Medical Examiner

Should You Cancel Your Plans? A Coronavirus Travel Guide.

Be warned: We cannot tell you much. But here’s what we do know.

A Delta plane flying in the sky
Delta has suspended flights from New York to Milan. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The coronavirus is here to stay, at least for a little while—“here” meaning at the top of our minds, and an increasing number of physical locations too. It’s shutting quite a few things down, from Tokyo Disney to the Louvre Museum to many, many conferences. Given that we are heading into spring break season and planning-trips-for-summer season, you might be wondering when it will be OK to leave your home. That’s hard to say because we cannot predict what will happen with this almost-global-pandemic in the next week, and certainly not in the next few months. It might be fine! It might get worse still. It’s very difficult to say anything definitive. But we’re here to try to help as best we can.

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I’m supposed to be getting on a plane tomorrow. Should I?

This is really hard to say. If you have a chronic condition, are elderly, or are immunosuppressed for any reason, please check in with your doctor about risks. It’s probably wise for everyone to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel notices, which offer location-specific information, and can help you rule out, say, a country or town where there’s an outbreak in progress, depending on what your health is and how necessary your travel is. Otherwise, wash your hands a lot—do not worry about getting a mask—and you’ll probably be OK … health-wise, at least.

What about otherwise!

The real risk right now is that you’ll get stuck somewhere and can’t get back home easily. That might entail getting stuck on a cruise ship, in quarantine (even if you simply come down with a fever), or “in a geopolitical tug of war,” as Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health, put it. What he means is that international travel is being shut down in all kinds of directions right now, and so your flight home getting canceled is a legitimate risk. That risk is a little bit more limited if you don’t leave the States or get on a cruise ship.

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But I reeeeally want to go on a cruise.

Here’s a story about a woman’s $24,000 cruise being derailed because of port closures. Here’s a story about the quarantine facility where 15 passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ended up. Here’s a video of drunk cruise ship passengers fistfighting after their ship was unable to dock at several ports because of the coronavirus. Godspeed!

OK, no cruises. What about going to participate in this large gathering of people that is taking place on land?

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If you’re talking about a conference or a festival or a family reunion, don’t count on the thing happening. The Tokyo Marathon, a giant destination race, was canceled with a little less than a week’s notice, surely messing up plans for trips that were already underway. The American Physical Society canceled a conference of 10,000 people in Denver—a location not affected by the virus—with less than 36 hours’ notice.* There were definitely already people there. Facebook and Twitter have both pulled out of South by Southwest, which is slated to start in less than two weeks.

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OK, I’m just going to cancel my trip. Will I get my money back?

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Sorry, but even if you have standard travel insurance, it isn’t going to help here. “Most travel insurance doesn’t allow you to cancel a trip because you’re afraid,” says Erica Wilkinson, a travel agent based in Colorado. It also typically doesn’t cover epidemics. To cancel because you’re worried your plans might be affected, you’d need insurance that has a clause where you can cancel for any reason, which costs more and reimburses a lower percentage of the trip. (And, if you’re a resident of New York state, you won’t be able to purchase that kind of travel insurance because of local regulations.)*

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There’s seriously no way I can cancel my flight?

No, there might be! If you have a flight coming up soon to a country the CDC is advising against visiting, your airline very well might be waiving fees to change or cancel flights. Lifehacker has compiled a list of the current policies, though they are changing quickly (some airlines are now waiving change fees for all flights booked recently). If your flight is happening outside those specific time and country windows—say, Berlin next week, Milan in April—and was booked a while ago, you’re probably best off seeing how the situation keeps playing out. If outbreaks begin or continue, it’s very possible the airline will start waiving fees. Or things “might improve—we just don’t know,” said Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College. So don’t panic-cancel now if it’s going to cost you money. “I think you would want to keep your options open,” says Amler.

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What about train travel?

Train trips are probably a slightly safer bet right now, if mostly because Amtrak is now allowing folks to change their trips for free before April 30. Trains also have roomier seats, so you’ll be slightly better off if you get stuck next to a cougher? It’s hard to say how much that will help.

This is so confusing. I just don’t want to get the coronavirus.

That’s a little bit out of your control, unfortunately. It’s unclear how far it will spread. Some epidemiologists think a sizable fraction and possibly even the majority of the population will get it at some point, though their thinking on this is evolving as new data come in. Avoiding traveling to one place or another might—might!—delay your getting it. But also, what if you decide on a staycation and an outbreak starts where you live? It’s kind of virus roulette out there. The one thing you really do have control over is washing your hands a lot, which is why experts keep recommending that. Wash your hands!

Ugh.

Yeah. But if you’re feeling brave, you can get a really good deal on a flight to Milan.

Correction, March 3, 2020: This post originally misstated that “cancel for any reason” travel insurance policies might be unavailable for future trips. They are unavailable to residents of New York state, as is always the case.

Correction, March 4, 2020: This post also originally misidentified the American Physical Society as the American Physics Society.

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