Editor's note: This post will be regularly updated with new information about coronavirus and the impact of the virus. It was last updated on May 5, 2020. Thrifty Traveler contributor Chelsea Breza-Berndt co-wrote this story.
Call it coronavirus or COVID-19. Whatever you call it, it's making new headlines not just daily, but hourly.
In just a few months, the virus has grown from a little-known phenomenon in mainland China to a global pandemic that is wreaking havoc on financial markets, global economies, and travel plans alike. To top it off, there's a constant stream of information – and misinformation – about the virus.
Here's what you need to know about the virus and how you can make informed decisions about travel and your life.
What is Coronavirus?
Coronavirus is the name for a broader family of viruses, including the SARS virus that killed more than 700 in the early 2000s.
This latest virus is better identified as COVID-19. It's a novel virus – meaning it's never been seen before – that originated in China. It’s believed to have originated from animals at a live market, but it clearly can be transmitted to (and between) humans.
After initially shying away from labeling coronavirus a pandemic, the World Health Organization finally declared it a global pandemic on Wednesday, March 11.
COVID-19 causes flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The vast majority of cases are mild and require no medical attention. Severe cases primarily affect the elderly or people with weakened immune systems.
Deaths attributed to COVID-19 are largely due to severe symptoms like pneumonia as well as underlying conditions. Thus far, the death rate has hovered around 2% making it less deadly than its cousin, SARS, but more deadly than the seasonal flu. Most importantly, it's far more contagious than either. Public health experts warn that the death toll could climb into the millions if the virus goes unchecked.
There is currently no treatment or vaccine for the virus. But the race is on to develop a vaccination and medications that can treat it.
What's the Latest on the Number of Coronavirus Cases?
Since the outbreak began in December, coronavirus has spread worldwide.
As of May 5, roughly 3.6 million cases have been confirmed across the globe, according to data from Johns Hopkins. There have been roughly 252,000 deaths attributed to the virus.
Initially, the virus was contained mostly within mainland China. But that has quickly changed as the virus spread across the globe.
South Korea initially emerged as a secondary hotspot for the virus. Italy and Spain have been hammered by the virus, leading to unprecedented nationwide lockdowns. Yet the United States has emerged as the country with the worst breakout, with more than 1.1 million confirmed cases as of May 5.
Where Can I Get the Best Information on Coronavirus?
There's no shortage of news sources with minute-by-minute updates on coronavirus. Some are better than others.
Johns Hopkins regularly updates statistics on the virus with a worldwide map.
How Can I Protect Myself?
Public health officials believe COVID-19 spreads much like many viruses: through close contact with an infected person, and often involving respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
The CDC recommends the following to protect yourself from the virus:
- Avoid contact with sick people
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol)
One controversial topic is wearing face masks. While public health officials discouraged Americans from wearing masks, that has since changed. The CDC is now officially recommending that citizens wear a mask (or any kind of cloth covering) when out in public to help prevent the spread of the virus. Many airlines have even begun requiring flyers to wear face masks.
What Travel Restrictions are in Place?
On March 19, the U.S. Department of State issued a global level 4 travel advisory related to coronavirus. That means the government is officially urging citizens to stop all travel immediately, and return home if traveling abroad. It's the government's highest travel warning.
Meanwhile, countries across the globe are imposing major restrictions on foreign travelers – if not outright bans. Read our guide to all the countries with travel bans and restrictions.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump announced a 30-day travel ban from Europe to the U.S. beginning Friday, March 13 at midnight. While it only blocks foreign nationals from traveling to the U.S. from most European countries, American travelers will still feel the pain. And Europe itself is considering blocking out most foreign tourists until September.
U.S. citizens returning from Europe can only arrive via 13 airports: Atlanta (ATL), Boston (BOS), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Detroit (DTW), Miami (MIA), Newark (EWR), Honolulu (HNL), New York City (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD), Seattle (SEA), San Francisco (SFO), and Washington, D.C.-Dulles(IAD). Going through those airports, you'll go through some kind of health screening procedures – though it's unclear exactly what that may entail.
The U.S. has also made agreements with Mexico and Canada to halt all non-essential travel for the foreseeable future.
How Are Airlines Responding?
