How the Coronavirus Outbreak Is Impacting Travel: What to Know

Friday morning, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its risk assessment of coronavirus to "very high"— meeting the organization's highest risk level. As concern continues to rise surrounding the spread of virus that causes COVID-19, many travelers are rethinking their upcoming travel plans. The Trump Administration announced Saturday that they have added additional travel restrictions to Iran as well as raised the alert for travel advisories to Italy and South Korea to level 4.

Over the weekend, the United States saw as many as 19 additional confirmed cases raising the total number to 89 cases — and two confirmed deaths in Washington state. Airlines have begun discontinuing service to affected areas globally, starting with the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, China, and now extending into other cities in China, Japan, South Korea as well as northern Italy, which now has over 1,000 reported cases.

ITALY Coronavirus
A woman wearing a protective mask n Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in center Milan on February 28, 2020. Miguel MEDINA / AFP/Getty

As of March 1, over 89,000 people have been infected by the deadly virus, with over 2,850 deaths. Thousands more are being monitored or held in quarantine. In the past few weeks, as more cases have been reported across the globe—now in every continent except Antarctica—airports are filled with passengers doing their best to protect themselves: covering their faces in surgical masks. Despite the public's best efforts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that wearing masks is actually only helpful for those who are feeling symptoms of the virus—not those who are healthy. In fact, masks can actually increase your risk of getting sick. On Saturday, the U.S. Surgeon General echoed this sentiment by urging the public to stop buying masks as they are not helpful in preventing the spread of the virus, and leave fewer available for healthcare providers treating sick patients.

As the spread of the virus increases, many are forgoing—or thinking about forgoing—traveling altogether. If that's the case, there may be fees or other logistics to consider. Though many airlines have already begun offering travel vouchers for certain destinations—even if they haven't discontinued their services—some have not, leaving travelers to make a decision that could wrack up hundreds of dollars in cancellation or rebooking fees.

How are airlines reacting to Coronavirus?

The International Air Transport Association announced its initial assessment on February 20 that predicts a potential 13 percent full-year loss of passenger demand for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region which translates into a $27.8 billion loss in 2020.

Globally, dozens of airlines have implemented procedures in reaction to the outbreak; American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have all suspended service to China. Over 200,000 flights have been cancelled or proactively removed from schedules to, from and within China, according to Cirium—a travel consulting firm.

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Passengers walk past check-in counters while wearing protective masks at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, on February 27, 2020. JACK GUEZ / AFP/Getty

Erin Levi, a travel writer based in New York, had plans to attend the Fasnacht festival in Basel, Switzerland, in early March. Levi booked her flight using American Airlines award miles and was set to take off on February 28 for the festival that was scheduled for March 2 to 4.

"As soon as Northern Italy was hit by the coronavirus, I feared that Switzerland might be next, since it shares a border with Italy." Levi told Newsweek. "Although Switzerland isn't an EU-country, it's part of the Schengen Area, which means there's free travel between it and its EU neighbors. And unfortunately, I wasn't wrong."

The morning Levi was set to leave for Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Government banned all large-scale events through mid-March, after a reported 15 cases of the virus have been discovered. Levi decided to cancel her trip all together. She called American Airlines customer service to inquire about changing her plans.

Italy Faces the Coronavirus
Tourists wearing face masks visit Saint Peter's Square, on February 24, 2020 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Italian government declared a state of emergency on January 31. Antonio Masiello/Getty

"I thought if I called, I could more easily argue my case," Levi said. "But it wasn't even necessary, as the woman I spoke with already heard about the Swiss government's ban on big events and offered to waive the $150 fee to reinstate my miles and give me a refund on the taxes I paid, adding "It was one of my better customer-service experiences."

Since new information seems to be released every hour, it's best to check back with the specific airline before making any travel decisions. As noted by Levi, it's often better to pick up the phone and speak to a real person. In addition to checking with airlines, it is also important to stay up to date with each country's protocol. The British budget airline, Easy Jet, posted on its website that they will continue to follow the country's lead when it comes to restricting travel.

As more information becomes available, airlines will continue to amend their policies but as of Monday, Delta has suspended travel to/from Beijing, Shanghai and Incheon, South Korea, for travel dates that fall between January 24 and April 30. The airline also issued similar exemptions for flights scheduled to and from Italy. Customers can reschedule flights for anytime before May 31, to have the fees waived. If the trip is rescheduled to begin past the May 31 deadline, Delta will still waive change fees although a difference in fare may apply.

American Airlines extended its service restrictions to include 10 Italian airports including Milan and Florence. The change fee exemption will be eligible to passengers who booked their flights by February 27 and were set to depart between February 27 and March 15. Similar exemptions apply for American Airlines passengers who had planned flights to South Korea as well.

United Airlines has also offered fee exemptions for travelers set to travel to China, South Korea or Northern Italy. The airline has one of the more lenient policies in that passengers may reschedule travel for dates until June 30, 2020 with no penalty -- after that date, while change fees will be waived, a difference in fare may apply.

Should you travel—or stay home?

Another concern for travelers beyond contracting the virus themselves is potentially passing on the virus to friends and family they might be visiting—especially older people or those with compromised immune systems. If your final destination has yet to ban travel but you're still a bit nervous about spreading germs, travel expert Johnny Jet reiterates advice for travelers: Visitors should wash hands often and keep them away from your face as well as change clothes and taking a shower upon arrival, adding it's important to keep an eye on the ever-changing advisories.

"My advice is to follow your gut and the recommendations from the CDC as well as keep an eye on other government advisories, like those coming from Australia, Canada and the U.K. about where it is safe to travel and where to stay away from," Johnny Jet told Newsweek. He canceled his around-the-world trip last week mostly for fear of being quarantined, "I just don't want to take the chance of being separated from my children for any period of time." Johnny Jet, who averages traveling to 20 plus countries a year, changed his international trip to Florida, but says he's continuing his upcoming travels unless the situation gets a lot worse.

For now, travelers should continue to monitor the situation, Johnny Jet advises. "Bear in mind, as the disease spreads, the advisories are constantly changing."

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