Should My Family Be Flying? The Latest Coronavirus Travel Advisories and Precautions to Take
Here's what you need to know about flying during the coronavirus outbreak, plus expert tips for keeping your family safe if you have flights booked.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread to nearly every country—including the United States, which now has the most confirmed cases in the world. Last March, former President Trump restricted travel from many European countries in an effort to slow the transmission of the respiratory disease. On April 16, 2020, he released guidelines for "Opening Up America Again" in phases, which includes limiting nonessential travel. And now, months after the start of the pandemic, other countries have actually placed bans on travelers coming from the U.S. as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
On January 12, the CDC issued an order for all international travelers—as well as Americans traveling abroad—to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the U.S. The new rule is set to go into effect on January 26. And now, with President Joe Biden officially sworn in, more coronavirus travel mandates—including wearing masks in airports and on airplanes—are likely on the way.
Given these restrictions and recommendations, travelers might wonder if it’s safe to fly. Here's a rundown on the latest coronavirus travel advisories so you can decide whether you should be canceling flights. Experts also weigh in on precautions to take when traveling during the coronavirus outbreak.
Coronavirus Travel to Europe
The CDC has recommended limiting most nonessential travel, and while the State Department has lifted restrictions on traveling abroad, the European Union has placed a travel ban on Americans as COVID-19 infections continue to rise. Some European countries have even imposed new lockdowns as coronavirus cases surge.
You'll want to do your research on where, exactly, you were hoping to visit as countries allowing U.S. tourists changes frequently, restrictions vary from place to place, and lockdowns may prevent travel completely.
CDC "Level Four" Travel Advisories
In an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC and the U.S. State Department have issued a "level four" status—which means you should avoid all travel to them—on many international destinations where the COVID-19 risk is considered "very high." While early travel advisories were on China, South Korea, and Iran, the widespread transmission of COVID-19 has forced more restrictions.
It's a good idea to check the CDC to see which locations are considered lower-risk before booking your trip.
Is It Safe to Fly Somewhere Without Restrictions?
Americans obviously need to cancel their upcoming vacation plans to Europe, and they should avoid traveling to places with CDC-issued advisories. But what about if you made vacation plans domestically?
Unfortunately there’s much uncertainty regarding this respiratory illness that shares similar symptoms as the flu, according to Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World. There’s also no current vaccine or treatment (although medical experts are working on it).
At the end of the day, “You have to make a personal decision about the risk you're taking,” says Dr. Wahrman. Traveling to areas with few or no coronavirus cases is generally low risk, since person-to-person transmission is highly unlikely. But keep in mind that the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the coronavirus a global risk assessment of "pandemic." There’s no way to predict the spread of the coronavirus. A large outbreak could possibly happen anywhere at anytime, and if it's big enough, you may be quarantined.
What’s more, since experts still don't know much about the disease, it’s possible that “you could be asymptomatic and still contagious,” says Dr. Wahrman. This means someone you encounter might look perfectly healthy but is actually carrying the coronavirus. “Just be aware of the things you've been in contact with that could carry viruses and bacteria from other people,” says Dr. Wahrman.
But with COVID-19 cases rising across the country, it's definitely better to be safe than sorry and stay put unless you absolutely need to travel.
How Can I Prevent Coronavirus While Traveling?
Again, you have to weigh the risks of traveling; the odds of coronavirus transmission at an airport or in an airplane is unknown. The coronavirus is likely spread through airborne droplets, like from a cough or a sneeze, but it may also be able to live on surfaces—and potentially infect someone who touches that surface and then their eyes, nose, or mouth—hours or even days later. According to a February 2020 article from The New York Times, the airborne droplets might travel up to three feet. You’d likely need to touch contaminated surfaces or sit very close to sick patients to catch the coronavirus, but it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions.
The CDC now recommends the use of cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult, and that would definitely apply on an airplane. However, the most important thing is still maintaining proper hand hygiene. “Wash your hands with soap and water—especially before eating and touching your face," says Kathleen DiCaprio, Ph.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus. Scrub for at least 20 seconds, rinse with water, and thoroughly dry with a clean paper towel.
There are also some ways to prevent transmission when traveling by plane. Use alcohol-based sanitizer or disinfectant wipes on items other people have touched, such as tray tables and armrests. Also take measures when going through security, when “your stuff touches bins that held other people’s stuff and could pick up germs,” says Dr. Wahrman. She recommends bringing a few clear Ziploc bags, and then sticking your items in these bags before putting them in the bins.
Finally, “if you see that there's somebody who looks visibly sick, try to create a little distance,” says Dr. Wahrman. This might be easy in waiting rooms and baggage claim, but not so much if you’re stuck next to a sick person on the plane. In that case, Dr. Wahrman says you might want to bring along a face mask if you're at high risk.
The Bottom Line
You're not required to cancel your plans, but social distancing is still recommended to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and that might be a little tricky on an airplane or in an airport. You have to do what's best for you and your family, but experts do recommend staying home right now.
"At this point, people who are traveling or plan to in the future should be aware of the certain travel restrictions and periodically check the CDC website on these restrictions. It may be helpful to check for any updates from the airlines and/or the airports they are arriving to or departing from as well," says Dr. DiCaprio.