It’s an upside-down summer for travelers. Europe just banned American travelers. Coronavirus cases are spiking. And people with travel plans are wondering: How will record COVID cases affect my next trip?
Paul Welden is among them. He and his wife had plans to spend two weeks on a romantic drive through New England, enjoying as much lobster and fresh seafood as they could along the way. They also wanted to celebrate their anniversary in Monterey, Calif., this summer.
Then the surge happened, hitting hard in their hometown of Tempe, Ariz.
“We have one of the highest rates of infections in the country,” says Welden, a real estate agent.
Serious reservations about travel
Welden is hardly alone. Americans have serious reservations about travel, now more than ever. A recent survey by Morning Consult for the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that only 44 percent of Americans are planning overnight vacation or leisure travel in 2020. Normally, about 70 percent of Americans take a vacation in any given year.
Another survey, by Azurite Consulting, says 30% of domestic travelers will wait until a vaccine is available before traveling again.
The situation is even worse for travelers to Europe. The EU earlier this month banned American travelers. Europe plans to review its decision every two weeks, so there’s still hope that part of the summer travel season is salvageable.
But it’s a big “maybe.”
These are the questions facing travelers
Among the big questions plaguing vacationers: Is it safe to travel? Should I stay or should I go? Is it possible to get my money back if I cancel? And what should I do if I can’t get a refund for my vacation?
This isn’t an abstract issue. I had big plans to travel this summer, too. When COVID cases started surging, I had to rethink my next trip. You’ll never guess where that led me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s what medical experts say about travel safety
Here’s a question you don’t hear as often, maybe because no one wants to know the answer: Is travel safe? Not really, say experts.
“I simply don’t feel that people should be making leisure travel plans right now, or going on vacations,” says Eric Mizuno, a former flu surveillance physician for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who now works as an internist on staff at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “COVID-19 is setting records in many states for new cases, so it’s still the safest option to stay home and continue to social distance. Anything else is an unnecessary risk.”
Other doctors agree.
“The CDC continues to recommend avoidance of nonessential travel, particularly for those individuals in higher-risk groups for COVID-19,” says K.C. Rondello, a disaster epidemiologist and clinical associate professor at Adelphi University’s College of Nursing and Public Health. “So whether traveling for business or pleasure, carefully consider whether or not the benefit of a trip is worth the additional risk.”
Dr. Rondello also notes that your risk is not uniform throughout the United States. Some regions that were hit hard in the spring now have some of the lowest rates of new cases. Other areas, that had low case counts a few months ago are now seeing explosive case growth.
“If at all avoidable, you do not want to leave an area of low risk for a substantially higher one,” he says. “That’s both because you have a better chance of becoming ill and also because you may have difficulty getting back — or be subject to an involuntary quarantine.”
But what if you decide to go?
What if you already have plans that you can’t cancel? How will the record COVID cases affect your next trip?
Be careful, says Chris Colbert, an assistant program director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“With the recent resurgence of COVID-19 coupled with states re-implementing prior restrictions, it is important for travelers and those vacationing to take a critical look at travel decisions,” he told me.
Dr. Colbert says you should communicate with your scheduled rental property and ask what precautions it’s taking to maintain your safety. “Review prior reservations and evaluations of prior guests,” he adds. That will offer some insight on the cleanliness of the property and the consistency of the owner.
When it comes to flying, Dr. Colbert says the situation isn’t so dire. “All airlines are making significant efforts to maintain the utmost cleanliness and healthy environment for both airline staff and flight. I believe that airlines have made great accommodations to ensure that restrooms remain clean and the safety of their passengers is maintained throughout each flight,” he says.
How about meals?
“Consider options for limiting the need to dine out for every meal,” says Seth Welles, a
professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “Also, read up on local practices by restaurants to assure customers that they are providing a safe dining experience — are staff wearing masks? Are tables sufficiently spaced to provide effective physical spacing?”
When you can, Dr. Welles recommends bringing meals to your hotel or house, or even buying groceries for some family meals.
“This would reduce the likelihood of exposure,” he adds.
The highest risk is from high-touch surfaces in public places, say experts like Susan Donelan, the medical director of healthcare epidemiology at Stony Brook Medicine.
“In general, high-touch surfaces used by strangers are the highest risk to travelers,” she says. “If you must touch these, make sure to immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Dry your hands with disposable paper towels, then use towels to turn off the running water.”
How travelers are making the decision about their next trip
For Welden, the decision to cancel his trips wasn’t an easy one. After all, who doesn’t love a summer drive through New England? But then a manager from one of his hotels called him with a curious question: What’s the purpose of your trip?
“When we told them it was for vacation, they said the State of Massachusetts was only permitting essential travel,” he recalls. “And ours was not considered essential. The hotel said they would cancel our reservation for us.”
