We don’t normally write about current events and had no intention of writing about COVID-19, or the coronavirus, on our blogs. But the coronavirus has taken over the news and is greatly impacting travel around the world. It is also causing a lot of fear, confusion, and chaos.
Laurence and I are receiving daily emails and social media messages from readers about the coronavirus asking us for our advice. We are not experts about the coronavirus. We can’t tell you the risk of traveling to any specific destination or give you specific advice on your travel plans in regard to the coronavirus. Ultimately, all decisions about travel need to be made by you and your travel companions.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation, scaremongering, and unreliable information out there about the coronavirus. This worries us as some people are making decisions based on inaccurate or unreliable information.
So we wanted to write this to provide a guide for travelers to be able to easily find information about the coronavirus from reliable and respected sources for health information and travel advisories like the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), John Hopkins University, and national government travel offices.
We hope you find this information about the coronavirus and travel helpful. We have tried our best to write as objectively as possible using the currently known facts and recommendations as noted by reputed sources. I also read original research articles and check facts when possible. We provide links and sources throughout that article so that you can check the information and do further research on your own.
We do provide some of our own recommendations related to making travel decisions, but ultimately all travel decisions are the responsibility of the individual traveler. We recommend seeking out the relevant information to help guide your decision and then doing what you feel best to keep yourself (and others) safe and healthy!
As with any information you read, especially on the web, we recommend double-checking any information you find here!
Table of Contents:
What is COVID-19 (a.ka. the coronavirus)?
COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, is an infectious disease caused by a virus called the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It was first identified in humans in December 2019 in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China.
Exactly where and how the first human transmission occurred is unknown, but most scientists strongly believed it was contracted via an animal-to-human transmission (most likely from bats). The prevailing theory is that the first person was likely infected from a Chinese wet market in Wuhan that sold live animals. However, “patient zero” and the source are still unknown and investigators continue to try to locate the origins of the virus.
Initially, the disease was contained to China but has since spread all over the world, leading the World Health Organization to label it as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. There have now been over 15 million reported cases of COVID-19 in over 180 countries and territories.
The virus is spread in humans mainly by person-to-person contact through close contact with an infected person. Specifically through respiratory droplets spread by an infected person via their coughing, sneezing, talking, spitting, etc.
Although the vast majority of infections are believed to be due to direct person-to-person spread, it is also believed that the virus may be spread by touching surfaces and objects that have the virus on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Preliminary research has found that COVID-19 may be able to live for several hours to several days on different kinds of surfaces and that it can be detected in the air for up to 3 hours. You can read more about what is currently known about the transmission of the virus here and here.
The most common signs of COVID-19 infection include fever, cough, tiredness, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include aches and pains, loss of taste or smell, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, skin discoloration, conjunctivitis, or diarrhea. Many people who are infected may not experience any symptoms at all, and most people only experience mild symptoms and then recover without needing medical care.
Although most people who get the disease can recover without medical treatment, WHO estimates that about 20% of people with symptoms become seriously ill. In more severe cases, the infection can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death. See more about symptoms here.
The global mortality rate is currently unknown (and rates from individual regions and countries vary widely), but the WHO director reported on March 3, 2020 that of the confirmed reported cases at that point, about 3.4% had died. You can see case mortality rates by country here.
A research study by John Hopkins University has found that it often takes, on average, about 5.1 days for a person to start showing symptoms of COVID-19 after being infected. People suspected of having the disease are generally asked to self-isolate or enter quarantine for up to 2 weeks.
It should be noted that although new clinical information and research is coming out regularly, there is still a limited amount of scientific data on COVID-19. Many clinical guidelines and recommendations are based on experience and research with past coronavirus outbreaks, including Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). So do keep up to date with any changes in guidelines or information.
If you want to learn more about COVID-19 and viruses in general, you may want to check out the free online course from John Hopkins University about understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Can I Protect Myself from Catching the Coronavirus?
The prevention measures you can take for COVID-19 are similar to those that you would take to protect yourself from the flu. The best way to protect yourself is to prevent coming into contact with the virus.
Recommended prevention strategies include: washing your hands often with soap for at least twenty seconds, avoiding close contact with others outside your household (standing at least 6 feet or 2 meters apart), staying away from infected people, wearing a face covering, not touching your face unless hands are clean, disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, and practicing good hygiene.
In addition, to prevent any potential transmission you should wear a face covering when in public, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze, and dispose of used tissues quickly.
