Coronavirus and Travel: Everything You Need to Know
From international and domestic travel restrictions to cruise and hotel news, here’s what travel will look like this winter.
In these uncertain times, there are many questions that travelers desperately need answers to. We’re dedicated to reporting the most up-to-date advice, whether that’s about flight cancellations, how to quarantine properly after travel, or how destinations around the world are beginning to reopen. Bookmark this page—we’ll be updating it regularly to reflect the latest news.
When we’ll travel again
Over the spring and summer, some destinations took the first steps toward reopening their cities to travelers: countries in Asia and several islands in the Caribbean encouraged tourism with entry requirements; museums including the Louvre and the Prado welcomed back visitors with reduced capacities that make for a more enjoyable experience; domestically, national parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone also opened back up, as did Disney World, with changes, of course, (though some Disney fans aren’t ready to return).
But come fall and winter, the predicted second wave has forced recently reopened restaurants, offices, and entire countries to close again, with North America and Europe hit especially hard. Countries including Germany and Belgium are seeing case counts far worse than in spring. Parisians, who have entered a second lockdown, tell us that it feels different this time around.
This new spike, just in time for the holiday season, has forced travelers to confront challenging ethical questions. Is it responsible to travel home for the holidays? Is it okay to fly if I’m only taking a short trip? Our new Ethical Traveler column has answers. For those who do to travel this season, we’ve asked medical experts your most pressing air travel questions—from how to make sure your family sits together to whether first class is safer than economy right now. (Plus, the best face masks, and face shields, for travel—and what to do if your seatmate won’t wear one.) We’ve also covered the airports and airlines giving free COVID-19 tests this holiday season, like New York’s LaGuardia and United Airlines, on the New York to London route. Before you head out, make sure to read our holiday travel checklist, so you can be best prepared for your journey and any potential hiccups—like last-minute flight schedule changes—along the way. Don’t forget to read up on domestic travel restrictions if you’re crossing state lines.
If you’re choosing not to fly home, we have tips for you too. First, we can share that you’re not alone. Many of our staffers are rethinking the holiday calendar this year. Our favorite hoteliers, chefs, and world travelers tell us how they’re making an unusual holiday season feel special. We also tapped mental health experts and seasoned expats for advice on getting through the holidays alone at home.
Though the holiday season is a complicated time to travel, we’re also looking ahead to 2021. News of a COVID-19 vaccine (multiple, in fact) has already had an impact on air travel. A slew of destinations are encouraging travelers to come and stay for a while—largely, through remote work programs designed for longer, safer stays. Barbados announced a visa that will allow visitors to work remotely from the island for up to a year (applications are now open). Hawaii is piloting a remote work program for 2021 that will pay for your flight to the island. Some countries throughout Africa, meanwhile, are reopening to leisure travelers for any length of stay. And though getting back out there can be intimidating, Condé Nast Traveler editor Corina Quinn recently shared why her first pandemic-era flight was better than she expected. Our list of the 21 Best Places to Go in 2021 rounds up the Mexican resorts and Ghanaian ecolodges we hope to make it to next year.
We’ve also learned that staying closer to home isn’t at odds with a sense of adventure. Our Weekend Finds column highlights the global dishes, great hikes, and socially distanced activities our editors are finding joy in these days. We’re still looking to outdoor activities, like national park trips, and camping, for a change of scenery—and though temperatures are dropping, we have tips on how to adapt your excursions for the colder season. We’d argue some road trips are even better with a dusting of snow on the ground. Of course, piling your household into an Airbnb big enough to fit your entire family doesn’t get old (or, if you live alone, sneak away to a rental sized for one).
How coronavirus affects your travel plans
Borders are closed, flights schedules have been slashed, and many of us are postponing the trips we’d been looking forward to this year. Here’s the latest on the state of the industry, and the changes directly impacting travelers.
Airline cancellation policies
Around the world, airlines have updated their cancellation policies—and completely stopped certain flight routes. The E.U. ban on American travelers is impacting U.S. airlines. Many airlines are making equally unprecedented accommodations for travelers through it all (though the Department of Transportation says they need to do even better). Delta Air Lines, for example, has extended rebooking for flights canceled during the coronavirus epidemic for two years out, giving travelers generous wiggle room.
