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

Heather M. Jones writer headshot By | Updated on June 29, 2020
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Hudson, APRN, NP-C

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 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. 

Can you still travel during the coronavirus? 

On Mar. 31, 2020, the U.S. Department of State issued a worldwide level 4 travel advisory recommending that citizens avoid international travel, return home immediately if possible, or plan to stay abroad for an indefinite period. 

Coronavirus travel update: As of June, the coronavirus travel advisory is still in place.

In other words, it’s a good idea to cancel your vacation for the time being. This is especially important for high occurrence areas, but is recommended for any non-essential travel to anywhere.

RELATED: How to safely enjoy summer in a COVID-19 world

Why is limiting travel important?

“Traveling usually involves places where large groups of people are in small spaces,” says Hamid S. Syed, MD, FACP, an acute and primary care physician for Reagan Medical Center in Gwinnett County, Georgia. And avoiding large groups of people is a key way we can stop the spread of coronavirus.

Plus, 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.”

Is it safe to travel by car?

Experts recommend avoiding non-essential travel at the moment—it’s the best way to avoid spreading COVID-19 or catching the virus. For essential local traveling, going by car when possible is better than using public transit.

Taking a road trip is an alternative to flying, but precautions still need to be taken. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends asking the following:

  • Is COVID-19 spreading where you are going?
  • Is COVID-19 spreading in your own community?
  • Will you or those you are traveling with be within six feet of others during or after your trip?
  • Are you or those you are traveling with more likely to get very ill from COVID-19?
  • If you get sick with COVID-19, will you have to miss work or school?
  • Does the state or local government where you live or at your destination require you to stay home for 14 days after traveling?

Traveling by car may necessitate stops for gas, food, and bathroom breaks, potentially in more than one community or area. This increases the risk of coming into contact with infected individuals or surfaces.

In addition to practicing routine COVID-19 safety measures, the CDC recommends taking the following precautions:

  • Pick up food at drive-throughs, curbside restaurants, or stores.
  • Bring enough of your medicine to last you for the entire trip.
  • Pack enough alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) and keep it within easy to reach.
  • Bring a cloth face covering to wear in all public places.
  • Prepare food and water for your trip. Pack non-perishable food in case restaurants and stores are closed.

It may be best to take day trips and avoid lodging away from home. However, if you’re staying overnight at your destination, take these additional steps:

  • When possible, use contactless options such as online reservation and check-in, mobile room key, contactless delivery for room service, and contactless payment.
  • Call ahead and ensure all employees are wearing masks, and that the hotel is taking precautions such as plexiglass barriers at the check-in counter, notices about social distancing posted, etc.
  • Ask if the hotel has updated policies about cleaning and disinfecting or removing frequently touched surfaces and items (such as pens, room keys, tables, phones, doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons, water fountains, ATMs/card payment stations, business center computers and printers, ice/vending machines, and remote controls).
  • Minimize use of common areas like the lobby and dining areas, and amenities like the pool, fitness room, and game room.
  • Take the stairs if possible.

If you are considering cleaning your travel lodgings, see CDC’s guidance on how to clean and disinfect.

Is it safe to fly domestically?

While most viruses and germs don’t spread easily on planes because of their specialized filtration systems, social distancing on a plane is sometimes impossible, which may increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Time in security lines and airport terminals also increases the risk of exposure to infected people and surfaces.

Before flying, passengers may have their temperature taken and be asked questions about their health and their travel history. Many airlines require passengers to wear masks while flying.

As states open up, and domestic flights become more common, the CDC recommends taking the following standard COVID-19 safety protocols:

  • Wash hands
  • Wear a mask
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay six feet away from others when possible.

As is the case with traveling by car, take measures to stay protected when booking accommodations or planning an overnight stay.

Is it safe to fly internationally?

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 closed their borders to non-citizens, or banned citizens of the U.S. Check the U.S. Department of State site for the most up-to-date list of coronavirus travel restrictions.

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

RELATED: Coronavirus vs. the flu vs. a cold

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.

Is it safe to go on a cruise?

Many cruise lines have suspended trips through September 2020. The 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.

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

If travel using public transit 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.

 

  • Wear a mask when you are out in public, particularly in places where physical distancing is difficult.

 

  • 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 if you can plan for it. It’s less about the meal itself and more about the transaction between you and the person serving the food.
  • Try to limit the number of personal items and clothing exposed to the public surfaces, like plane seats or bus floors 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 be aware of  current coronavirus travel warnings. 

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.