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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

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

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Latest updates

• 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 596,000 on Aug. 5, though it’s still down substantially from 2.4 million on that day a year earlier.

• Most of the major airlines have announced that passengers who refuse to wear masks onboard (except when they are eating or drinking) will not be allowed to fly; these airlines are also requiring customers to wear face coverings 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.

• A growing number of U.S. states have implemented quarantines on travelers 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. (See our story detailing state rules)

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says staying home remains the best way to avoid getting sick because 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].” Its recommendations include wearing a mask in all public areas and, when possible, using remote check-in at hotels and contactless payment methods.

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.

Check each state’s official website for guidance, or see AARP’s frequently updated list of state restrictions.

Air travel can make social distancing particularly difficult. Here’s what to expect and how to lower your risk if you fly.


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


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 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. 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, that “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. 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 has canceled all programs through September, for instance. Collette is making decisions on program cancellations on a case-by-case basis 45 days prior to departure.

With the CDC’s no-sail order for cruises in effect until September 30 (when it may be renewed), the major U.S. cruise lines have suspended itineraries into the fall.

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. Some lines (Princess, for instance) 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 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 Aug. 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 says tickets bought between Feb. 27 and Sept. 8 of this year for travel on or before June 30, 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 all tickets for 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. For new tickets booked by Sept. 8, 2020, the airline is waiving change fees for future travel.

British Airways (an AARP member-benefit provider) says that it will not charge a change fee for bookings made from March 3 through Aug. 31, 2020, for journeys that are due to have been completed by April 30, 2021, though customers will need to pay any fare differences. Travelers who choose to cancel will receive a voucher toward a future flight through April 30, 2022.

Delta is waiving change fees for flights purchased through Aug. 31, 2020, allowing you to rebook up to Sept. 30, 2022. Tickets purchased between March 1 and Aug. 31, 2020, can be altered without a change fee for a year from the date you purchased it.

JetBlue Airways is suspending cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through Sept. 8 for future travel.

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 Aug. 31. Its site says, “If you cancel your flight, you will receive a full purchase price reservation credit instantly.”

United is waiving change fees for tickets booked through Aug. 31, 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, 2020, customers will be permitted to change, without paying a fee, 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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