Note that many health organizations, governments, and public health organizations around the world where there is a growing rate of infection are now asking that people self-isolate as much as possible to avoid and slow down the spread of the virus. This means not leaving the house except for essential activities like work, buying essentials, and medical care.
- Find the prevention and protective measures recommended by the World Health Organization here
- Find the prevention and protective measures recommended by the CDC here for individuals and here for communities
- See the tips to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19 by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK here
Those who are at higher risk for complications from the virus, which includes older people (age 60+) and those with chronic health problems, are also advised to take extra precautions. These include stocking up on household essentials, taking extra care to avoid close contact with others, and avoiding all nonessential travel.
Although there is no way to 100% protect yourself from COVID-19, following the recommended guidelines should greatly reduce your chances of getting the virus.
What Should I do if Suspect I have the Coronavirus?
Follow the local medical guidelines on what to do if you suspect you have the coronavirus or have been in close contact with someone who has it.
Here are the CDC guidelines if you suspect you may be infected or start to have symptoms. The guidelines provide advice on self-isolation, how to manage your illness at home, how to prevent spreading it to others, and when to call for medical attention.
You’ll want to first self-isolate and limit any close contact with other people and animals. This is very important because if you have the disease, you want to try to prevent spreading it to others.
A research study by John Hopkins University found that it often takes, on average, about 5.1 days for a person to start showing symptoms of COVID-19 after being infected. So you may be infected several days before you start to notice any symptoms. Some people with the virus may not show any symptoms at all.
You will want to take special care to avoid any close contact with those at higher risk for complications from the disease including older people (age 60+) and those with chronic health conditions. These people are particularly vulnerable to complications and poor outcomes.
Unless you require medical attention, people are being recommended in most countries not to go directly to their doctor’s office, clinics, testing centers, or hospitals. Instead, they should stay at home in isolation until they receive medical advice. This is both to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to reduce the burden on overwhelmed health care systems.
People who suspect they may have the coronavirus are being asked to call their local doctors, local health departments, or special hotlines to get medical advice on what to do next. Medical staff can then advise you on whether you should continue to self-isolate and monitor your symptoms, if you need to receive testing, or if you need to receive medical help.
People suspected of having the virus are being asked to self-isolate and quarantine themselves at home for a certain period of time. You will likely be advised to not to leave your home unless necessary to receive medical attention. If you need to go out for things like testing or medical treatment then you should wear a face mask and be careful to avoid contact with others.
If you are traveling and start experiencing symptoms, you should first stop traveling and self-isolate as much as possible. Then find out the local guidelines for getting medical advice and attention if you need it. If you are not sure what to do, you may want to call your medical travel insurance company or local embassy for assistance and advice.
There are currently no vaccines or drugs available to prevent or treat COVID-19. Most people who become infected experience only mild symptoms and then recover. Those with more severe symptoms may need to seek medical care.
If your symptoms (or those of a loved one) do begin to get more severe, especially if you are at higher risk, then you should seek immediate medical attention. Emergency warning symptoms include difficulty breathing, bluish lips or face, prolonged chest pain or pressure, and mental confusion.
How is the Coronavirus Affecting Travel?
The coronavirus is having a massive impact on travel worldwide! Almost all of it negative.
Some destinations are under quarantine, many countries have issued travel bans, and a number of popular attractions around the world have closed. A large number of flights, cruises, tours, conferences, sporting matches, festivals, and other events have been canceled since January 2020. Many cities and countries have banned any large public social gatherings.
Travelers trying to contact travel companies, like airlines, travel insurance agencies, and cruise companies, are often experiencing long wait times. It actually took me two days to reach American Airlines earlier this week. The first day, a recording kept telling me that they were experiencing high call volume and disconnected me. The second day, it was over a 2 hour wait until they called me back.
If you need to contact a travel company and actually talk to a representative, be prepared for long call wait times and slow email response times.
Not only is this causing chaos on travelers, but it is also having a serious effect on economies around the world. Supply chain disruptions, travel cancelations, decreases in consumer spending, and ongoing fears and uncertainty have caused a lot of financial volatility. Major stock markets around the world have seen some of their worst performances since the 2008 financial crisis.
Travel-related businesses are being particularly hit hard and we’ve seen many of the cruise companies’ stocks lose over 60% of their value. Airlines, hotels, tour operators, and travel agents have also been hit very hard.
We have already seen a couple of travel companies, including the airline Flybe, go bankrupt and cease operating. Sadly, we expect to see more travel and leisure dependent companies, especially those who were already having financial issues, not survive this pandemic.
