then your face and your mouth and how something has the potential to get there.

While it is disappointing to cancel travel plans, doing so right now is important for your own individual health and for slowing the spread of COVID-19. If you don’t have to travel, stay put. If you have to travel for business, try to see if your company can connect virtually instead of in person through online communication. If you absolutely must travel, remember to disinfect, wash your hands (at least eight times a day for at least 20-30 seconds), practice as much social distancing as possible, and follow current travel protocols. 

As with everything about coronavirus, travel recommendations are changing on an on-going basis as understanding of the virus becomes greater, and the countries affected evolve. Keep checking in with the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) for the latest updates.