Is It Safe to Travel Again? Your Coronavirus Questions Answered

Noble Horvath

Yes, though still not easily. On Aug. 6, the U.S. State Department lifted the nearly five-month-old travel advisory warning Americans against all international travel, citing improved health and safety conditions in some countries. But both the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still have advisories […]

Yes, though still not easily.

On Aug. 6, the U.S. State Department lifted the nearly five-month-old travel advisory warning Americans against all international travel, citing improved health and safety conditions in some countries. But both the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still have advisories in place urging against non-essential travel to dozens of countries, including most of the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

And while a growing number of nations are re-opening their borders to tourism, several countries—including much of Europe—remain off-limits to tourists from the U.S., where cases of coronavirus are still surging.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, do allow visitors from the U.S., but they’re required to self-isolate for 14 days. In England, breaching the quarantine comes with a £1,000 penalty. Other countries that are welcoming back U.S. travelers—including Croatia, Ecuador, French Polynesia, Kenya, Rwanda and a handful of Caribbean countries (such as Antigua, Barbados and St. Lucia)—require visitors to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test. Iceland and Portugal, which had planned to open to overseas tourists, including those from the U.S., earlier this summer, extended their restrictions indefinitely.

Am I allowed to travel to Canada?

The closure of the U.S.-Canada border was recently extended until at least Oct. 21, which means non-essential travelers are still prohibited from entering Canada by sea, plane or car. Canadian citizens, permanent residents or relatives of Canadians citizens or permanent residents are allowed into the country, but they’ll be required to quarantine for 14 days.

What about traveling domestically?

The CDC continues to warn that travel “increases your chances of getting and spreading Covid-19” and staying at home is the safest way to protect yourself and others. That said, the agency’s website does offer advice for minimizing risks while traveling, including guidance for staying at hotels,stopping for gas or taking taxis.

Many health experts agree that as long as you take the necessary precautions,closer-to-home vacations in relatively uncrowded spots are fairly low risk. But keep in mind that state- or city-mandated travel restrictions vary widely and change frequently. Keeping up with the latest rules can be a challenge. For example: The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut now requires visitors from 34 states (plus Puerto Rico) with high rates of new Covid-19 cases to self-quarantine for 14 days. Airport travelers arriving to New York from other U.S. states that are on New York’s quarantine list are required to fill out detailed contact forms upon landing, with fines and a summons for noncompliance. New Mexico also requires visitors from certain states to quarantine for two weeks, as does Hawaii, where violators of the order incur a $5,000 fine. The state’s “Pre-Travel Testing Program,” which lets travelers skip the quarantine if they show proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test, has been delayed to October 15.

Alaska recently tightened its travel restrictions. too; now, only all out-of-state visitors must either show proof of a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival or pay $250 for a test as soon as they land, and if they’re still in the state after seven days, they’ll need to be tested again.

In Vermont, visitors arriving from certain counties with low rates of Covid-19 infection can skip the mandatory two-week quarantine; out-of-staters from any county who have tested negative for Covid-19 are required to quarantine for seven days, not the full 14. Over in Maine, visitors who have tested negative for Covid-19 or who are visiting from six East Coast states won’t be required to quarantine at all. To find the ever-changing rules in place in the destination you’re considering, be sure to check out the state’s official tourism website.

Can I take a road trip? Are there coronavirus checkpoints at state borders?

As more hotels and national and state parks reopen across the country, road trip vacations are picking up speed and travelers can drive freely across state borders, with a few exceptions. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that checkpoints will be set up at bridges and tunnels leading into New York City in order to enforce the city’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for drivers arriving from states with high rates of Covid-19.

New Mexico also has a checkpoint on US 64, leading in and out of Taos Pueblo, which is closed indefinitely to nonresidents. For other roadside travel restrictions, see AAA’s Covid-19 map at TripTik.AAA.com. And for more road trip guidance, including tips on how to safely get gas and food along your drive, read “Expert Advice for a Safe Road Trip.”

If I need to rent a car, what precautions should I take?

Renting a car tends to pose fewer risks of getting or spreading Covid-19 than taking public transit since you’re exposed to far fewer people and transmission is mostly caused by person-to-person contact. Even so, research shows that the novel coronavirus can linger on some surfaces for two to three days, or even suspended in the air for up to an hour. “To reduce the risk in a rental car, it would be a good idea to wipe down high-touch areas and increase ventilation through the windows or air conditioning,” says Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, director of Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In response to the outbreak and plummeting sales, most rental car companies are instituting their own more rigorous cleaning procedures. Hertz, for example, now seals vehicles after a 15-point cleaning process between each rental, while Enterprise details similar protocols under its Complete Clean Pledge.

Are hotels open in the U.S.?