The rapid spread of coronavirus has taken an enormous toll on airlines, and it shows.
All major U.S. airlines halted flights between the U.S. and mainland China plus Hong Kong in late January. The federal government, meanwhile, imposed serious restrictions on all remaining inbound flights with travelers who have passed through China.
But as the virus has spread, so have travel bans … and the damage for airlines. All the major international airlines have drastically reduced their flights, in some cases by 70% or more total. Some have even halted operations entirely, including temporary suspensions from Emirates and Etihad, Austrian Airlines, and others. Singapore Airlines has cut 96% of its flights, and many other airlines across the world have done the same.
In the U.S., airlines have shrunk to a shell of their former selves. A cascading series of cuts have left Delta, United, and American with 70% or less of their typical flight network. They've gutted almost all international flying – case in point, American is operating just three international routes: Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Miami (MIA) to London-Heathrow (LHR), and Dallas to Tokyo-Narita (NRT).
Delta has cut international routes by 80%, grounding 600-plus of its aircraft. Fairly quickly, Delta halted its halted its relatively new flight between Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Seoul-Incheon (ICN) and has reduced or suspended many of its flights to Japan, too. The Trump administration's European travel ban led airlines to suspend all but a handful of flights to and from Europe.
While safety is certainly a concern for airlines, it's undeniable that anxiety has led travelers to cancel plans or stop booking tickets altogether. Demand to fly, first to regions where coronavirus is most severe and then worldwide, has cratered.
Travel demand has dropped to record lows, as U.S. traveler numbers are down by nearly 95% according to federal data. With near-zero demand for travel, airlines have focused on cutting costs and shrinking into survival mode. But it's not enough: Airlines are losing tends of millions of dollars a day.
Speaking of booking tickets…
Can I Change My Flights? Or My Hotel?
Every major U.S. airline – and several international carriers – have given would-be travelers more flexibility to change or cancel their flights for free. Read our guide to how U.S. airlines are handling these waivers for travelers.
While the focus was initially on drumming up more ticket sales for future, that has since changed. The major U.S. airlines are generally allowing you to cancel or change any flight scheduled through May 31 without paying a fee. You won't get a refund but a travel voucher – unless if the airline cancels your flight outright, in which case you're eligible for a refund. Read up on what you need to know to use these vouchers.
Additionally, airlines are waiving change and cancellation fees on any ticket booked through May 31. That means you could book a future trip (as far out as March 2021) and change course if the situation hasn't improved.
Want a refund instead of credit toward future travel? That's typically only available when an airline cancels your flight outright – and even then, airlines are employing tricky measures to avoid paying out. Read our guide to getting refunded by your airline.
Luckily, hotels have been even more generous, in many cases offering full refunds even on non-refundable reservations. Airbnb has also stepped up with more flexible cancellation policies. Read our master guide on hotel cancellation policies.
If coronavirus continues to spread and worsen, watch for even larger travel waivers allowing you to change or cancel your flights for free.
Will Travel Insurance Protect Me?
The short answer, again, is: It depends.
If you want the flexibility to change or cancel your trip and an airline, you'd need the right kind of travel insurance. In most cases, you'd need a policy with a “cancel for any reason” upgrade. These policies are typically much more expensive than your average trip insurance – in some cases, almost twice as much.
Read our guide with everything you need to know about coronavirus and travel insurance
That means the add-on insurance you buy from an airline isn't going to help if you decide later on to cancel. Nor will the trip coverage you get from certain credit cards.
Many travel insurance policies also require you to purchase the policy within 10 to 14 days of putting a “deposit” toward your trip, such as buying your airfare. So keep that in mind as you plan your trip and what coverage to buy.
Simply put: Make sure to read the fine print. Especially in cases like this, it's a necessity.
Should I Travel?
In short: No.
This is a worldwide pandemic, and few areas of the earth are safe. This is bigger than travel and whether you'll get sick, but about curbing the spread of a virus that could harm your community and eventually kill millions. The growing amount of countries imposing travel bans and airlines cutting flights also raises the risk that you'll be stranded.
So we've asked all our readers to stay home now and prepare to travel later.
Lead photo courtesy of Studio Incendo via Flickr.