The coronavirus outbreak has left people around the world wondering whether they should cancel or postpone pending travel plans. If you’re one of the many people feeling anxious about an upcoming trip, remember that while your decision to stay or go should always prioritize safety, you should remain up to date on the latest developments of COVID-19.

Here’s what travelers need to know in light of the current outbreak. 

Passengers on a plane wearing facemasks
COVID-19 is spreading fast, but should you consider canceling travel plans? © ROMEO GACAD / Getty

What is coronavirus? 

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that spreads from person to person. Around 80% of people recover without requiring special treatment. The virus, which first appeared in Wuhan, China, has since spread to 113 countries. Of the roughly 137,000 reported cases, China accounts for over 80,000. Older people and those with preexisting conditions – including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes – are the most likely to develop a severe illness as a result of COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been over 5000 coronavirus-related deaths as of March 13, and Johns Hopkins University reports over 69,000 recoveries worldwide. On Tuesday, March 3, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, said the fatality rate is around 3.4 percent. While this rate is significantly lower than two other recent coronavirus epidemics – SARS, identified in 2003, has a fatality rate of 10%;  MERS, identified in 2012, has a fatality rate of 35% – the transmission rate of COVID-19 is significantly higher, meaning more people are likely to get sick. The announced fatality rate also doesn't take into account milder cases of those who don't seek medical attention, so officials believe the rate will eventually turn out to be between 1 and 2 percent.

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Where should I avoid traveling?

Cases of COVID-19 have spread across six continents. Those with the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19 are people in China or those who have recently traveled there. Health care workers and close contacts of the sick have the highest risk of infection. People who’ve returned from an area with a known outbreak more than 14 days ago and are asymptomatic are not infected and cannot spread the virus. 

To avoid infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends forgoing all non-essential travel to China – the epicenter of the outbreak – as well as South Korea and Iran. On Monday, March 9, Italy announced nationwide travel restrictions. Foreign travelers currently within Italy are being allowed to leave, but flights are being canceled across the country. Israel has announced a policy of self-quarantine for foreign visitors.

On Wednesday, March 11, the Trump administration announced sweeping restrictions on travel from most of Europe.

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Who should avoid traveling?

Elderly travelers or those with compromised immune systems should reconsider travel at this time. According to a study of 72,000 COVID-19 patients in China, the elderly and sick people were most susceptible to contracting severe cases of the coronavirus. The CDC says those with medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes are at a higher risk of serious illnesses. While the CDC doesn't have data on the susceptibility of pregnant women to complications caused by COVID-19, pregnant women were shown to be at risk during previous coronavirus outbreaks.

Where can I find up-to-date travel information concerning COVID-19? 

Regardless of location, it’s always wise for travelers to consult the websites of their intended destination for advisories and cancellations. The CDC regularly updates their site with health-related travel recommendations; the New York Times has an interactive map tracking the global spread of the outbreak. WHO is a treasure trove of information that offers regular updates on the status of COVID-19 cases around the world and answers questions for people concerned to travel during the outbreak.

Travelers undergo health screenings at an airport
Travelers arriving in Krakow International Airport undergo health screenings © Omar Marques / Getty

Should I cancel my travel plans? 

Right now, it is not the best time to travel to or from many places. For those who’ve already booked trips to an affected area, check the cancellation policies for upcoming reservations. If there are cancellation windows to avoid payment penalties, mark them in your calendar and reassess the situation once it’s time.

Many airlines around the world are discontinuing flights to China and Italy, with US-based companies like United, Delta and American suspending travel to the region through the end of April. Be sure to check your airline’s policy concerning travel waivers and rebooking flights. US carriers American, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have announced plans to waive cancellation fees for new flight bookings for travelers who change plans due to the coronavirus.

The US State Department is warning Americans not to travel by cruise ship – particularly those with underlying health conditions.

If you must travel, the CDC recommends taking necessary precautions, including avoiding contact with those who are sick, avoiding touching your face and washing your hands routinely.

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Updated March 13, 2020, at 12:30 PM CST.

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