What is considered essential travel vs. nonessential travel during coronavirus restrictions?

May 9, 2020

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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials say the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking trips for travel until later this year — and even then, be mindful of cancellation policies.

If you’ve been following the effect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the global travel industry, you may be aware of government-imposed travel warnings and restrictions as a result.

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 nonessential 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

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.”

But what does this actually mean? If you want to travel right now, could your travel be deemed essential? If you’re looking at booking flights later in the year, would this be essential travel?

Let’s have a look at the definition of each type of travel.

"Houston, USA - February 6, 2008: This picture was taken in 2008 before the merger of United and Continental Airlines. The airline has kept the Continental livery but uses the United name."
(Photo by Maxian/Getty Images)

What is essential travel?

Unfortunately, there is no simple definition of what is essential or nonessential travel. Ultimately, this a decision for the individual themselves based on the risk and their personal responsibility. If you choose to board a flight, it is currently unlikely that the government will stop you from doing so. However, if you are found to be outside for reasons that are deemed nonessential (such as organizing a large gathering in a park with members outside your household, and refusing to disperse when asked), you could be subject to a fine.

Like the lockdown and social distancing requirements, it is up to each individual to do the right thing to help protect the frontline workersand stop the spread of the coronavirus so that we can return to normal life and travel once this is all over.

Some people may have essential family and/or business travel. If you have a family emergency and need to urgently care for a loved one when no one else can, this could be considered essential travel. A pilot flying cargo planes full of medical supplies back and forth, for example, would be essential travel as domestic and international freight transport is an essential service.

Most business travel has ceased, as many businesses have suffered significant downturns and because it’s not necessarily safe to travel right now. For example, while the TPG team usually travels regularly, we have all been grounded for well over a month. I raced home to the U.K. shortly after the FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) announcement, and as much as I love traveling, it was an unpleasant experience going through an airport as it is impossible to social distance at one. I look forward to going nowhere near an airport again until it is safe to do so.

If you have been asked by your employer to travel for a business need and do not feel comfortable doing so, speak with your employer. You should not travel at all if you are feeling unwell, regardless of whether you believe the reason for traveling is essential or not. Note that if you do travel abroad, there is no guarantee you will be able to return during the lockdown due to the constantly changing travel restrictions and interruptions.

LONDON, May 1, 2020.A passenger wearing a face mask is seen at Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, on May 1, 2020. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Friday that the country has met the goal of 100,000 tests per day as another 739 people with COVID-19 have died, bringing the total coronavirus-related death toll to 27,510 in Britain. As of Friday morning, 177,454 people have tested positive for the disease, said Hancock. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty)

What is nonessential travel?

Traveling to a second home, either for isolation or a vacation, is nonessential travel and should be avoided. You should be staying in your primary residence or remaining where you are if you are already in your second home, whether that is in the US or abroad. This means if you usually live in an apartment in New York City but have a vacation property in the Hamptons, you should not travel to your second home just because you would prefer to be in lockdown there, even if you plan to properly isolate. If you wish to travel to a campsite or caravan park for a break (such as to enjoy a holiday or some annual leave), this is nonessential travel and is not allowed.

If you are furloughed in your employment and would prefer to be at the beach, that is nonessential travel and is strongly discouraged. Visiting friends or a family member’s house, whether they live nearby or you need to travel to get there is nonessential unless there is an emergency.

Related: Life after lockdown: 8 things about flying I’m most looking forward to

There are extensive, complex and constantly changing border restrictions for U.S. nationals attempting to travel abroad anyway, as well as the vast majority of flights being canceled. Most travel insurance policies will exclude claims where travel has been undertaken in disobedience of a government travel warning.

Bottom line

Most of us have had some — or all — of our travel plans canceled this year. As much as I would love to head to Munich (MUC) as I had booked months ago, I have canceled that trip along with all of my travel for the foreseeable future, as it is not essential and should be avoided.

Wherever possible, stay home, protect the front line workers and save lives.

Featured image by martin-dm/Getty Images

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