Study Abroad

Coronavirus and Travel: Frequently Asked Questions

Anna Pedersen

Anna is a freelance writer and editor, currently based in Portland, Oregon. She has traveled to 40+ countries, lived on four continents, and called the United Arab Emirates home for over two years.

Coronavirus: it’s on top of all of the headlines lately, and we all want some answers.

Over the past couple of months, COVID-19 has escalated from an isolated health incident to a full-blown pandemic. The numbers are changing daily and at a rapid pace, but as of now, there are cases in over 100 countries, and the illness has far surpassed the 100,000-mark for the number of people infected.

Millions of people are quarantined around the world. Global markets have taken a massive hit. Travel is being suspended.

There’s no denying that we need to take the spread of this virus seriously, and it’s understandable that as travelers and global citizens you have lots of questions. The health and safety of our community is of utmost importance to us, and so we’ve compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions to address some of these pressing concerns.

We know that many of you may already be traveling or have upcoming travel plans and so we want to provide some tips on how best to move through the world during a global health crisis. While we can’t predict what’s going to happen in the coming days and weeks, we’ve done our best to answer some of your most salient concerns below.

I have upcoming plans to go overseas. Should I cancel them?

This is the question at the forefront of all of our minds. As fellow travelers, we understand the stress (and sadness!) of potentially canceling an upcoming international trip because of the coronavirus. The reality is that the answer to this question really depends on where you’re going and who you are.

There are a number of countries where the outbreak is more pervasive, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has given these nations a Level 3 Travel Health Notice, advising against all nonessential travel. Currently, these countries include China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. Japan and Hong Kong are also being keenly watched to see how the disease develops.

However, these are just a handful of the 100+ countries that have identified cases of COVID-19, including the United States. In deciding whether or not to move forward with your travel plans, it’s important to keep up to date with country-specific information from reputable public health organizations such as the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO). Knowledge is power! Keep yourself informed on coronavirus travel bans, movement restrictions, and health advisories so that you can make an educated decision.

The CDC has also released information about people who are at higher risk of serious illness from contracting coronavirus. If you are an older adult or if you have a serious chronic medical condition—such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease—you will want to take more precautions when thinking about traveling overseas. If this sounds like you, it might be in your best interest to reconsider travel for the time being.

Keep in mind that countries around the world are suspending travel at the moment. President Trump announced a coronavirus travel ban on March 11th, in which the US borders will be closed to individuals traveling from the EU. India has suspended all visas.

If you are currently in your country of residence and you choose to leave, there is a possibility that you will not be able to return while governments try to contain the outbreak.

Is it safe to be on an airplane right now?

There is a lot of fear surrounding airplanes and airports at the moment, and specialists suggest that much of this concern might be misplaced, especially if you take some basic precautions.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), you have a higher risk of contracting the disease in a shopping mall or an office than on an airplane: “The air supplied to the aircraft cabin is either fresh or is filtered through filters of the same efficacy (99.97% or better) in removing viruses as those used in surgical operating rooms.”

In fact, unless there is a sick passenger seated next to you, the chances are pretty low that you will contract the disease from someone in a different part of the plane (and this goes for the flu and common cold as well!). To help protect yourself, infectious disease specialists recommend taking some basic precautions, including washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces (like your seatback pocket, tray table, and the restroom door handle), and avoiding contact with sick people. Otherwise, most aviation authorities are not warning against air travel at this time.

I’m supposed to study abroad in fall 2020. Should I change my plans? Will my program be canceled?

This is a hard one for us to answer. None of us know what the future holds so we can’t say definitively one way or the other whether or not most study abroad providers will suspend programs next fall due to the coronavirus outbreak.

We do know that the spread of COVID-19 is happening at an exponential rate, meaning it’s spreading very quickly. That being said, fall 2020 is still pretty far in the distance, so it’s very possible that the situation will change between then and now.

If you’re concerned about your study abroad plans during the coronavirus outbreak, get in touch with the study abroad office at your home institution to see how they are addressing the situation. It may be possible to make alternative arrangements, so you’ll want to know if they already have a plan in place.

I’m currently overseas (traveling, working, volunteering, studying). How can I best protect myself? How can I still make the most of my time abroad?

While this is quite clearly not an ideal time to travel, for some of us, the choice is out of our hands. Whether you have to take a trip for an important event or business meeting, or you’re already abroad, either traveling or living, many folks are having to take precautions while overseas.

A good rule of thumb here is similar to any travel advice you’d receive: do as the locals do. If you are currently in a city or country that has been heavily affected by COVID-19, it’s likely that restaurants, bars, shops, museums, and the like are all shut down.