Increasingly, yes. Many hotels, deemed essential businesses by state or local authorities, never fully closed, but a number of them have only been permitted to house medical workers, non-critical Covid-19 patients or other pandemic-related guests, not leisure travelers. As some states lifted their stay-at-home orders, restrictions on hotels (and vacations) started to ease too, and more hotels across the country are starting to welcome standard guests. To try to reassure skittish travelers, the bigger brands are rolling out heightened safety protocols. This month, for example, Hilton Worldwide launched its “CleanStay” program, with contact-less check-ins and more rigorous cleaning practices based on advice from the Mayo Clinic. And Marriott International convened its “Cleanliness Council,” to help overhaul its standard housekeeping practices. The American Hotel Lodging Association (AHLA) also issued enhanced cleaning and safety guidelines to its more than 27,000 members.

To be extra cautious when staying at a hotel or a vacation rental, you may want to pack your own supplies, advises Rebecca Acosta, a registered nurse, MPH and executive director of Traveler’s Medical Service of New York. “Travel with cleaning supplies or wipes that contain an EPA-approved disinfectant,” said Ms. Acosta. Use them to disinfect high-touch surfaces, including door-knobs, remote controls and light switches.

Can I book a vacation rental?

Yes, but not everywhere and depending on where you’re headed, you may need to stay awhile. Several states and counties temporarily banned Airbnb, VRBO and other short-term vacation rentals (typically defined as fewer than 31 days). Those bans are gradually lifting in most states. Maine now allows all out-of-state visitors to book short-term vacation rentals again (and hotel rooms), while Vermont officials lifted that state’s rental ban in mid June. But keep in mind your short-term rental still comes with restrictions—both Maine and Vermont require most out-of-staters to self-quarantine for 14 days or certify that they’ve tested negative for Covid-19. In Vermont, even if you test negative for Covid-19, you’re still required to quarantine for seven days. To help prospective renters sort out the patchwork of regulations, Airbnb lists government restrictions on its site, but be prepared to wade through the fine print.

Should I avoid flying altogether?

Health authorities, including the CDC, maintain that the risk of infection on airplanes is low. Contrary to popular belief, cabin air is less of a concern; virtually all commercial jetliners are equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, similar to those used in hospital operating room, capable of blocking 99.7% of airborne microbes. Cabin air is circulated vertically, from ceiling to floor, and refreshed every two to three minutes. Between flights, airplane cabins are scrubbed down with anti-microbial disinfectants.

Some airlines—including Delta, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Southwest, and JetBlue— are cordoning off middle seats for those not traveling together, or capping capacity at about two-thirds full, to make it easier to adhere to social distancing practices. Some others like American are letting planes fill up but will give nervous fliers the option of switching to a less crowded flight. Whatever the policy, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep 6 feet of distance between yourself and others in the confined quarters of a airplane, especially now that flights are fuller than they’ve been in the last few months, which is why most airlines now require passengers to wear masks during the entire flight. Airlines are also drastically curtailing in-flight food and beverage service to limit contact between customers and crew. For more on flying this summer, see “A New Guide to Air Travel During Coronavirus.”

If I have to fly, should I wear a mask?

Yes. Most airlines—and many airports—are now requiring passengers to wear a mask or face covering, and will provide one if necessary. The new measure followed an extensive debate among health officials, after which the CDC revised its recommendation, now advising everyone, feeling ill or not, to wear a cloth face-covering when you might not be able to stand—or sit—at least 6 feet apart from another individual. Recent studies show that Covid-19 can be spread by people who don’t exhibit any symptoms and might not even realize that they’re infected. Face masks, or even cloth coverings, might not be a fail-safe, but they can help reduce transmission. Other than the industrial-strength N95—which the CDC says should still be reserved for health care workers—other masks don’t fully protect you from other people’s illnesses but they do prevent your own germs from spreading. Keep in mind that the virus spreads by droplets, when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes. The droplets spread through the air and can land on another person’s mouth or nose, or possibly be inhaled into their lungs, infecting them. The droplets can also settle on nearby surfaces, where they can survive for two to three days.

Public health authorities, developers and tech companies are working on apps to help us keep track of who we came in contact with and where we’ve been to aid in Covid-19 contact-tracing efforts. WSJ’s Joanna Stern explains the technologies using an 8-bit video game.
I’ve heard that airlines and airports are taking fliers’ temperatures. What happens if you are found to have a temperature?

If you have a fever—considered by medical professionals to be a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher—you likely won’t be permitted to board a flight, or, if you are arriving somewhere from another country, you’ll be referred to local health authorities. “If someone is showing signs of a generic illness or Covid-19, they’ll likely be tested if they’re arriving from a country that has identified cases,” said Courtney Kansler, senior health intelligence analyst for risk management company WorldAware. Those who might have been exposed to a suspected case but aren’t exhibiting signs of illness are sent to quarantine.

