Airlines have suspended operations to certain airports and a growing number of companies are restricting business travel amid concerns over COVID-19, raising questions about whether people should cancel their upcoming international and domestic trips.
Guidelines around travel have become increasingly complex as more than 109,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,000 deaths have been reported across 79 countries and territories. Several airlines have suspended or reduced service to countries with some of the highest number of cases, such as China, and grounded flights to South Korea, Iran and parts of Italy, where more than 2,000 cases have been reported in each country.
The travel sector itself is expected to take a hit in the coming months, according to the trade group U.S. Travel Association, which said international inbound travel to the U.S. will fall 6% over the next three months, marking the steepest decline since the 2008 financial crisis.
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Roger Dow, U.S. Travel’s president, says that although businesses are warning people away from traveling, members of the public should heed notices from health agencies while deciding on travel plans. He notes that there are no current domestic travel warnings for U.S. residents.
David Abramson, a professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health says people should expect COVID-19 case numbers to increase and prepare accordingly.
“This is a pretty volatile time,” he says. “And by the time you travel, it may look different. You can’t anticipate where the cases are going to appear.”
Here is what to consider when weighing whether you should cancel any future travel.
What are health and government agencies saying about travel?
The U.S. State Department has issued varying levels of travel warnings for countries where there are current outbreaks.
The highest level — Level 4: Do Not Travel — has been applied to Iran and China as of February 2020. The State Department has issued Level 3: Reconsider Travel warnings for those planning travel to Italy, where more than 50 people have died from the virus, and South Korea, where nearly 30 people have died and more than 5,000 cases have been reported.
Japan and Hong Kong are under the State Department’s Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution warning, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Japan has reported about 300 cases while Hong Kong has confirmed just over 100.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued similar recommendations for travelers. The CDC has warned people to avoid nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan. The agency added that people traveling to those countries who are older or have chronic medical conditions could be at risk for severe disease.
Additionally, foreign nationals from China and Iran are currently barred from entering the U.S. American citizens returning to the U.S. who have been in either country in the last 14 days will be monitored for up to another 14 days, according to the CDC.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it generally advises against implementing travel or trade restrictions to countries with coronavirus outbreaks. Restricting travel and the transport of goods is “ineffective,” according to the agency.
“Restrictions may interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses, and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries,” reads a notice from WHO.
What about travel within the U.S.?
Guidance from health agencies has warned people to be cautious about any international travel, but no official restrictions have been placed on domestic travel as yet.
United Airlines said it will cut domestic service and introduce a hiring freeze in a letter to employees on Wednesday, the New York Times reports. The carrier will curb international service by about 20% and domestic service by 10% starting in April. In a separate announcement, JetBlue also said it would begin to cut service, starting at about 5%.
Abramson says the overall “sensible” thing for people to do is to stay home if they can to avoid illness. But if you have to travel—for work or otherwise—you can take precautions outlined by all health agencies, such as washing your hands and keeping away from crowds as much as possible. And be sure to speak up for help.
“If you’re on a plane within two seats of someone who is coughing, you’re in close contact with that person. Ask to move your seat,” he says. Such moves might not work on sold-out flights, or on planes where no extra seats are available.
And because traveling often means navigating large crowds, it is essential that people pay attention to their bodies, according to Abramson.
“We don’t always take the best care of ourselves and it’s stressful to travel,” he says. “We run ourselves ragged. That’ll make you more susceptible. You want to be your healthiest while traveling.”
Should you buy travel insurance before taking any trips?
Rushing to purchase travel insurance ahead of taking trips amid the coronavirus outbreak won’t actually help travelers in the moment, according to Squaremouth, a travel insurance policy comparison website. Standard travel insurance policies usually do not cover trip cancellations because people have a “fear of traveling,” according to the website.
Because COVID-19 is now well-known around the world, insurance providers consider the disease a “forseeable impact on travel,” and travel insurance policies will exclude it from coverage, a statement from Squaremouth says, noting that it has seen a 208% increase in people searching for cancellation coverage since the outbreak began.
“Travelers who wait until an event occurs will find very limited coverage for that event on a standard travel insurance policy,” the statement says.
Travelers looking to buy new insurance coverage that will allow them to cancel their trip amid the outbreak should buy the “Cancel For Any Reason” upgrade included in travel insurance policies, according to Squaremouth.
Most policies that include the “Cancel For Any Reason” upgrade have to be purchased within 14 to 21 days of the first payment toward a trip and cost about 40% more than typical cancellation policies. The upgrade will reimburse up to 75% of a trip’s cost.
Should you still go on that cruise?
The CDC has advised all Americans to avoid taking cruises, in new guidance published March 8 out of an effort to curb exposure to the coronavirus already spreading in certain U.S. communities. Older adults and travelers with underlying health issues, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and other conditions that cause suppression of immune system, should avoid getting on cruise ships, the CDC says.
“Recent reports of COVID-19 on cruise ships highlight the risk of infection to cruise ship passengers and crew,” the CDC says in the guidance. “Like many other viruses, COVID-19 appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.”
The cruise industry has seen a decline as travelers cancel trips and delay bookings. The Wall Street Journal reports that major cruise lines in the Mediterranean report being 60% full at the moment, a decline from 75% at the same time last year. Cruise operators in Asia expect to lose over $550 million this year, according to the Journal.
The virus has affected multiple cruise lines already, including the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California, on which at least 21 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. Another line, the Diamond Princess cruise ship, was quarantined in Japan and about one in six people tested positive for the virus on the ship in February. Six Diamond Princess passengers have died after contracting the virus.
The CDC says cruise ships, like other environments where people are in close contact, can “facilitate transmission of respiratory viruses from person to person through exposure to respiratory droplets or contact with contaminated surfaces.”
“They’re like a floating viral transport mechanism,” Abramson says. “You can’t get away.”
Abramson also warns potential cruise ship passengers that even if you don’t get sick, there is a chance that others might become ill and force everyone to self-quarantine.
Should you cancel business trips amid fears of coronavirus?
A number of companies are taking travel matters into their own hands by canceling events, suspending employee travel and requesting that employees work from home. This week, Adobe canceled its annual summit in Las Vegas and said it would host the event as an “online-only” experience. Facebook also canceled its F8 developers conference in San Jose, while Google called off its developers conference, I/O, which was set to take place in Mountain View, Calif.
While several companies have tried to curb how much their employees travel, those who have conferences or other essential trips planned should follow the CDC’s precautions: avoid contact with sick people, don’t touch your face with unwashed hands, and clean your hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
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