As borders close amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, most countries are advising their citizens against all but essential travel — or any travel at all. But what exactly does that somewhat vague phrase “all but essential” mean? Basically, it’s vague on purpose, but what it really means is do not travel here, and if you decide to go, your country may not be able to help you in the event of an emergency. 

Check-in desks closed at Sydney Airport amid COVID-19 pandemic
Most governments are warning against any travel but some are warning against "all but essential travel" - what does that mean? ©Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg/Getty Images

As of 17 March, the UK and US governments are advising their citizens against "all but essential travel". The UK Foreign Office issued a "COVID-19 Exceptional Travel Advisory Notice," advising British nationals against all but essential international travel.

The FCO has this to say on the subject: “Sometimes we say that only essential travel is advised. Whether travel is essential or not is your own decision. You may have urgent family or business commitments to attend to. Circumstances differ from person to person. Only you can make an informed decision based on the risks.”

Read more: Lockdowns and travel bans: which countries have COVID-19 restrictions

Travelling for a holiday to any particular destination is not “essential” by any reasonable definition. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's irresponsible. However, there is some good news: airlines may let you change your destination, or get a refund to travel another time, and insurance companies will often cover your costs if you couldn’t have foreseen the problem. Take a look below for how that works.

What if I decide to still go on holiday?

That’s a pretty bad idea, not just because you might be in danger and most countries have closed their borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but because the usual sources of help in an emergency might not be there. For example, consular assistance staff overseas are often withdrawn when things start going south. 

You can still probably expect your country’s consulates and embassies — or those of other European Union countries if you’re an EU citizen — to assist in some circumstances, especially if you end up needing to be evacuated. However, it may be costly: some countries make a point of requiring their citizens to cover all or part of the cost of emergency evacuations, and the evacuation process is unlikely to be a pleasant one. Many countries have suspended commercial flights and closed land and sea borders. So you can expect to travel uncomfortably, perhaps on pallet seats on a freighter aircraft, with an awful lot of waiting around, being corralled and having to make your own way home from wherever the plane lands in your home country. Also expect to be quarantined for around 14 days upon arrival.

Read more: Will my airline give me a refund due to the coronavirus?

What does this mean for my flights? 

When this kind of travel advice is given, responsible airlines will issue what are known as “waivers”, either for full refunds, the ability to change your dates of travel (usually within a certain window of time) or in some cases to change your departure and/or arrival airports.

Waivers are by no means guaranteed, but check the social media feeds of your airline for information, and perhaps run a quick web search because there are all kinds of travel blogs that make a habit of collating this information. To take an airline up on their offer of a travel waiver, it’s usually best to try online first if that works, with your second best bet being via direct messages on their social channels. Calling the airline during this unprecedented global crisis where their call centres are likely to be swamped will require a lot of patience and a full phone battery. If you get no joy the first time round, don’t press it, thank them for their time and use what frequent travellers call the HUCA method: Hang Up and Call Again, and see if the next agent is able to help you better.

The wing of a plane is seen through an airplane window.
What happens to your flights when there's a travel warning? © Lucky Business / Shutterstock

If your flight is cancelled, most airlines should endeavour to get you to your destination if you need to, but the regulations on what they’re required to do varies internationally. Flights out of the EU or on EU airlines are covered by the EU261/2004 regulations, which are some of the most traveller-friendly rules. Your airline may direct you to claim on your travel insurance. As ever, get as much as you can in writing and make copious, dated, timed notes with the name (and perhaps a staff ID number) of anyone you speak to on this, whether at the airline or your insurance.

Note that if you’ve booked a package holiday, you may have extra rights to cancel or change your holiday because of package travel laws, but that will depend on the country where you bought the trip.

Read more: What to do when you can't get home due to travel restrictions?

Am I covered with travel insurance if I decide to travel?

I’m an aviation journalist and not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice, but most travel insurance comes with a “reasonable person” test. That probably means not travelling when governments say not to. And most governments are saying not to. In general, when it comes to whether you’re covered, most travel insurers expect travellers they insure to follow the guidance of governments, usually the one where the insurance contract was made and where any arbitration takes place. 

So, if it’s a US policy, they’ll follow the State Department, or if it’s the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. If that’s a different country from where you’re departing from, or your nationality, I’d suggest contacting the insurance company for clarification. If I considered my travel essential in the face of one of these warnings, though, I would get confirmation — and in writing — from my travel insurance provider that my cover would still be valid during the trip. I’d keep confirming up to my date of departure, as well.

This article was first published on 31 January, 2020 and updated on 18 March, 2020.

Aviation journalist John Walton writes regularly on travel for Lonely Planet and a variety of aviation magazines. He welcomes questions and discussions from readers on Twitter (he’s @thatjohn).

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is now a global pandemic. Find out what this means for travelers.

This article was first published January 2020 and updated March 2020

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