Is flying private safer than flying commercial from a health point of view?

Potentially, but not in all cases. If you’re chartering a private plane, you can avoid the uncertainties of navigating large airport terminals and sharing space with total strangers. Even so, how could you know who was last sitting in your seat? Many private operators report that they’re doing extra cleaning after each trip. And, in other measures, Flexjet says its pilots and cabin crews are avoiding commercial flights, which they would normally use to commute to work.

Should I avoid cruises altogether?

After the widely reported quarantines of passengers on ocean liners and the rapid rise of confirmed cases among the passengers and crew, the CDC and the U.S. State Department issued heightened travel warnings, advising travelers to defer all cruise ship travel world-wide. The CDC currently has a No-Sail order in place through September, which prohibits cruise ships carrying more than 250 passengers and crew from sailing into U.S. waters. The CDC points out that the people at highest risk of falling seriously ill from Covid-19 are older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. Most cruise lines have temporarily suspended voyages worldwide until at least October 31.

If I already have a cruise booked for later this year, can I cancel it without penalty?

In the event the cruise line itself cancels a voyage, passengers are typically given a full refund and often credit for a future departure. And now many cruise lines, including Viking and Norwegian, are extending similar policies to most if not all of their voyages. “Some lines have begun offering cancel-for-any-reason policies,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, chief content officer of Cruise Media. “Travelers who want to cancel an existing booking will either get a refund or 100% credit for use on another trip.”

How are airlines changing their cancellation or booking policies in light of the coronavirus?

After months of extending the deadline for “fee-free” changes in response to soft demand, United, American, Delta as well as Alaska airlines recently announced that they will be permanently eliminating change fees on most domestic flights.

I want to cancel my flight, not postpone it. How can I get refund?

Under most airlines’ policies, if you are choosing to cancel a flight that is still operating simply because you don’t want to travel—now or ever—you are not entitled to a full refund, just a credit for future use. That doesn’t mean you should accept that without a fight, said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of the aviation consumer advocacy group Travel Fairness Now. Given the uncertainty over when the travel industry might rebound, Mr. Ebenhoch says you can argue your case to an airline customer service agent, if you can get one on the phone, that is. A better bet might be to dispute the charge with the credit card you used to buy it. And if you’ve got a ticket for travel in the near future, you could simply wait to see if the airline scrubs it—as most carriers are still adjusting schedules. If it’s the airline’s call to cancel, it owes you the full amount. The U.S. Department of Transportation, in fact, in April has taken unusual step of reminding airlines of their obligation. Even so, some airlines are working hard to persuade customers to hang on the ticket, with some even offering a “bonus” on top of the face value of the ticket.

What about hotels?

A number of hotel chains—including Marriott, Hilton and IHG—are temporarily waiving cancellation and rebooking fees for all properties worldwide. Even if your hotel hasn’t revised their cancellation policy in the wake of the coronavirus, there might still be some wiggle room. It doesn’t hurt to go directly to the travel provider if you don’t want to travel at all, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at creditcards.com. “Your best odds of getting a refund is through the supplier,” he said

Is there any point in buying travel insurance if coronavirus isn’t covered by it?

If you’re insuring your trip because of Covid-19 you are probably out of luck; most trip-protection policies won’t refund you if you back out of an upcoming trip because you’re afraid to go. But there are plenty of other reasons to insure your trip; you might get a partial refund if your policy includes trip interruption coverage and you fall ill while traveling, or have to return home earlier than expected, depending on the circumstances. Another option is to buy a much more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy. These CFAR plans, as they’re known, frequently cost 40% more than basic insurance, and the coverage often pays out only 50% to 75% of your total expenses, compared with the full cost paid by regular policies. Consumers should make sure to check the fine print for any exceptions. Websites like SquareMouth and Travelinsurance.com let you comparison shop among insurers and filter search results by specific parameters.

Is now a good time to buy an airline ticket for the fall or winter? Will I get a good deal?

If you spot a low fare for travel later in the year, you might want to snap it up now, especially for travel over a holiday. Currently, bargains abound and now several airlines are permanently nixing change fees for most domestic tickets in effort to boost demand.

But don’t be surprised if your fare searches also turn up some steep prices too, especially for busy times like Thanksgiving; with many planes grounded, airlines have fewer seats to fill and if demand rises, so will prices. And, caveat emptor: don’t buy a ticket if you have any doubts that you’ll want to use it because if you change your mind you won’t get your money back, just a travel voucher for future use. And if your new flight is more expensive, you’ll be charged the difference in fare.

Corrections & Amplifications

An earlier version of this article misspelled Kurt Ebenhoch’s surname as Ebenhock. (April 2, 2020).

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