But it’s also negatively affecting all the businesses that cater to travelers, like restaurants, cafes, stores, ticket services, taxi companies, spas, and airport book shops. As well as all the types of businesses where people gather in larger numbers like dance halls, health clubs, cafeterias, sporting stadiums, and conference venues.
The full impact that the decrease in global travel will have on the travel industry due to the coronavirus is unknown, but it is estimated that it will have a large and lasting effect. It is believed in some countries that the travel industry is likely to take years to recover to pre-coronavirus levels.
Where Can I Find Travel Warnings & Advisories due to Coronavirus?
Most countries have a government agency in charge of evaluating the perceived threat of traveling abroad for its citizens. Travel advisors may range from a mild warning such as “use caution when traveling here” to complete travel bans and border shutdowns.
Almost all countries have coronavirus related travel warnings. Warnings may be for only certain cities or regions or be for an entire country.
The reasons for the warnings and travel restrictions is due to the fact that people who live in or have recently been in an area with ongoing COVID-19 spread are at an increased risk of exposure. Those from or traveling in these areas are more likely to have had close contact with someone who has been infected, whether they know it or not.
Many countries, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, are also advising travelers, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, not to travel by cruise ship. The CDC notes an increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment.
Below we link to the official government sources for a number of countries:
United States: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/
United Kingdom: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-advice-novel-coronavirus
European Union: https://ec.europa.eu/consularprotection/content/travel-advice
New Zealand: https://www.safetravel.govt.nz/
Where Can I find Advice for those Already Traveling Abroad?
If you are already traveling, you will want to take all the regular precautions to prevent catching the virus and spreading it to others. These include washing your hands often, social distancing, covering your mouth when coughing, and self-isolating if you suspect you are infected.
We recommend checking the current travel advisories and guidelines for the latest information for where you are traveling. Many governments have a way you can register your trip details to be able to receive important information while aboard, such as the Registration of Canadians Abroad. Some governments also have phone or email alerts you can sign up to receive, such as the Smart Traveler Alert Program by the U.S. Department of State.
Here are some guidelines for protecting yourself while traveling and steps that may need to be taken when you return from abroad, depending on where you have been.
Note that travelers who have been to certain countries, such as China or Italy, may be required to enter quarantine upon return to their home country.
Should I Still Book Travel to X?
We have a lot of our readers asking us if they should go ahead and book travel to a certain country in a certain month. Or wondering when will it be safe to engage in domestic or international travel again?
We can’t answer these questions for you, but we will say that many experts are predicting that the pandemic will last for many months. COVID-19 is now present in almost every country on earth so there is really no place that has not been affected by the outbreak.
It is important to remember that a lot can change in a relatively short amount of time in any destination. A destination that is perceived as being safe and without travel restrictions today may be under quarantine restrictions two weeks from now.
First, we recommend checking travel advisories from your government, WHO, and national health agencies to see what is being advised. Are there any quarantines or travel restrictions for the country you plan to visit?
Our general advice for any destination is to hold off on booking your travel reservations until closer to your trip if you can. That way you can make the most informed decision based on information at that time.
No one know how long the current pandemic will last or how many people will be affected, but it is fairly certain that it will be affecting travel for many months to come.
When making travel bookings, we recommend booking travel with companies that offer flexible cancelation policies. Or if making nonrefundable bookings, try to make sure they will be covered by your travel insurance policy.
Should I get Travel Insurance?
We think that getting travel insurance is almost always a smart and responsible decision, particularly if you are planning to travel outside of your own country. Travel insurance can help protect the costs associated with your trip and cover you for overseas medical costs and assistance. We always have travel coverage when we leave the country and recommend it for all travelers.
The news about the coronavirus has not surprisingly led to an increase in those travelers choosing to purchase travel insurance policies. However, since the declaration of a pandemic by WHO, travel insurance companies are increasingly cutting the amount of cover it will provide for coronavirus related issues. Some insurers has stopped selling new policies all together!
Some travel insurance providers will no longer cover travelers who need to cancel their trips to destinations that are subject to a government travel advisory due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is strongly recommended that you check your policy before purchasing and verify the coverage with your provider before you travel.
Just note that very few travel insurance companies will cover you if you choose to travel to a country that is deemed as being unsafe by your government. So if you travel against the advice of your country’s travel advisories, you are unlikely to be covered by your policy.
If you already have travel insurance or have travel coverage via your credit card, I’d check what they will cover in terms of coronavirus related cancelations and disruptions. I’d also get copy of this in writing or take a screenshot or photo of the policy details to have for your records.