You probably don’t see very many people strolling through the streets. If that’s the case, take a cue from the local community—you might have to make the tough call to practice social-distancing while traveling (the opposite of what we know you want to do!). Pay attention to local media outlets and consider following your local embassy, the WHO, and the CDC to make sure you’re staying informed on the situation.

If you’re forced to hunker down in your Airbnb, make the most of your seclusion! Maybe use your ample free time to learn the local language, read up on the history and current events of the place you’re in, or try to cook a local dish. If you can get out of the city, maybe look into nearby hikes or activities in nature that would allow you to be active and explore the country without being in close proximity to tons of people.

If you’re in a place that is not as affected by the disease, again, pay attention to official sources. If life is continuing as normal, you’re probably safe to explore and enjoy your trip! Just make sure to take basic precautions by washing your hands and disinfecting surfaces as necessary.

The key here is to strike a balance between enjoying your time overseas and practicing safe health protocols.

I’m young and healthy! Does the coronavirus outbreak really affect me?

The simple answer to this is, yes. While most healthy individuals will not experience a severe illness if they contract the virus, we all must do what we can to protect more at-risk populations.

Remember, even if you aren’t showing any symptoms, you could still be a carrier of the disease. It’s important to wash your hands and maintain basic hygiene so that you don’t risk spreading COVID-19 to individuals who may face more severe health consequences.

I’ve been instructed (by my employer, university, organization) to work from home. Help! What are the best strategies to work remotely and not go stir-crazy?

Many universities and organizations across all sectors have instituted a work-from-home policy in order to curtail the spread of the disease. While to some this may seem like a great opportunity to never get out of your pajamas, to others, this is creating a whole new set of worries.

If the thought of working remotely stresses you out, keep these tips in mind:

  • Don’t isolate yourself! Internet work tools like Slack, Zoom, and Google Docs can keep you connected with your coworkers even when not in the same space (and most offer free versions of their services!). If your office or school doesn’t already use these tools, take the lead and suggest that you find a way to stay connected virtually!
  • Make a work station! Don’t underestimate the importance of having a space that feels distinct from the rest of your home. We know it’s tempting to work in bed or on the couch (and ok, let’s be real, we all do that sometimes), but if you’re going to be working from home for an extended period of time, you’ll want to create a distraction-free space where you’ll feel productive and energized. Maybe you claim part of the kitchen table or maybe you set up a makeshift desk in front of a window—find what works for you and make it your own.
  • Be careful about working too much! This might sound counterintuitive (working too much…from home…where I have unlimited access to Netflix…?), but the truth is that many remote workers find that they burn out at a faster rate because their day is totally distraction-free. At an office, you might take a lunch break or stop by the kitchen for a quick snack and chat with your coworkers. But at home, it’s hard to mimic those natural interruptions to your day. The result can be that all of a sudden it’s 6 pm and you realize you’ve spent all day staring at a computer screen and barely got up to use the restroom! Build breaks into your schedule and make sure to take time for meals. This is a marathon, not a race!

I’m thinking about canceling an upcoming trip. Will I be able to get a refund from my airline?

Airlines all over the world are reacting to coronavirus travel bans with various new policies. Many airlines (Delta, American Airlines, Alaska, Jetblue, Frontier, United, and more) have decided to waive change fees for flights purchased in or before March, or that are scheduled to depart in March or April. Many are also offering the option to cancel your trip and use the value of your ticket for a future flight.

The fine print varies by carrier, but the short of it is that it’s likely you can change your dates to a time when it’s safer to travel.

Additionally, many carriers are suspending service to destinations that have been particularly affected. Coronavirus travel bans are also sure to impact flight routes. If you hold a ticket for an upcoming flight, contact your carrier to get the most up to date news about cancellations, changes, and refunds.

Final thoughts on coronavirus and travel

Since it first made headlines in early January, the coronavirus has been mentioned in the media over 1 billion times. There is a ton of information out there. It can be hard to parse what advice to take, what to disregard, who to listen to, and how to react. Trust your instincts when it comes to consuming information—the CDC and WHO are reputable health organizations and they provide daily updates.

Make sure that you’re not only keeping yourself informed but that you are consuming information that is vetted and accurate. And maybe, most importantly, try not to place blame. Just because the virus originated in a certain location does not mean that those people are responsible or that everything coming from that country is tainted.

Our advice for all global citizens in this time: try not to panic, practice empathy, and remember that this too shall pass.