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If you’ve been watching the news, then you know that the coronavirus, or COVID-19, which is the official name for the virus, continues to spread. While most of us outside of China have not been affected, the spread of the virus does affect those who may have travel plans to the region. So in this video/post, we’ll review your options for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, and share some general tips to keep you healthy and safe on your trips.
Our thoughts go out to those infected and affected by the coronavirus
First off, I want to express my solidarity with those directly affected by the coronavirus. I can only imagine how scary and frustrating it must be, and I empathize with those who are in or close to the epicenter of the outbreak.
Coronavirus vs. the flu
While the coronavirus is spreading and is considered a major health threat, it’s important to have some perspective on it, especially those of us in areas that have not seen an outbreak. According to the CDC, more people are infected every year by the influenza virus, also known as the flu. During the 2018 to 2019 flu season, the CDC estimated that 35.5 million people were infected with the flu and over 34,000 people died. It wasn’t even a severe flu season.
I say all this because there is a lot of fear and anxiety generated by all the news of the coronavirus. And while I don’t disagree that it is a serious medical threat, it’s important to understand that the common flu is more likely to cause harm and disrupt your travel.
Of course, it’s what we don’t know about the coronavirus that makes it so scary. Scientists are learning more about the virus every day, including effective treatments. But not knowing how the virus is mutating or exactly how it spreads makes many people uneasy, and I don’t blame them.
How this outbreak affect travelers
So, what if you have a trip planned in the near future to China or other areas experiencing cases of the coronavirus? Should you cancel your trip? Does your credit card or travel insurance cover a disruption caused by an outbreak?
Traveling to China
Should you cancel a trip to China? The answer is yes. I would avoid a trip to China or even one that routes through an airport in China. The State Department has issued a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory for the country.
Also, if you do travel to China, you’re likely going to have issues entering other countries or even returning to the US without additional screening and potential quarantine. For me, it’s just not worth the risk and hassle. Some of you might be less risk-averse, but if you want my honest opinion, I don’t think you should travel to China at the moment.
Changing your trip
If you have a trip just a few weeks away, you could wait to see if the virus is better contained, though I suggest contacting the airlines to see what can be done about your ticket. You may have to pay a change or cancelation fee. However, many of the major airlines have suspended or reduced their flight service to China, so it’s likely that the airlines will work with you. You might also consider redirecting your flight somewhere else for now while the outbreak stabilizes.
Can you use your travel insurance (like those offered by travel credit cards)?
You should be aware that most credit card and travel insurance policies exclude outbreaks. The general rule when it comes to travel insurance is that they will cover what happens to you but not what might happen to you. American Express and Chase, for example, will not allow you to use the trip cancellation because you are worried about getting infected.
However, if you can get your physician to document that your trip is not medically advisable, you may be able to exercise your travel insurance option. You’ll still have to file a claim and wait for a decision, but from what I have read online, it seems like your best chance of getting your coverage to kick in.
Traveling to neighboring countries
This is a more complicated scenario. The risk of contracting the virus is low, especially if you’re traveling outside of China, though several surrounding countries are experiencing localized outbreaks. However, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to cancel your trip.
With new cases being detected in areas like Southeast Asia, many travelers are worried about visiting the region. Just this week, an American passenger from a cruise ship that deboarded in Cambodia was found to be infected with the coronavirus when attempting to connect to another flight in Malaysia. This means that they may have accidentally spread the virus while in the country.
Understanding your travel risk tolerance
Whether you decide to travel depends on your travel risk tolerance. If it were me, I would avoid under-developed areas that are experiencing outbreaks. Most of the developed countries in the region have the infrastructure and protocols in place to screen for the virus and quarantine if necessary. But I’m less confident about some developing countries that may lack the infrastructure and organization to control the situation.
Changing or canceling flights may be more challenging
If you decide that you don’t want to travel to your destination, it may be harder to get a refund on a flight than changing flights.
Also, keep in mind that you can often cancel flights if your itinerary has changed, especially if the schedule shifted by more than two hours. The rules are different for every airline, so you’ll want to research your airline’s policy and see if others have similar experiences and data points to share online.
