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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

The CDC no longer advises against domestic travel, but urges caution

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Latest updates

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer is advising against nonessential travel domestically, but continues to advise against international travel and, certainly, traveling if you are sick.
• Walt Disney World has announced it will begin to allow visitors to some of its Orlando parks beginning on July 11, with the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios will open on July 15. Visitors will need to make reservations in advance, have their temperatures taken before entry and wear masks in the parks. Universal Studios Florida in Orlando opens June 5 with similar safety measures. No announcement has been made regarding Disneyland in California.
• Las Vegas casinos and hotels have been given the clear to allow guests starting on June 4, and some have announced plans to begin doing so, including New York-New York Hotel & Casino, the Venetian and Bellagio, with safety precautions including adding hand-sanitizing stations throughout their properties and encouraging (but not requiring) guests to wear masks.
Visitors are returning to many popular beaches around the country; each have different rules for social distancing. Cape Cod, for instance, is asking beachgoers to maintain a 12-foot distance between their towels and blankets and others.
• Most major airlines now require passengers and crew members to wear masks during flights and are implementing other safety protocols, such as boarding back-to-front and keeping middle seats empty. United Airlines says it will notify passengers before a flight if it is expected to be full or close to full, and allow them to change to a different flight.
• The State Department is still not processing passports, including renewals, except for “customers with a qualified life-or-death emergency and who need a passport for immediate international travel within 72 hours.”
• America’s national parks, most of which were mostly or partly closed this spring due to the outbreak, are beginning to open, 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 you’ll be returning home to has an underlying condition that might increase the risk for complications from the disease.
• Whether the destination requires that visitors quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival.
• If you’ll be able to maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and others during travel and at your destination.

But no form of travel is completely safe, the CDC notes: “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).”

You should also take precautions if a long road trip is necessary. Even in the case of RV travel, the CDC says, “You may have to stop less often for food or bathroom breaks, but RV travel typically means staying at RV parks overnight and getting gas and supplies at other public places. These stops may put you and those with you in the RV in close contact with others.”

For air travel, the CDC says, “viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours.”

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 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 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 1 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 in place of a regular driver’s license 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,” says Murphy. “If there’s a touchscreen 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 aircraft receive more than six hours of cleaning every night.”

United 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 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. 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. (See “AARP Answers: Travel Cancellation Policies and Coronavirus)

Amtrak is waiving change fees for reservations made before August 31, 2020; 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 restarting 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.

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, 2020, and April 30, 2020, 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, 2020, for summer travel through Sept. 30, 2020, 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. Customers who buy a new ticket before May 31, 2020, for travel before May 31, 2020, will also not incur a fee if they reschedule.

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, 2020, also will receive a voucher toward a future flight through April 30, 2022.

Delta is waiving change fees for flights purchased through June 30, 2020.

JetBlue is suspending cancellation and change fees on new bookings made through June 30, 2020, for travel in the next 24 months.

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

Spirit 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, 2020, 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 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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