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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Experts advise staying home for the holidays as pandemic surges

medical face mask, toy plane and hand sanitizer on top of a suitcase

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to emphasize that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

Latest updates

• The CDC has issued a new warning advising against travel to Mexico due to very high levels of COVID-19 in the country. If you do decide to go, the CDC suggests: Get a COVID-19 test and wait for negative results before departing; use a mask and follow recommended infection-prevention protocols while you’re there; get tested 1-3 days before you leave Mexico; get tested 3 to 5 days after returning home and stay home for 7 days (or, if you don’t get tested, quarantine at home for two weeks). It warns that if you test positive while in Mexico “you might be quarantined,” delaying your return home. Air travel between the U.S. and Mexico is allowed, but land crossings are still permitted only for essential purposes.

• The CDC and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are among the health experts urging Americans to cancel holiday travel plans to avoid spreading or contracting the coronavirus this season. Fauci has expressed serious concern that the uptick in travel over the Thanksgiving holiday may result in more COVID-19 cases around the country — “a surge superimposed on the surge we are already in.” Fauci said on NBC’s Meet the Press that travelers returning home should be more careful than ever, wearing masks and avoiding large groups of people, and that similar restrictions and advisories against travel will be necessary for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

• The CDC has lifted its No Sail order for cruise lines, replacing it with a Conditional Sailing Order. The phased restart plan first requires the lines to demonstrate that they have certain procedures and facilities in place (testing capacity and quarantine areas, for instance) to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their ships. Many lines have pushed their planned restart dates into the spring of 2021.

• Since United Airlines began offering optional rapid tests to passengers flying from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Hawaii on Oct. 15, more airlines and airports have announced preflight testing programs, including British Airways and American Airlines, which are collaborating on a voluntary testing program for travelers between some major U.S. cities and London. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and many U.S. travel industry groups have called for the development and widespread use of rapid preflight testing to lower travelers’ risk and boost confidence in flying.

• Nearly 20 U.S. states have requested or mandated quarantines for travelers or residents returning from other states. But rules vary widely and change with the COVID-19 numbers, with different penalties (if any) for noncompliance and definitions of what quarantine means. (Check each state’s official website for guidance, or see our story detailing state rules for travelers.)

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The number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day is still down, but has ticked up substantially — especially over the holiday weekend — from lows of fewer than 100,000 travelers a day in April. On Nov. 29 this year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, nearly 1.2 million people flew in the U.S.; 2.8 million people flew on that post-Thanksgiving Sunday last year (Dec. 1, 2019) — the busiest day in TSA history.

Here’s what to expect and how to lower your risk if you fly.

At the Airport

“Bring some alcohol wipes with you and wipe down anything you’re going to touch,” says Robert Murphy, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

U.S. airports and major airlines report that they are following CDC guidelines for sanitizing public interfaces: cleaning with disinfectant all check-in kiosks, ticket counters, gate seating — among other frequently touched areas — multiple times a day, and providing hand sanitizer throughout ticket and boarding areas.

The major airlines require passengers to wear masks onboard (except when they are eating or drinking), as well as throughout airports they serve. Those who don’t comply risk being banned from future flights.

The TSA is asking travelers to use enhanced precautions during airport screening, including putting personal items such as wallets, phones and keys into carry-on bags instead of plastic bins, and staying 6 feet from others waiting in line. TSA officers are required to wear masks and gloves, and to change gloves after a passenger pat-down, and travelers are encouraged to wear masks as well.

Passengers are allowed to bring liquid hand sanitizer in a container that’s up to 12 ounces in carry-on bags; previously, liquids could be in containers of no more than 3 ounces. And they can board flights with driver’s licenses that expired beginning March 1, 2020, “to use it as acceptable ID at checkpoints for one year after expiration date, plus 60 days after the COVID-19 national emergency.” (Some people have been unable to renew their licenses because of the outbreak.)

And note that you now have until Oct. 1, 2021, before you’ll need a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. The deadline was delayed a year.

On the Plane

The airlines are doing what they can to prevent infection, including requiring masks on passengers and crew, beefing up disinfection procedures and boarding passengers from back to front. Some are blocking middle seats to allow for social distancing. (Delta says it will do so through at least March.) They point to a Harvard University report out last month declaring that travel during the pandemic is no more risky than going to a grocery store. Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “a relatively very low risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] while flying,” thanks to air-filtering systems and requirements that passengers wear masks.

