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Travel and the Coronavirus: What You Need to Know

Read this before travelling.

Given the widespread media coverage of the coronavirus, it’s no surprise this new respiratory infection is top of mind for many travellers right now.

The current situation is certainly unnerving, but there is some good news to be found: unless you’re travelling to China, the risk of acquiring this infection is incredibly low, and you can easily implement simple measures to safeguard your health while you travel.

If you’re planning to travel in the coming weeks, read on to learn more about the coronavirus and essential tips for staying healthy on the road.

Travellers should only follow advice from international health organisations | © Laimannung/Unsplash

How did the coronavirus start?

In January 2020, China and the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the presence of a new virus that stemmed from several confirmed pneumonia cases occurring in the Chinese city of Wuhan in the province of Hubei. It was given the temporary name of 2019-nCoV. Other examples of the coronavirus are the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). 

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses often cause symptoms such as fever, runny noses, sore throats and coughing. More severe cases can also lead to difficulty in breathing, and illnesses like bronchitis, pneumonia, and in some cases even death. 

Both animals and humans can catch coronaviruses, but when the virus is passed between humans and animals, it can become a different virus altogether. Some viruses are only contagious when a person is sick, while other viruses can be transmitted without the person even realising they are ill – these are especially a cause for concern as they could lead to an epidemic. As such, scientists try to observe new viruses as closely as possible because there are so many unknowns to them – which is why the coronavirus 2019-nCoV is garnering so much attention. 

How does the coronavirus spread? 

According to information issued by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2019-nCoV spreads from person-to-person when in close contact (about six feet). 

“Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It’s currently unclear if a person can get 2019-nCoV by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”


Confirmed 2019-nCoV infections have resulted in the following symptoms: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Reported illnesses have ranged from little and no symptoms to severely unwell. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention believe that once exposed, symptoms will present themselves between two to 14 days. 

If you have visited China in the last 14 days and are experiencing fever, cold or flu-like symptoms you should seek medical attention immediately. Before going, call ahead and inform them of your recent travels.

What to do if you’re travelling in the coming weeks

If you’re about to travel, ask yourself if you can pick up the virus in your destination. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases doctor and professor at the University of Toronto who studies how air travel can impact outbreaks, recently gave an interview to Vox magazine and said “the risk of acquiring this infection outside of Hubei and, truly, outside of China is remarkably low.”

“We can count the number of people who never had exposure to Hubei or China, who were infected by this virus, on one or two hands. So currently the risk of acquiring this infection outside of the epicentre of the epidemic is incredibly small. So if people are travelling [anywhere outside of China] your risk is close to zero per cent,” Bogoch said.  

airport departure screen monitors
Follow travel advisories from trusted health organisations | © Chuttersnap/Unsplash
  • Follow the advice of trusted authorities like the World Health Organisation and Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Avoid all non-essential travel to China. 
  • While you may want to change travel plans to China, you may not need to change other travel plans.
  • Avoid travelling if you’re feeling sick.
  • Due to increased monitoring and diligence, passengers exhibiting signs of illness may not be permitted to travel on planes, trains, and cruises.

Travel advice from health experts 

If you are travelling in the coming weeks, implement this travel advice from the health experts. 

Follow basic hygiene like washing hands and wiping tray tables to avoid germs | © Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash
  • Wash your hands! According to health experts (and common sense), one of the best ways to avoid cases of the flu, colds and other viruses is to wash your hands. On planes, carry hand sanitizer with you and open the air vents towards your face for filtered air. 
  • Don’t panic. While being on a plane will put you in close contact with other travellers, it doesn’t expose you any more than other day-to-day situations – like public transport, for example – where you would also be in close contact with possibly sick people. 
  • Other than to China, health organisations haven’t issued any warnings against air travel. The main concern with air travel is that as planes do transport people around the world, more people might come into contact with the infection, but hence flight bans to China and screening of travellers arriving from China. 
  • Avoid touching your face as most viruses enter the body through the mouth, nose, and eyes. 
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow.
  • Use a wipe to clean off tray tables, armrests, and seatbelts on airplanes.
  • If you are sick, wear a mask out of consideration to the people around you.

Should I change my travel plans if I’ve booked a tour to China?

Certain tour companies — such as G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, On The Go, and Exodus — have cancelled their immediate departures to China. Operators are currently monitoring the situation closely, and they’re in the process of notifying affected passengers.

Several airlines have also suspended flights to mainland China for the time being. Additional changes may come, so be sure to check directly with your airline for the latest updates. For a comprehensive list please see the following article: Factbox: Airlines Suspend China Flights Because of Coronavirus Outbreak.

Travel insurance may not cover the coronavirus

If you are planning on travelling, don’t assume that if you change or have to cancel a trip that your travel insurance will cover the coronavirus. For more information read this article.

If you are in the process of planning a trip and are upgrading from a standard policy to a “cancel for any reason” policy – still check and make sure the insurance company will cover your claims in case of cancellation.

For travellers with World Nomads policies, please note they are issued by Travel Services Limited and have a General Exclusion for epidemics which have been placed under the direction of public authorities. This means any expenses you may have in relation to the coronavirus outbreak may not be covered.

World Nomads previous advice stated, “that where cover applied, [they] would no longer cover claims arising from any event related to coronavirus for travel to and/or from China from January 23rd, 2020.” They updated this announcement as of January 30th, 2020 to say “this cut-off of cover now also extends to travel to and/or from all other destinations for policies purchased after 7:00 pm UTC/GMT on Thursday, 30 January 2020.” You can check their travel updates for the latest information.

When will it be safe to travel to China? 

It’s unclear as of now. Make sure you’re continuing to monitor State Department advice and visit the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention for continued updates.

For further information and travel advice, please visit the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organisation.

Based in Toronto, Sahar is a full-time content editor for Days to Come and part-time travel junkie.

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