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Complete guide to traveling during the deadly coronavirus outbreak

March 29, 2020
16 min read
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The novel coronavirus disease called COVID-19 has infected nearly 680,000 people around the world in 177 countries and territories and all 50 U.S. states. Since it first emerged at the end of 2019, it's spread with dizzying speed. There have been more than 31,000 deaths, including at least 2,100 deaths in the U.S. as of March 29, 2020.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the viral outbreak a pandemic.

On March 12, President Donald Trump banned travel to the Schengen Area of Europe for at least 30 days. Two days later, the ban was extended to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

On March 29, the CDC issued a domestic travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, urging residents to "refrain from non-essential domestic travel for 14 days effective immediately," and stating that state governors will have "full discretion" to implement this advisory.

Related: These are the global travel restrictions by country

The impact far exceeds the SARS outbreak of 2003 in which more than 5,300 people were infected. Health officials say it's still too early to predict when it will end.

At this time, experts warn against all nonessential travel anywhere in the world in an effort to "flatten the curve." The CDC has also advised people over the age of 60 and those who have preexisting medical conditions to "stay home as much as possible." In addition, universities have canceled study abroad programs and closed campuses as the coronavirus continues to spread, and thousands of college students have been asked to return home.

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We talked with several experts about what travelers should know about the virus and how you can protect yourself. We also have news about trip cancellation insurance, shuttered hotels, canceled events and more.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

What is this coronavirus?

It's a newly discovered type of coronavirus that causes respiratory illness, including pneumonia. Symptoms can be as mild as those of the common cold, including runny nose, fever, sore throat, cough and breathing difficulties. Coronaviruses get their names from the crown-like spikes on the virus as it appears under a microscope.

Will travel insurance cover me if I cancel my trip?

Travelers are cancelling most trips.

Airlines and cruise lines around the globe have been canceling, redirecting and reducing service. Several airlines and hotels are offering full refunds to anyone with plans to travel in the coming weeks and months.

What should you do if a travel waiver does not cover your itinerary? Can you cancel your trip and rely on credit card protections or travel insurance to reimburse you for your nonrefundable expenses?

Possibly — but probably not. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Credit card travel protections

Trip cancellation and interruption protection is a benefit offered by several premium travel credit cards — including the Chase Sapphire Reserve — that provides reimbursement for covered expenses for nonrefundable, prepaid trip expenses when a trip must be canceled or altered.

Covered situations, maximum coverage amounts and eligible expenses vary across the cards that offer this benefit, but covered situations typically include accidental bodily injury; loss of life or sickness; severe weather; terrorist action or hijacking, and jury duty or a court subpoena that cannot be postponed or waived.

Related: What to know about trip cancellation and interruption protection offered by select credit cards

The outbreak of a virus is not listed as a covered reason. Even if your flight has been canceled because of the outbreak and you have no way of traveling to your original destination (or, more likely, home), you will not be reimbursed for any nonrefundable expenses like hotel bookings.

A potential covered situation would be a quarantine imposed by a physician or governmental authority for health reasons. Still, we’ve confirmed with Chase’s Card Benefit Services that this would only apply if you’re actually infected with the virus — not if you've been quarantined out of precaution.

Related: What proof is needed for Chase’s trip insurance?

The U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel to China. (Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH/Contributor/Getty Images)

Independent travel insurance

If you purchased independent travel insurance and now want to cancel your trip because of the outbreak, you may be in luck. Although most bare-bones plans come with eligibility restrictions for trip cancellation coverage similar to that with credit cards, there are pricier flexible plans that allow you to “cancel for any reason” and “cancel for work reasons.”

Travel insurance can technically be purchased up until the day before departure, but many optional coverages, such as cancel for any reason insurance upgrades, often must be purchased within a set number of days after making your initial trip payment. Prices vary by package, but premium vacation plans that cover just about any conceivable issue often cost more than 12% of your total trip expenses.

Related: How my $200 travel insurance plan gave me almost $1,300 to spend in Italy

Credit card trip cancellation and interruption protection have proven to be extremely valuable in certain situations, but they won’t be much help in reimbursing trips canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. However, you may be able to protect yourself by purchasing independent travel insurance.

Is it safe to travel?