Nearly all U.S. airlines have gotten rid of change fees for good, which has recently expanded to international flights. There are a handful of things to think about before you cancel, including when to do it and what type of refund you want. As airlines hand out flight vouchers, it’s important to note that they’re often legally obligated to give you a cash refund—you just have to know exactly how to ask for one—though some experts argue that you might be better off taking the voucher.
Cruise cancellation policies
Historically, cruise company–initiated cancellations have been a rare thing, but in the COVID-19 era, many cruise lines have relaxed cancellation and rebooking policies to the benefit of travelers. Cruising is on hold in the U.S. until through the end of the year—though some small ships are exempt from the ban, and have already set sail once again. Some travelers are even booking out small, private sailings, for their closest friends and family. A big question for 2021 remains: How will cruise lines attract new cruisers, an essential demographic for survival, after this year?
Hotel and home rental cancellation policies
The cancellation policies of airlines and cruises have largely synced up across each industry, but those surrounding hotels and rentals vary widely depending on the brand and property. You’ll also find different restrictions depending on whether you booked directly with a property, or via a third party. Major brands like Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts are waiving cancellation fees, and many are allowing last-minute reservation changes without the usual penalties. Though Airbnb cancellation policies are typically determined by individual hosts, the brand has released an extenuating circumstance policy to protect travelers right now.
Some hotels, including St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton, majorly discounted rooms over the summer to encourage stays. Hyatt is tripling the points offered on winter bookings. Other top hotels in the U.S. and Canada, including those not typically bookable with points, are offering limited-time redemption offers for guests with points to burn. And, if total seclusion is what you’re after, know that some properties are available to completely buy out.
Travel documents and programs
Passport renewal services have resumed, but there are delays. Here’s what to know if your passport expires any time within the next year. (Plus, why a growing number of Americans are looking for second passports.) As of late July, New Yorkers can enroll in Global Entry again. And the deadline to apply for Real ID, a new federally approved identification all Americans will soon need for domestic travel, has been extended.
If you booked your hotel, flight, cruise, or other travel plans through a third party—or your credit card—and need to cancel, know that it may be trickier to get your money back. Frequent travelers should be also aware that many loyalty programs are undergoing changes at the moment. Some airline loyalty programs, such as those from Delta and United, have extended elite status for existing members for 12 months.
Hotel brands like Hilton are making similar extensions. Credits cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve are also throwing customers a bone: In Chase’s case, that means giving certain cardholders $100 back on their annual fee and upping the points back on groceries. American Express travel cards now earn more points on groceries and streaming, to reflect our current spending habits. A handful of cards are also offering bigger sign-up bonuses and broader points and miles redemption offers right now. If you’re considering switching cards, these are the best travel credit cards to use while staying home.
How coronavirus is impacting the travel industry
The impact of this pandemic has been felt in every corner of the travel industry. And yet, despite the strain placed on the hotels, airlines, cruise ships, and destinations that are no longer receiving visitors, these players have also been quick to react, adapt, and step up to help accordingly.
Destinations are closed and major events are canceled
As entire countries and cities have closed down, so too have historic landmarks around the world. Australia is using this time to rethink its approach to tourism; the city of Medellin, Colombia is working on becoming greener than ever during this time. After a decade of delays, Berlin’s Brandenburg airport was completed mid-pandemic.
Some of our favorite bars and restaurants have shuttered for good; some small business owners say it could take until next spring to reopen. America’s lesbian bars are dwindling (though a new project is dedicated to trying to save them). The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed to 2021, with a new opening ceremony date in place. Caribbean destinations are feeling the cancellation of Carnival celebrations. Even South African winemakers are hurting, as a domestic ban on the sale of alcohol has completely dried up the local market. Without international travelers, some African destinations are focusing on domestic tourism. Throughout it all, the CDC Museum in Atlanta is avidly documenting the pandemic for future generations.
There are signs of hope, too. We spoke to four chefs who opened new restaurants during the pandemic, and a boutique sailing company that underwent a relaunch. Destinations like Singapore, which had a particularly effective response to COVID, are creating the blueprint for reopenings elsewhere.
