Coronavirus Travel Tips: To Fly Or Not To Fly? What Happens If You Cancel?

Travelers have lots of new coronavirus-related questions about booking — and canceling — flights.
Travelers have lots of new coronavirus-related questions about booking — and canceling — flights.
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How safe — or risky — is it to fly?

Should I cancel a trip I've planned?

Can I come home early from my trip?

These are some of the questions that would-be travelers are asking in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. We talked to travel and health specialists to get answers.

Can I cancel a trip I've booked because I'm afraid of the coronavirus?

Depends on whether you bought a refundable ticket or have the right kind of travel insurance. Regular travel insurance won't cover a cancellation because of fears about the coronavirus outbreak. For that, you need to buy a "Cancel for Any Reason" (CFAR) policy.

"They've become quite popular in the last few weeks," says Jonathan Breeze, CEO of AardvarkCompare, a travel insurance comparison website. "We're seeing about a 50% increase in the amount of policies being sold."

A few things to note: A CFAR policy typically needs to be purchased within a couple of weeks from the time you booked your trip, it will usually only cover about 75% of your costs, and New York state does not allow residents to buy CFAR policies.

In addition, some credit cards have automatic travel insurance for trips purchased by their cardholders. Check with your provider to see whether you would be covered.

How do I pick a travel insurance policy?

There is no one-size-fits-all policy, according to Christopher Elliott, founder of a consumer advocacy organization, Elliott Advocacy. Factors such as your age, the length of your trip and what you want covered all figure into the decision. Elliott recommends reading the insurance contract before buying to check whether it applies to "worst-case scenarios," such as sickness or flight delays. See this column for more advice.

What if I booked a flight and want to reschedule it to avoid traveling during the outbreak?

Several airlines — including American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and United — have been waiving change fees for flights purchased between certain dates. And even if your purchase falls outside that window, "it's always worth asking," says Seth Kaplan, transportation analyst for WBUR's Here & Now. "You're asking for an exception," he says — but if you're polite and explain your situation, you might get a break.

What if I want to end my trip early, say, because the outbreak has spread to a country I'm visiting?

In most cases, "somebody abroad saying, 'I don't wish to be here anymore,' isn't covered by regular travel insurance," says Breeze. Again, this is where a Cancel for Any Reason policy would come in handy. With many CFAR policies, a traveler can not only recover some of the initial cost of the trip, he says, but in many cases, the policy will also cover the additional cost of coming home.

Is international travel riskier to my health than domestic travel?

It depends. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, says she would not recommend traveling to countries that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put on its "warning" list to avoid nonessential travel, such as China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.

But that doesn't mean domestic travel is risk-free. To put things in perspective, the virus is here, with case numbers on the rise.

"We already have community transmission within the United States," says Doron. "So, at some point, it's not going to be any riskier to go to another country than it is to stay right here."

Since the virus is already out there, should I avoid plane travel just to be safe? After all, when you fly aren't you breathing in recycled air?

"The air's actually pretty clean. It gets recirculated through these HEPA filters that really are very good at clearing stuff out," says Vicki Hertzberg, a biostatistician at Emory University, who co-led a study on flights and disease transmission with scientists at Boeing. "So in some aspects, the air on a plane is cleaner than what's going on in your new office buildings."

Moreover, Dr. Mark Gendreau, chief medical officer at Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts, says that airlines have a high incentive to keep their ventilation systems well-maintained: "If the HEPA filter is not changed regularly, if the system is not maintained well, it puts a lot of drag on the engines, which will increase the fuel consumption, which is quite an expensive proposition."

Another important thing to know: The new coronavirus is not airborne. Instead, it's transmitted through droplets of fluid or mucus that you cough or sneeze out, which generally don't travel farther than 6 feet. But if those droplets land on a surface that you later touch, you can pick up the virus that way.

People can help protect themselves and one another by taking precautions such as washing hands frequently, coughing into an elbow and trying not to touch eyes, nose and mouth.

"Good hand hygiene is the solution," Doron says.

And not just in the bathroom. Even on the way back to your seat after a bathroom visit where you washed your hands, "one may be touching doors, doorknobs, seats," says Dr. Lin Chen, president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and director of the travel medicine center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Massachusetts. So it's a good idea to use hand sanitizer at your seat before eating pretzels or sweeping hair from your face.

The CDC says your sanitizer should have at least 60% alcohol content.

How clean are planes anyway?

Airline sanitization is also something to consider. Some airlines are stepping up their cleaning game. American Airlines says it is conducting a "more thorough cleaning of all hard surfaces" and removing self-serve snack baskets on some international flights. Alaska Airlines says that, since March 2, it has been "enhancing" aircraft cleaning between flights. For planes whose schedules allow, the cleaning policy now includes seats, overhead air vents, bathroom door handles, window shades and luggage compartment handles.

Flights often turn around quickly, which could lead to possible lapses in the cleaning process, so Chen suggests bringing alcohol wipes to clean the areas you personally touch — including your seat belt, tray table and armrests. In a pinch, squeezing hand sanitizer onto a tissue and wiping down your armrest would probably work, she says.

"We really don't have data about how long the coronavirus survives on surfaces," Chen says. Other coronaviruses can last for a few hours or a few days on different materials, so for the time being, "it's best to be more cautious," she says.

Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team. NPR reporter Pien Huang contributed to this story.

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