Are cruises safe during the outbreak?
If you’re scheduled for a cruise, you’re more than likely safe. There’s a lot of coverage of cruise ships in Asia with infected passengers, which might lead you to believe that cruises are dangerous. However, when you consider how many people take cruises every year and the number of cruise ships out there, it’s safe to assume that cruising is safe.
If you happen to be scheduled for a cruise in Asia, then you might want to contact the cruise operator to see what precautions are in place. Cruise companies seem to be well-prepared for these types of situations. Also, since many ports in Asia are turning away cruise ships, I wouldn’t be surprised if the companies decided to refund or reschedule passengers onto trips elsewhere.
General tips for staying healthy when traveling
If you’re still planning to travel and wondering how you can reduce the risk of infection, here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Consider booking fully-refundable tickets:
While this is usually not the most cost-effective solution, it might be worth considering if you are planning a trip in the next couple of months. I don’t typically recommend booking these types of tickets because of the price, but in this scenario, it may be worth the extra cost.
If you fly business or first-class, you’ll likely have an easier or less expensive experience trying to change your flight if you need to. It varies by airline, but most major airlines will allow business and first-class passengers to change their flights for free or at a lower price than economy passengers. It might be something to consider if you’re debating between an economy or premium class seat.
2. Don’t wait until the last minute to change or cancel plans:
If you think you’ll need to alter your travel itinerary, I would do sooner than later. You’ll likely find more options available, especially if you decide to reroute your trip to another destination.
3. Practice good hygiene and sanitation:
Airports and airplanes aren’t the cleanest places in the world, so make sure you wash your hands regularly and cover any coughs and sneezes. You’ll also want to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to reduce the chance of infection.
Don’t worry about wearing a face mask
Also, you probably don’t need to wear a face mask. Most doctors seem to be in agreement that just washing your hands is the most effective way to reduce infection.
Consider carrying and using sanitizing wipes
I personally like to also wipe down my tray table, headrest, and armrest with sanitizing wipes when I get to my airplane seat. It may be overkill, but I’ve been doing it for years. I want to minimize the chance of getting sick when traveling, especially when I’m using precious vacation time from work.
Also, the wipes come in handy whenever I visit a public bathroom where there isn’t running water or soap.
4. Get up-to-date with your immunizations:
Flu shots are a must for travelers
You’re much more likely to contract the flu when traveling, so I think it’s a no brainer to get the flu shot every year, especially if you’re a traveler. Even if it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be 100% resistant to the current strain, it’s been shown to help those who contract some version of the influenza virus with their recovery.
Research the immunizations needed for your destination
If you’re traveling to a developing country, make sure you review the recommended immunizations. Some of the immunizations require a lead time to be effective, so you’ll want to plan accordingly. I recommend visiting the CDC website and seeing what immunizations are necessary and talking to your doctor about any potential risks.
5. Sign-up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP):
This is a free service provided by the State Department that keeps you up-to-date with any hazards or notices when traveling abroad. I used it years ago when I was in Southeast Asia and got a notification from the State Department of a potentially violent protest in the capital of Cambodia due to a political assassination.
The program can also help the local embassy contact you in case there is an emergency or situation where you need their help. I think it’s a great service that you should use if you’re a US citizen.
I don’t mean to scare people with this post and video. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an outbreak affect travel. Even just a few years ago, a lot of travelers were worried about the Zika virus in tropical locations with mosquitos. Now, it seems like no one is talking about it. I expect that the coronavirus will eventually be contained as well and that scientists will find effective standardized treatments for the virus.
If you’re someone who has an upcoming trip that is affected by the outbreak, I empathize with your situation, but I encourage you to see it as a potential opportunity to travel somewhere where there is less of a threat. “Traveling isn’t about the destination, but instead the journey.” It’s cheesy, but it’s true.
Have your travel plans been affected by the spread of the coronavirus or another outbreak? If so, how are you dealing with the situation?