Airlines and airports are seeking relief while helping with the outbreak
A record number of planes have been grounded over the past few months, with more than 70 airlines grounding their fleets completely. The U.S. government is offering airlines $50 billion in bailout money—though there are a lot of strings attached. Airports are also asking the U.S. government for aid, given that they are projected to lose at least $8.7 billion in revenue this year as a result of coronavirus travel restrictions and dropping passenger numbers, and an attempt by airlines to reduce the airports they’re flying into.
There are still some planes in the air—including those transporting essential workers and supplies, and the rarer repatriation flights—which has forced airlines to implement new sanitation measures and temperature checks to protect passengers, and raised the question of immunity passports as a pre-boarding requirement in the future. (Such traffic has turned Dallas-Fort Worth into the busiest airport in the world.)
Some airlines have taken to blocking middle seats—something Delta plans to do through March, 2021. All major U.S. airlines are requiring passengers to wear face masks, and are banning fliers who refuse to comply. Emirates is pioneering a rapid coronavirus blood test, which it’s giving to passengers before they board. United and Alaska Airlines have added health questionnaires to the check-in process. United is also offering COVID tests for those traveling to Hawaii (though travelers to Hawaii will have to navigate a handful of additional requirements for entry).
Experts say airports will look completely different in the future as a result of the pandemic. Singapore’s Changi Airport has already unveiled contactless check-in and cleaning robots. New York’s airports are also going touchless. Even the way we book airline tickets could change dramatically; it’s possible that airline fees could be completely eliminated post-COVID-19. The Transportation Security Administration has also rolled out new rules designed to protect officers from potential infection.
Flight attendants are finally being recognized for their role as safety professionals. Some flight attendants, many of whom are out of a job, are pivoting to help as medical volunteers, in response to a request made by the U.K. government. The use of private planes is poised to increase after this—at least, for travelers who can afford it.
Hotels and home rentals are housing first responders
Though many hotels and rentals have been left largely vacant without their usual flow of travelers, a new wave of guests has come in. A handful of major hotel brands, from Hilton to Rosewood Hotels, are turning rooms over to healthcare workers and those who need to isolate from their families. For luxury hotels like the Four Seasons Hotel New York and Claridge’s in London, this has completely changed their operations. Airbnb is also doing its part by offering free or subsidized housing to 100,000 individuals on the front lines through the brand’s Open Homes initiative.
Across the board, these brands are implementing new safety measures, which includes reconfiguring lobbies for social distancing and multiple daily cleanings, to increased time buffers between guests and modified hotel gyms. (Suffice it to say, hotel cleaning staff are working harder than ever.) Hotel guests can expect a greater emphasis on active programming (think hikes, rock climbing excursions), and grab-and-go happy hour offerings designed to reduce crowds. Airbnb hosts have a few ideas of how their offerings might shift as well. Hostels are trying to help guests socially distance without losing a sense of community. One thing is certain: the hotel experience is set to change well beyond cleaning protocols in the months and years to come.
Cruising is suspended
The U.S. cruise industry has completely suspended operations through the end of the year, leaving many travelers to wait even longer for the highly anticipated launches originally set for this year. But that doesn’t mean these ships have been sitting vacant. Carnival Corporation offered up 15 vessels to act as floating hospitals and temporary housing. Until they can sail again, many cruise lines are working to implement rigorous health and safety initiatives. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have formed a joint panel of health experts to advise them on a safe return to the seas. Virgin Voyages has installed an HVAC air filtration system that will circulate fresh, never recycled, air. Some ports say they will be slow to welcome ships back, though. In the meantime, private yachting is on the rise.
Transportation companies are implementing new safety measures
Rental car companies have updated their cleaning routines to make customers more comfortable. Among the new measure? Curbside, contactless delivery, lengthier cleaning checklists, and thorough sanitizing on high touch points within cars. Lyft and Uber also said it will be requiring face masks, for both passengers and drivers, for the duration of rides moving forward. Amtrak has announced a similar mask requirement, which went into place May 11, and will require face coverings on trains and in stations.
Life during the pandemic
Staying home is an adjustment for all of us, and a challenging one at that. For expats, home is suddenly out of reach. Couples in long-distance relationships don’t know when they’ll see each other next. Weddings, at home and abroad, have been called off. But if there’s one thing travelers are good at, it’s adapting—and we’ve all found ways to do so, whether that means saving that honeymoon for a later date, pivoting special moments to virtual ones, or even making a destination out of your home.