We support the travel industry and want to be there for it and encourage more trips, but only when the time is right.

Instead of traveling right now, we suggest you use this time to plan your next vacation. You don’t have to book yet, but figure out where you want to go and map out the right strategy for building up the right points and miles for those trips.

TPG can guide travelers through this process. We’ll share the news when it’s time to start booking, but at least for the short term, let’s all do as much as we can to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. That includes hitting pause on travel.

Only you can make the very personal decision about whether or not to keep, postpone or cancel upcoming trips. Health officials do note, however, that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That means ceasing travel, except for essential and urgent reasons.

The Points Guy is not recommending any travel at this time, but we encourage you to get a list going of all the places you want to see when we emerge from the immediate crisis.

Related: Should I travel? Advice for the coronavirus outbreak

How is the coronavirus like SARS?

The coronavirus outbreak sparks memories of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis of 2003; this novel coronavirus and the SARS virus are in the same family of coronaviruses. Nearly 800 people across Asia died because of SARS between 2002 and 2003. Officials were slow to identify and report SARS.

So, how is the coronavirus like SARS?

“Both SARS and the 2019 novel coronavirus are types of coronaviruses and are thought to have emerged in humans from a transmission event from an animal carrying the virus,” Dr. Theresa Madaline, hospital epidemiologist and assistant professor of infectious diseases at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told TPG.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses and several known types cause mild respiratory symptoms like the common cold. However, similar to SARS and MERS, the 2019 novel coronavirus can cause more severe lower respiratory disease.” (MERS -- Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- broke out in South Korea in 2015.)

Who is at risk?

“Everything is very preliminary and information is changing very quickly,” said Dr. Julie Fischer, a research associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University. “What we do know is that the severe cases and the fatalities were with people who had underlying health conditions, particularly older people who have underlying health conditions,” Dr. Fischer added.

“I think that’s the other thing we also learned from SARS -- that older people who have chronic diseases like heart disease or respiratory disease or diabetes are probably at a higher risk ... They should have a higher level of concern and be more prepared to seek medical care if they find themselves developing severe symptoms,” she said.

But she advises that everyone should take precautions, no matter their age or overall health.

How to stay safe while traveling

To reiterate, you should only be traveling right now for essential and urgent reasons. If you must travel right now, keep these tips in mind when you do.

Coronaviruses are transmitted through coughs and sneezes by infected patients and by touching contaminated objects.

Preventive measures that travelers can take include sanitizing their airplane seat and the surrounding area with disinfecting wipes, Naomi Campbell-style. Carry and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer and wash your hands frequently.

“You get sick when viruses on those surfaces are introduced to your nose and mouth,” Dr. Fischer said. “So limit that risk by being really conscientious about hand-washing.” You should also try to avoid touching your face.

Do face masks protect against coronavirus?

Wearing a face mask is no guarantee against the transmission of the virus. You might think it’s a good idea, given that the virus can be transmitted through coughs and sneezes and many photos from China show people taking this measure. Many others who are traveling in a closed environment, such as an airplane, also take this precaution.

“Most of the evidence with the use of surgical masks is that it’s helpful for people who already have respiratory symptoms, not to infect others,” said Dr. Fischer. “But they’re not so effective at protecting people who are healthy from those who are sick. It might be better to convince people who have respiratory symptoms to wear masks so that they are not sneezing and coughing out in the open.”

Related: Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., an expert in the field and a frequent flyer, seconded what Dr. Fischer said, adding, “It’s not guaranteed to protect you against any virus, especially if you don’t ensure it fits properly.” The coronavirus particles are smaller than those filtered by most of these masks. Coronavirus particles measure 0.1 micron, as opposed to the 0.3 micron blocked by most masks.

Should you wear gloves to protect against coronavirus?

If masks are helpful for those who are sick, do gloves make a difference for travelers?

“Gloves are useful in that they remind people not to touch their own noses and mouth,” said Dr. Fischer. “Because when you’re wearing gloves, you become hyper-conscious of that. But the best protection for individuals is to be very careful about hand-washing.”

How to protect yourself against coronavirus in a hotel

If you're traveling for an essential reason right now and need to stay in a hotel, there are some tips you'll want to keep in mind.