There are lots of things to consider when choosing a travel insurance policy, but here are some of the coronavirus related questions you may want to ask:
- Will the policy cover you if there is a government travel advisory regarding your destination before you book your travel? At what level advisory does your policy become invalidated (e.g., a USA government travel advisory Level 4)?
- Will they cover you if there is a travel advisory after you have booked or started your travel?
- Does the announcement of the coronavirus being declared a pandemic by the WHO affect the policy terms or coverage?
- Will they cover you if you cancel after being advised not to travel by a medical professional due to being in a high-risk group?
- If you are thinking of a cruise or any sort of travel onboard a ship or boat, will your policy cover you?
- Will they cover you if you simply feel unsafe about traveling and want to cancel your trip?
- If your country advises its citizens abroad in a certain location to return, will your insurance cover costs of changing your travel plans to return home?
- Will they cover you for additional costs if you need to extend your trip if you are caught in a restricted travel or quarantine situation in another country?
- Will they cover you for medical treatment for coronavirus related illness in all the destinations you plan to travel?
- Are there any limits on how much they will cover regarding travel costs or medical costs?
If you are looking for travel insurance and have not purchased it before, the UK government gives some great general guidance on what to look for in travel insurance coverage, how to choose a policy, policy exclusions to look out for, and how to make a claim. Similarly, the nonprofit U.S. Travel Insurance Association has a helpful FAQ section here about whether to get travel insurance and how to choose a policy.
This article by the Association of British Insurers then discusses some of the issues specific to coronavirus and insurance. Similarly, you can read here what the U.S. Travel Insurance Association has said so far regarding coronavirus related travel insurance coverage. Forbes is trying to keep a list of coronavirus related coverage and exemptions for a number of American insurers here.
Note that the best travel insurance for you will depend on a number of factors. Factors that may determine travel insurance policy availability and rates are your country of residency, age, health status, type of coverage, intended travel destinations, length of travel, and any potentially risky activities you plan to do on the trip (e.g., mountain climbing, skiing). Generally, travel insurance needs to be purchased BEFORE your trip, but some companies will allow you to purchase after a trip has begun.
If you cannot find a travel insurance policy that will protect you at a reasonable price and are still planning to book travel, we recommend booking travel that allows for flexible cancelation. So examples would be flights that don’t charge for changing a date, refundable train tickets, and tours and hotels that can be canceled at no cost up to 48 hours in advance. This way if you have to cancel or reschedule, you can do so without any huge losses.
Many travel businesses are providing more flexible cancelation and refund policies because of the disruptions and uncertainly being caused due to the coronavirus. Be sure to read the company’s policy carefully before booking. It is also recommended that you take a screenshot or photo of the booking and cancelation terms and save it so that you have them if you do need to cancel your travel plans.
Should I Cancel my Travel Plans due to the Coronavirus?
If you have upcoming travel plans, you may be contemplating whether or not you should cancel your travel plans due to concerns about the coronavirus. While most people have canceled all their near term plans, many people are uncertain about whether they should cancel plans that are further away.
The best source of information is going to be to check the travel advisories for the places you intend to travel. For example, the CDC provides recommendations on postponing or canceling travel by issuing travel notices based on an assessment of the potential health risk of traveling to certain regions. You can find the travel notices for each country listed here.
The number of countries experiencing large outbreaks continues to grow. Most governments and health organizations are now discouraging all nonessential international travel to try to slow the spread of the virus.
Here are some things you should consider when deciding whether or not to cancel your travel plans:
- What are the relevant travel advisories issued by your own country? In general, we recommend following your government’s current travel advisories or at least giving them serious consideration.
- Does your intended travel destinations have a high number of coronavirus infections? You can check confirmed cases and maps here.
- Find out what is happening on the ground in the places you want to visit. For instance, even though a city may not be under quarantine or travel restrictions, many destinations are closing down tourist attractions like museums, cathedrals, amusement parks, and sporting stadiums. If the things you want to do there are likely to be closed, it probably makes sense to reschedule.
- Note that if there is a quarantine in place or high rates of infection at your intended destination, you are unlikely to be warmly welcomed as a tourist that does not need to be there. Tourists may add extra stress to services that are seriously overwhelmed, under-resourced, and understaffed and may contribute to further spread of the virus.
- Find out what your travel insurance policy covers and if you would be protected if you choose to take the trip. What will it cover? What will it not cover?
