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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Summer travel heats up, but lots of caution required

People walk past a sign advising about social distancing on the boardwalk during the Memorial Day holiday weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 23, 2020 in Ocean City, Maryland


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Latest updates

• New Jersey, New York and Connecticut announced on Wednesday that, beginning immediately, they expect visitors from certain states with high numbers of COVID-19 cases to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. The mandate currently applies to visitors from Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Texas. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that visitors who flout the rule could face a $2,000 fine; New Jersey and Connecticut have not explained how their rules will be enforced. (See below for more on those and other states’ quarantine rules).
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says staying home remains the best way to avoid getting sick. Its recommendations include wearing a mask in all public areas and, when possible, using remote check-in at hotels and contactless payment methods.  
• The U.S. State Department has begun processing passports again, after putting processing on hold for months during the outbreak. Because it has a large backlog (it processes more than 18 million passports a year), expect delays.
Disneyland in Anaheim, California, has delayed its opening, with no new date announced; it had planned to open July 17. Disney World still plans to open parts of its Orlando, Florida, parks complex on July 11.
America’s national parks, most of which were mostly or partly closed this spring due to the outbreak, are now open or in the process of opening, with special precautions and restrictions to protect visitors, staff and local residents.

For travel within the U.S. 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 or a loved one who is returning home has 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.

As noted above, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have advised travelers from states with high numbers of COVID-19 infections (those with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents, or higher than a 10 percent test positivity rate) to quarantine. They join other states with different 14-day quarantine rules: Florida asks visitors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to quarantine. Maine asks visitors from everywhere but Vermont and New Hampshire to do so. Some states, such as Kansas, ask their residents to quarantine if they return from certain states (for Kansas that means Maryland, Alabama, Arizona or Arkansas). Still others, including Alaska, ask out-of-state visitors to offer proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a few days of arrival. Hawaii asks all visitors to quarantine, though starting Aug. 1 they can alternatively offer proof that they’ve tested negative for COVID-19.

Check each state’s official website for guidance.

The CDC emphasizes that no form of travel is completely safe: “We don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others; however, airports, bus stations, train stations and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces. These are also places where it can be hard to social distance [keep 6 feet apart from other people].”

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

For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to

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. Many also require passengers to wear masks from the check-in counter through deplaning.

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 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 COVID19 national emergency.”

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.

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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. 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. It notes, for instance, that “Southwest aircrafts receive more than six hours of cleaning every night.”

United Airlines says it “has a team of in-house professionals, including an industrial hygienist who reviews and tests cleaning products and a corporate medical team who are working around the clock.”

Delta Air Lines reports that it has doubled down on its regular cleaning program and added a fogging process to disinfect many international flights. Its site explains: “The fogging procedure uses a high-grade, EPA-registered disinfectant and virucide that is highly effective against many communicable diseases, including coronaviruses.”

Changing/Canceling Trips

Providers are trying to address travelers’ concerns about upcoming trips by introducing temporary reprieves on change or cancellation penalties. They’re also working hard to encourage new bookings by allowing no-fee changes and cancellations on future travel, as well as steep discounts.

Many tour operators have suspended trips in the near future: Road Scholar and Tauck’s trips are on hold through July, for instance, and Collette has canceled trips through June.

With health officials issuing strong warnings against cruise travel, the major U.S. cruise lines have suspended operations at least through July. Princess, Carnival and Royal Caribbean have suspended cruises to Alaska for the rest of 2020.

Canada is prohibiting cruise ships with more than 100 passengers from arriving at its ports until Oct. 31, so those northern itineraries are canceled. Some lines (Princess, for instance, which has canceled cruises through the summer season) are offering the choice of full refunds for voyages they cancel or credits for future cruises; others are only giving prospective travelers the latter.

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

Amtrak is waiving change fees for reservations made before Aug. 31; you can make changes online, but for cancellations and refunds, you need to call 800-USA-RAIL. Amtrak had reduced its train service due to lowered demand, but it is beginning to power back up, including having restarted its high-speed Acela service on the East Coast on June 1. Amtrak also requires customers to wear facial coverings in public, including in stations and on trains. (Read more about Amtrak’s safety procedures.)

The major airlines have a range of policies. Note that they are experiencing very high call volumes, so they recommend that customers make changes online (many have made it very easy to do so). And 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 says tickets bought between Feb. 27 and April 30 of thie year for travel on or before Feb. 28, 2021, can be rescheduled (now or later) within that same time period. If a flight is canceled, Alaska says it will reschedule passengers to the next available flight. If the change is more than an hour from the original flight, passengers can reschedule or cancel and receive either a credit for future travel or a refund (as long as the passenger didn’t cancel before the airline canceled).

American Airlines is waiving change fees for customers who purchase tickets by June 30 for summer travel through Sept. 30, though customers must pay the fare difference if the new flight is more expensive. Customers who cancel can apply the money toward a future flight completed by Dec. 31, 2021.

British Airways (an AARP member-benefit provider) says that if your flight is canceled, you will receive a voucher that can be used as late as April 30, 2022. Travelers who choose to cancel any existing flights departing through July 31 also will receive a voucher toward a future flight through April 30, 2022.

Delta is waiving change fees for flights purchased through June 30.

JetBlue Airways is suspending cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through June 30 for travel in the next 24 months.

Southwest Airlines is allowing passengers who cancel to rebook within the next 24 months or, in some cases, later. You can rebook online by visiting Note that fare differences may apply.

Spirit Airlines is allowing customers who “must alter their travel plans” due to COVID-19 to request a credit for the full value of their flight, which must be used within 12 months (including for flights beyond that time frame). To make changes, visit Spirit’s online reservation credit form. If Spirit cancels a flight, you will automatically get a credit; if you want a refund, you need to do so through their site.

United is waiving change fees for tickets booked through June 30, allowing travelers to apply the funds (now or later) to a flight of equal or lesser value for travel up to 12 months from the original ticket issue date. For tickets issued March 3 through March 31 this year, customers will be permitted to change free of charge to a flight of equal or lesser value for travel up to 24 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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