According to Dr. Fischer, the initial spread of SARS internationally in 2003 happened when a clinician who had been infected traveled to Hong Kong for an event and transmitted his infection to other hotel guests. Most of those guests were international travelers and boarded planes and flew home to their respective countries while incubating the virus.

So what can you do?

“Again ... hand-washing is the most effective way to prevent illness,” said Dr. Fischer. “And you can take other general precautions like avoiding large crowds and close spaces.”

What to do if you feel sick

Common symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, dry cough, mild breathing difficulties, stomach issues, diarrhea and general body aches, according to the CDC. If you experience these symptoms, take these measures:

Prevent transmitting to others around you. Wear a mask, avoid large crowds and situations where you might come in contact with a lot of people and surfaces.

“Also, if you have traveled to affected areas and become sick, or have had contact with someone who has [been] or is under investigation for coronavirus, let your health care provider know,” said Dr. Goodman. “Many clinics prefer that, if possible, you call ahead if you have a respiratory illness so they can take steps to avoid the spread of infection in health care facilities.”

What coronavirus means for travel and tourism

The SARS outbreak had a huge impact on the Chinese economy, leading to a 64% decrease in revenue from domestic tourism, according to Rory Green, an economist who specializes in China and South Korea. And the novel coronavirus is similarly sending shock waves through the industry. Already it is much, much worse with many travel companies in serious financial trouble.

Related: Airlines and hotels offering full refunds in response to coronavirus outbreak

Airlines respond to coronavirus

Airlines are slashing capacity and offering unprecedented change and cancellation fee waivers.

As coronavirus spreads, and fears about contracting the disease grow, airlines are increasingly giving passengers a chance to retool their travel plans by waiving change fees or allowing their customers to cancel even nonrefundable tickets.

The Europe travel ban has meant additional uncertainty for U.S. citizens looking to get home or trying to figure out what to do about an upcoming trip. Airlines have been forced to cope with the decline in demand around the world by parking planes, slashing routes and reducing frequency. Here's what we know about what airlines are doing to alter their schedules.

Hotel brands respond to coronavirus

Major hotel chains — as well as Airbnb and other travel providers — have also put incredibly flexible change and cancellation policies in place, though some are more customer-friendly than others.

You can read the most updated policies here.

Cruise lines respond to coronavirus

Cruising is more or less suspended right now, with major cruise lines such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, as well as Disney Cruise Line, halting operations through at least the end of March.

At the same time, the pace of new bookings has plummeted while cancellations skyrocket, in part because the U.S. government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now are recommending Americans should not cruise until further notice.

As a result, cruise lines are offering unprecedented change and cancellation flexibility, as well as incentives.

Related: Trip wrecked: 7 ways to prepare for any kind of travel disaster

How coronavirus is affecting events around the world

The coronavirus outbreak has led to the cancellation of major events around the world, including the closure of many attractions and museums.

Some of the most prominent include:

  • The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed until 2021
  • Tokyo’s Nakamerguro district cherry blossom festival has been canceled
  • Carnival was canceled in both Nice, France and Venice, Italy
  • St. Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland were canceled — as were parades in the U.S. cities of New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, among others.
  • March Madness has been canceled
  • The Boston Marathon is canceled
  • All Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. will be closed
  • The Louvre, Palace of Versailles and Eiffel Tower are closed indefinitely
  • Tokyo Disney Resort remains closed
  • Shanghai Disney Resort is closed indefinitely
  • Hong Kong Disneyland is closed indefinitely
  • Universal Studios Japan is closed until at least early April
  • Universal Orlando is closed indefinitely
  • Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Paris are closed indefinitely
  • Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park in California is closed indefinitely
  • Disneyland Paris is closed indefinitely

Bottom line

Countries acted quickly to control the coronavirus outbreak by implementing screening at airports and restricting travel. The best thing you can do right now is follow CDC recommendations and announcements from the World Health Organization (WHO). The CDC is closely monitoring the outbreak and updating its website and announcements often.

For more on the coronavirus outbreak, see:

Additional reporting by Katherine Fan, Clint Henderson, Liz Hund, Melanie Lieberman, Carissa Rawson, Samantha Rosen, Gene Sloan, Benji Stawski, Ethan Steinberg, Victoria M. Walker and Joseph Hostetler.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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