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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Many Americans are on the move, but lots of caution is required

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• In a new study on the risk of COVID-19 infection on flights, the Department of Defense found that the odds of the tiny virus droplets expelled by an infected passenger reaching the “breathing zone” of another passenger are only 3 in 1,000 — assuming that both are wearing masks. The study, undertaken in partnership with United Airlines and Boeing, used a mannequin built with the ability to release aerosols that included tracer particles in its simulations.

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has extended the no-sail order for cruise ships another month, through Oct. 31, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This order bans cruise ships with the capacity to carry at least 250 passengers from U.S. waters. Carnival, for one, has canceled many of its itineraries well into spring of 2021.

• Since United Airlines announced at the end of September that it will offer optional rapid tests to passengers flying from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Hawaii beginning on Oct. 15, more airlines and airports have announced their own preflight testing programs. Programs are starting with specific destinations: American, for instance, will begin by offering tests to residents of Jamaica traveling from Miami International Airport to Jamaica; negative tests will allow passengers to avoid a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

Airbnb, the home rental platform, has announced that it is blocking one-night rentals for Saturday, Oct. 31, Halloween night, to discourage parties. The company already has a global ban on all parties and events at Airbnb listings, including a cap on occupancy at 16, due to a concern that COVID-19 is spread in confined, crowded spaces. “This party ban applies to all future bookings on Airbnb and it will remain in effect indefinitely until further notice,” the company notes on its site.

• 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. Before United announced its new policy on Aug. 30, Southwest was the only major airline with a permanent no-fee change policy.

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer suggests that travelers quarantine for two weeks after traveling internationally or to areas with high rates of COVID-19. It has removed that recommendation from its site, though continues to emphasize that staying home remains the best way to avoid getting sick because no form of travel is completely safe. Its recommendations include wearing a mask in all public areas, not traveling when you’re sick and, when possible, using remote check-in at hotels and contactless payment methods.

The State Department has lifted its global travel advisory against U.S. citizens traveling internationally; it’s gone back to country-specific advice, due to “health and safety conditions improving in some countries and potentially deteriorating in others.” But many countries, including those in Europe, aren’t allowing visitors from the U.S.

• The number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has ticked up from about 80,000 a day in mid-April to about 901,000 on Oct. 4, though it’s still down substantially from the more than 2.5 million people flying on that day a year earlier.


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The CDC continues to emphasize that staying home remains the best way to avoid getting sick because no form of travel is completely safe. Its recommendations include wearing a mask in all public areas, not traveling when you’re sick and, when possible, using remote check-in at hotels and contactless payment methods.

When considering travel, the CDC suggests asking:

  • Whether COVID-19 is spreading in your community or the area you’re visiting. If so, you may have a higher chance of becoming infected or infecting others.
  • If you have an underlying condition that might increase the risk for complications from the disease.
  • If you’ll be able to maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and others during travel and at your destination.
  • Whether the destination requires that visitors quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival.

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..)

The CDC notes that while “we don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others,” air travel can make social distancing particularly difficult. 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. “If a customer is unable to wear a face covering or mask for any reason, Southwest regrets that we will be unable to transport the individual,” Southwest said in a statement. 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 due to 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

"Wipe the area down where you’re going to be sitting, and the armrests and the tray table — anything you touch,” Murphy says. “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.”

The airlines are doing what they can; many are requiring masks on passengers and crew and boarding from back to front. Some are blocking middle seats to allow for social distancing (Delta says it will do so through Jan. 6, 2021). And all of the major U.S. airlines’ planes “are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which clean the air,” according to the industry advocacy organization Airlines for America, which details each airline’s cleaning protocols. Southwest reports, for instance, “We deep clean each plane from nose to tail for nearly 6-7 hours every night.”

United Airlines says “if an employee or customer is exhibiting potential coronavirus symptoms, the aircraft is taken out of service and sent through a full decontamination process.”

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 Oct. 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.

With the CDC’s no-sail order for cruises in effect until through Oct. 31 (when it may be renewed), the major U.S. cruise lines have suspended itineraries into the fall — or later. Viking has canceled departures through the end of 2020; Holland American won’t begin until at least Dec. 15.

Canada is prohibiting cruise ships with more than 100 passengers from arriving at its ports until at least Oct. 31, so those northern itineraries are canceled.

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. 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 through Oct. 13 for journeys that are due to have been completed by Aug. 31, 2021, though customers will need to pay any fare differences. Travelers who choose to cancel a flight that was due to be completed by Sept. 30 will receive a voucher toward a future flight completed by April 30, 2022.

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 southwest.com/rebook. Note that fare differences may apply.

Spirit Airlines is waiving change fees for customers who book by Oct. 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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