The rest of the trip collapsed shortly after that. The Weldens discovered that Maine and New Hampshire required a 14-day quarantine for nonresidents. They received all of their money back for lodging and their rental car. Their airline offered a ticket credit that expires in a year.
The couple took a more proactive approach to their California trip.
“We canceled for two main reasons,” he says. “COVID-19 cases continue to increase in California and in the area where we would be on vacation. Also, the resort did not require their staff to wear masks.”
My plans mirrored the Weldens’ in at least one way: I was headed to California, too. I wanted to take my kids to their favorite hotel, the Clement Palo Alto. It has an incredible rooftop pool, and they love the ice cream bars they keep the freezer at this all-inclusive property. I also had an invitation to see some friends in Southern California and spend a few days on Catalina Island.
My home base in Reno, Nev., is also affected. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak just signed an emergency directive extending the length of Phase 2 through the end of July. That means churches, bars, gyms and salons won’t reopen as quickly as planned. That tourism recovery story I was hoping to write just got a lot more challenging.
How to cancel your next trip
Experts say cancellations can be complicated.
“The COVID-19 pandemic threat is a global threat, which is highly dynamic with varying levels of risk depending on where and when this risk is assessed,” says Bruce McIndoe, the founder of WorldAware, a security consulting firm. “Travel plans made months or even weeks in advance to anywhere on the planet will be subject to change. Make sure that you are prepared for change, both financially and emotionally.”
One way to prepare for the financial impact is to make sure your future bookings allow you to change the reservation without a fee — or even get a complete refund. If you’re thinking of going somewhere, investigate how the destination has handled the COVID-19 outbreak. Review the current international travel restrictions and any domestic travel restrictions for the state or country you are visiting. Many countries require visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days before they venture out, which means you’ll be on the ground for at least two weeks.
“For those who want to cancel or postpone your trip, there may be options,” says Christine Buggy, vice president of marketing at Travelex Insurance. “The first thing a traveler should do is contact their travel suppliers such as airlines and cruise lines to see if they can either move their travel dates or issue a refund.”
It’s true that a lot of travel companies have loosened their policies to either allow a full refund or a credit. The exceptions are tour operators and online travel agencies, some of which are charging hefty cancellation fees. In rare cases, they’re not allowing any refunds.
What if you can’t get a refund?
And what if that doesn’t work? You have two options. First, you can contact your travel insurance company and file a claim. It just might cover you. Some travel insurance companies are bending the rules to honor claims.
“Although travel insurance products generally do not cover pandemics, we’ve made several temporary accommodations to provide coverage for trip cancellations, trip interruptions, and emergency medical care for those who become ill with COVID-19,” says Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Travel.
Companies like Allianz are also allowing customers to use their travel insurance policy in the future. For Allianz’s policies, you have 770 days from the day you bought it to reuse it for a new or rescheduled trip.
If you don’t have travel insurance, and nothing else works, you can try one more solution: File a credit card dispute. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have the right to a refund for products you ordered but were not delivered. I covered the credit card dispute process in a recent Washington Post column. Before you do that, make sure you’re not hurting a small business owner like a travel agent.
Where I decided to go amid the surge in COVID cases
So what did I do? As the COVID cases started to spike, I traded California for a day trip to nearby Virginia City, Nev. On a recent Saturday, visitors packed the historic town, even though COVID cases were already starting to climb.
It turns out that for some attractions, it was their first day back after a long pandemic shutdown. That was the case at the Chollar Mine, where my kids and I toured a narrow tunnel with four other visitors. Everyone wore masks and social distanced. We also checked out the Mackay Mansion Museum, a Victorian home once owned by the Hearst family and known for its ghosts. We steered clear of the restaurants on “C” Street, the main thoroughfare in town and bought lunch at the grocery store instead.
I think we’ll spend this weekend closer to home, maybe checking out some of Reno’s hiking paths.
But what about the trip to California? How will the record COVID cases affect my next trip? I’m still optimistic that we’ll get there. But for now, I’m holding off on those plans. The medical experts are right: It’s too risky. And besides, California, like many other states, has tapped the brakes on its reopening.
The time just isn’t right. (Besides, I’m too busy helping consumer on my nonprofit consumer advocacy site to go anywhere.)
“The bottom line is you have to do your research before you travel and you have to be vigilant about taking care of yourself,” says David Corsun, director of the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management.
COVID cases hitting an all-time high means you need to reconsider your next trip. Doctors say travel isn’t safe. If you go, be careful. If you don’t go, you can stay close to home and still have fun — but maybe not as much fun as you were hoping for.
Stay or go?
So which side are you on? Are you staying home this summer or traveling anyway? How will record COVID cases affect your next trip?