All of the major U.S. airlines’ planes are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and airborne particles that are 0.3 microns in size, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And the CDC concurs on their efficacy: “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes,” it notes in its guidance for travel during the pandemic.

But the CDC also notes that while “we don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others,” air travel can make social distancing particularly difficult.

Murphy suggests passengers “wipe the area down where you’re going to be sitting, and the armrests and the tray table — anything you touch. If there’s a touch screen or control or something, you need to clean that before you touch it.”

He adds: “If anybody around you is sick, get off the airplane.”

Changing/Canceling Trips

Providers are trying to address travelers’ concerns about upcoming trips by introducing temporary reprieves on change or cancellation penalties (see more on airlines’ policies below). They’re also allowing no-fee changes and cancellations on new bookings, as well as steep discounts in some cases.

Many tour operators have suspended trips in the near future: The nonprofit educational travel company Road Scholar has canceled all programs through January, for instance. It’s allowing travelers who book new trips by Dec. 31 to get a full refund if they cancel up until 90 days before their program begins. Collette is making decisions on program cancellations on a case-by-case basis 30 to 45 days prior to departure.

The major U.S. cruise lines have suspended itineraries into the winter or spring. For example, Holland America has canceled departures through March 31, 2021, as well as all cruises of more than eight days that include stops in the U.S. through Nov. 1, 2021. The CDC is requiring cruise lines to first demonstrate that they’re able to effectively prevent the onboard spread of COVID-19 before resuming normal operations, as noted above.

Hotel chains have also loosened their cancellation policies, waiving change and cancellation fees that would normally apply to nonrefundable rates.

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Amtrak is waiving change fees for reservations made before Dec. 31; you can make changes online, but for cancellations and refunds, you need to call 800-USA-RAIL. Many of its routes are operating on a reduced schedule. Passengers are required to wear facial coverings both at the station and onboard unless they are in a private room. (Read more about Amtrak’s safety procedures.)

The major airlines have a range of policies. American, Delta, United and Alaska airlines no longer charge change fees (typically $200) for most tickets on U.S. flights. The new policy doesn’t apply to Basic Economy tickets on American, and won’t always apply to Basic Economy tickets for the other airlines, which will again start charging change fees to those lower-priced tickets bought after Dec. 31.

Be aware that if an airline cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Alaska Airlines has eliminated change fees “on Main and First Class fares everywhere Alaska flies”; fees will again be charged for changes to Saver fare tickets bought on or after Jan. 1, 2021. Customers must pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive.

American Airlines has eliminated change fees for tickets on domestic flights, as well as flights to Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, with the exception of Basic Economy tickets bought after Sept. 30 (those bought before Sept. 30 for travel through 2020 will not be subject to a change fee). Customers must pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive. Travelers can also now fly standby on earlier flights for the same destination on the same day at no charge.

British Airways (an AARP member-benefit provider) says that it will not charge a change fee for bookings made from March 3 onward for journeys that are due to have been completed by Aug. 31, 2021, though customers will need to pay any fare differences.

Delta has eliminated change fees for tickets on domestic flights, as well as flights to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; it will be permanent for some classes of tickets, but fees will again be charged for changes to Basic Economy tickets bought on or after Jan. 1, 2021. Customers must pay the fare difference if their new flight is more expensive. You have a year or more to reschedule, depending on when you bought the ticket (see site for details).

JetBlue Airways is suspending cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through Feb. 28, 2021. Fare differences may apply.

Southwest Airlines is allowing passengers who cancel (at least 10 minutes before departure) to rebook within the next year or, in some cases, later: The airline has extended the expiration date of some travel credits. You can rebook online by visiting Note that fare differences may apply.

Spirit Airlines is waiving change fees for customers who book by Dec. 31. Its site says, “If you cancel your flight, you will receive a full purchase price reservation credit instantly.”

United has eliminated change fees for tickets on domestic flights, as well as flights to Mexico and the Caribbean; it will be permanent for some classes of tickets, but fees will again be charged for changes to Basic Economy tickets bought on or after Jan. 1, 2021. Travelers who change tickets can apply the funds (now or later) to a flight of equal or lesser value — or pay the fare difference — for travel up to 12 months from the original ticket issue date. 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on February 27, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.

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