- If you get stuck on your trip due to travel cancelations, a quarantine, or travel restrictions, are you OK with spending longer than intended there? Will you have the money and resources to secure additional lodging, food, and other necessities until you are able to return home?
- Are you (or your travel companions) at higher risk for complications if you do get ill? You might also want to consult your doctor for medical advice.
- How comfortable do you and your travel companions feel about taking the trip?
- Are there any quarantine measures in place for visitors from your country entering the destination you want to visit or for people returning from the travel destination to your home country? Some countries have mandatory quarantines in places for travelers who have visited (or are from) certain countries.
If you have upcoming plans to a destination, say 60 or 90 days from now, it can be very difficult to know what to do. The travel advisories and warnings are always changing and things can change a lot in a month, one way or the other. If you have time, we’d recommend waiting until closer to your travel dates to make your decision so you have the best information to make it.
We have had all our travel plans canceled or we have canceled them ourselves for the coming 3 months. My brother is supposed to come visit us in late May in the UK from the USA, but we highly suspect his international flights will be canceled and that trip will need to be rescheduled. We now have no travel plans until September and we are even starting to feel those may get canceled.
We don’t recommend basing your decision on financial factors as your health and safety are the most important factors, but nonrefundable costs are obviously going to be a concern for most travelers. You might also want to note down cancelation and refund policies for your various travel plans as you may need to cancel by a certain date to be eligible for a refund or change of date. This may help give you a “decide by” date for canceling your trip.
We also recommend considering your decision with respect to others, especially those who are more vulnerable. Even if you are young and healthy, your behavior may expose others to the disease (including those at much higher risk for complications and fatality) and accelerate the spread of the disease. The increasing spread of the virus means more burden on already overburdened health care systems.
We also recommend that regardless of any travel advisories you consider how you feel about it. If you are worried and feeling stressed, it may be reason enough to cancel your trip for your own piece of mind even if there is no travel advisory. Being stressed while traveling is never a good way to spend a vacation!
At the same time, we definitely embrace the freedom of travel and know that people want to explore the world. We don’t want people to fear traveling. There are always risks associated with traveling no matter when or where you travel and you have to weigh the pros and cons and risks and benefits to you and to others.
Ultimately, the decision and responsibility to travel are your own!
Will I Get My Money Refunded if I Cancel due to the Coronavirus?
It depends. This is going to depend on the reasons for the cancelation, your travel insurance policy (if you have one), how you booked your travel, and the cancelation policies of the individual travel companies.
If you have travel insurance, your first place to check is your travel insurance policy and provider. They can tell you what is covered and any exclusions.
If you don’t have travel insurance, I’d check the individual policies of the companies in which you made reservations. Airlines, hotels, tour companies, train lines, etc. will each have their own policy regarding changes and cancelations. Many businesses are providing more flexible cancelation and refund policies due to the disruptions and uncertainly being caused due to the coronavirus.
Forbes has been keeping a running list of the airline cancelation policies here, with links to each of the full policies.
If you booked with a credit card, certain credit cards may come with some travel insurance coverage. This may allow you to make claims if the travel company itself is not willing to refund or rebook your travel.
Resources for Coronavirus News & Updates
There is a lot of information and news out there about the coronavirus from newspapers to Twitter and it can be overwhelming! We recommend double-checking any information you read with information being given by health organizations like the WHO and the CDC.
There is a lot of misinformation, fear, confusion, and scaremongering out there so just be sure that you are acting on facts and not misinformation.
Here is list of some of the more authoritative and helpful resources regarding the coronavirus:
- Centers for Diseases Control & Prevention (CDC) website
- World Health Organization (WHO) website
- John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource website
- John Hopkins University Outbreak map (good visualization of cases worldwide)
- National Health Service (UK) website
- United States State Department Travel Advisories
- UK Government Travel Advice
- Your home country’s government website and travel advisories
- Many states/provinces/regions/cities have their own more focused COVID-19 websites focused on local news, resources, and announcements. For example here is the one for the state of California.
- LitCovid & New England Journal of Medicine (for those looking for medical research articles)
We hope this information regarding coronavirus and travel has been helpful to you. As always, we recommend doing your own research to help guide you in doing what you need to do to protect yourself and make travel decisions.
We recommend staying calm and doing what you need to do to stay safe and healthy, and basing your travel decisions on the most current information from reliable sources. For those making new travel plans, we recommend booking travel with flexible cancelation or change of date policies.
Health organizations and governments can make recommendations and put out advisories, but ultimately every traveler is responsible for their own decisions.