Coronavirus travel: Countries to avoid, trip insurance and more

With COVID-19 spreading around the globe, the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued these travel advisories.

Spring is just around the corner, and that means travel season is ramping up. But with the coronavirus spreading from China to the rest of the world — and officially being labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization — travelers may be wondering how the outbreak could affect their plans.

So, what should you do if you plan to travel overseas and are worried about the risks? Here’s a look at the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. State Department.

Which countries have coronavirus travel warnings?

On March 19, the State Department raised the global travel advisory to level 4: Do not travel. According to the department's advisory, "U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period."

The CDC, meanwhile, has a full list of countries with confirmed cases. Travelers should pay particular attention to two of the CDC’s alerts. Warning level 3 — the most severe category indicating that people should “avoid all nonessential travel” there — applies to China, Iran most of Europe, Ireland and the U.K. for travel with restrictions on entry to the U.S. The list now also includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and many more — without restrictions to the U.S.

Alert level 2 means that a country is "experiencing sustained community transmission of respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus." Any older adults or individuals with chronic medical conditions should “consider postponing nonessential travel."

The CDC's update also stated that sustained community spread is occurring globally. Because of this, all countries, except those labeled under warning level 3, now fall under this category.

Should I cancel my upcoming trip because of coronavirus?

The U.S. State Department advises that U.S. citizens not travel to China, while the CDC recommends canceling any nonessential travel to level 3 countries. Older adults or those with chronic medical conditions should also consider postponing nonessential travel to level 2 countries, according to the CDC.

Does travel insurance protect my trip?

Check the date that you purchased your travel insurance, and read the specific policy (yes, that huge document) for details. Many travel insurance companies cite Jan. 21 — the day the coronavirus disease became a named event — as the last purchase date for which claims associated with COVID-19 will be covered. WorldNomads, for example, specifically cites a purchase deadline of 1 p.m. Central Standard Time on Jan. 22.

Another option is to upgrade your insurance to a "cancel for any reason" policy, like one from InsureMyTrip. This option allows travelers to cancel a trip for any reason up to 48 hours before the scheduled departure. Note that you will only be refunded a portion of the trip cost, typically 50%-75%.

What if I have an unavoidable layover in one of the countries with coronavirus travel warnings?

The CDC recommends staying within the airport. Keep in mind that if you experience a layover in one of the level 3 countries while on your way to or from the U.S., you may be subjected to screening and monitoring upon re-entry.

Do COVID-19 warnings apply to air and cruise travel?

Yes, they apply to both. For air travel, the CDC assures that "although the risk of infection on an airplane is low, travelers should try to avoid contact with sick passengers and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains 60%–95% alcohol."

Other travel methods like cruises still carry some risk as well. According to the CDC, "cruises put large numbers of people, often from countries around the world, in frequent and close contact with each other. This can promote the spread of respiratory viruses, such as the virus that causes COVID-19."

How can I protect myself if I'm traveling to a country with confirmed cases of coronavirus?

According to Ready.gov, a national public service campaign website, in the event of a pandemic, people should stock up on food, water and medication — both prescription and over-the-counter varieties.

They should also avoid close contact with people who are sick or keep their distance from others if they are sick themselves.

The advice is similar to that given out during flu season: People should wash their hands frequently, cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze and avoid touching their faces.

The CDC suggests taking similar precautions: Clean hands often by "washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60%–95% alcohol. Soap and water should be used if hands are visibly dirty."

Hand hygiene is especially important, the CDC says, after going to the bathroom, before eating and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

This article was originally published Feb. 28, 2020.