- If you’re planning on booking air travel during the coronavirus pandemic, you may be worried about whether travel insurance will cover a cancellation as well as how to stay physically safe while on board.
- Travel writer Caroline Morse Teel spoke with travel insurance expert Stan Sandberg about the best insurance to cover your trip; he recommends a plan that allows cancellations “for any reason.”
- Teel also spoke with two epidemiologists who offered their best tips to reduce your exposure to potential infection throughout the flight (hint: lots of hand sanitizer).
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Confused about all things travel right now? You’re not alone. To clear things up, we consulted the experts on the questions that are on all travelers’ minds right now, getting the inside answers on everything from coronavirus travel insurance to masks on planes so you can travel confidently (or decide to stay at home) this summer.
If I buy travel insurance now for an upcoming trip, will it cover a cancellation due to the coronavirus?
The fine print that comes along with travel insurance can be headache-inducing under normal circumstances, let alone in a pandemic.
Stan Sandberg, cofounder of Travelinsurance.com, broke down different coronavirus coverage options. The simple answer: It depends on your policy, so you’ll need to carefully check terms and conditions before you buy.
Sandberg says to avoid standard travel insurance policies (which tend to be the cheapest, most easily available policies, like the ones offered as add-ons when booking), as they usually have a general exclusion for pandemics and won’t cover you at all for anything coronavirus-related. Trip cancellation travel insurance plans could be an option, as these will cover you if you get sick (including with COVID-19), but they won’t help you if you need to cancel because your vacation destination has become a hotspot or if you’re just worried about the virus.
According to Sandberg, your best bet is a ‘cancel for any reason’ plan, which lives up to its name by allowing you to cancel for any reason up to two days before your departure. Just be warned that these plans may only reimburse you for 50% or 75% of your trip, and that this insurance option can be really pricey — so it may only be worth it for a seriously luxe trip.
Which airlines are blocking off seats for social distancing?
A middle seat assignment on a packed flight used to be the uncomfortable price of budget travel, but now it may seem downright dangerous. If you don’t want to risk getting stuck on a full flight, you’re going to want to avoid American Airlines right now. The airline just recently ended its policy of blocking off middle seats, joining United, Spirit, and Allegiant in operating flights at up to 100% capacity.
These airlines are the best option for social distancing:
- Delta: blocking off all middle seats as well as some aisle seats on planes with 2×2 configurations through September 30.
- Southwest: blocking off middle seats through October 31.
- JetBlue: blocking middle seats through September 8.
- Alaska Airlines: blocking seats through September 30.
- Airline policies are changing frequently, so be sure to check with the airline about their rules before you book (you’ll find a coronavirus FAQ or advisory on the homepage of every airline right now, which will give you the most up-to-date information).
Is it safer to fly or take a long road trip (with stops at gas stations, hotels, rest stops, etc.) right now?
Everything — even a trip to the grocery store — can feel risky right now. But the risk of travel comes down to one major factor: other people.
When you’re in a car, you can control your exposure to other people. But on a plane, you don’t have many options to remove yourself from a risky scenario, like sitting near a coughing person or being stuck within six feet of another flyer.
Pia MacDonald, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the nonprofit Research Triangle Institute explains that “risk is determined by how ‘safe’ you and those you come in contact with are.”
Before you embark on road trip or flight, Dr. MacDonald says to consider questions like: “Are the people in the airplane coming from high transmission areas? Are the stops on the long drive in low or high transmission areas? Are people compliant with physical distancing and face coverings? The flight involves interacting with people beyond who is on the airplane. Did people take a taxi, Uber, or Lyft to get to the airport? How long were they in the airport? What did they do while they were waiting?”
Do I have to wear a mask on a flight? What if I have a medical condition that makes wearing a mask impossible?
Yep, you’re going to have to wear a mask if you want to fly — no matter what.
Almost all US airlines are enforcing strict face covering requirements (meaning they will kick you off the plane if you refuse to comply). Until recently, most airlines were giving passengers with a disability or medical condition a pass on this rule, but no more. Now, pretty much all American-based airlines (with the exception of Delta) are no longer allowing anyone to fly without a mask (even those with a true medical condition).
Delta still has a medical exemption for masks, but anyone claiming the exemption will need to undergo a strict “clearance to fly” process at the airport that can take over an hour.
So, think of your mask like an airline ticket now — if you don’t have one, you’re not getting onboard.
Can I take off my mask to eat or drink during a flight?
Yes, you can briefly take off your mask to eat or drink during a flight, but remember that the mask rule is there to protect your fellow passengers, so don’t abuse this loophole. If you need to slip off your mask for eating or drinking, make sure you sanitize your hands before touching your mask, and bring a clean paper bag or other container to store your mask in (rather than resting it on the germy tray table).
If I’m going to fly, is there anything I can do (besides wearing a mask) to keep myself safe from COVID?
Flying used to involve a basic checklist before heading out to the airport: ticket? ID/passport? Now your mental list should look more like: ticket, ID, mask, sanitizer.
Dr. Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech, offers final day-of basic rules to follow while flying during the pandemic:
- Don’t travel if you’re sick
- Keep six feet away from everyone else
- Wear a mask around other people
- Wash your hands frequently
- Bring extra masks
- Have a plan (for example, how will you handle crowded areas like baggage claim or the security line)
- Sanitize your seat
Caroline Morse Teel is a travel writer who has pursued stories from Antarctica to Zanzibar and (almost) everywhere in between. Her work has appeared on Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, USA Today, TripAdvisor, Jetsetter, SmarterTravel, and more. Follow her travels on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline or at CarolineMorseTeel.com.
Gallery: I flew on United Airlines during the pandemic and found nothing more than empty gestures and boring flights – here’s what it was like (Business Insider)
I flew on United Airlines during the pandemic and found nothing more than empty gestures and boring flights – here’s what it was like
My journey on United was a simple one-stop itinerary from Orlando to New York via Washington with one leg on a mainline aircraft and the other on a regional jet. I had flown down on Southwest earlier in the day.
United isn’t blocking middle seats but they’re not letting passengers select them in advance, prioritizing aisle and windows first on mainline aircraft. Here’s what it said when I went to go pick my seats.
I was also required to accept this health declaration at check-in.
As the flight was over 70% full, a message appeared informing me that the flight would be crowded and I had the option of changing my flight for free. There were no suitable back-up options so I declined the offer.
The check-in area featured some safety features including plexiglass partitions between passengers and staff at the counter.
There was also some signage asking people to distance in the area.
Self-check-in kiosks were spaced with the middle in a row of three blocked off for use.
There were also designated kiosks for passengers who had pre-purchased a checked bag allowance, allowing them to print a bag tag only by scanning their mobile boarding pass. This was its only functionality but a cool feature, nonetheless.
I was again reminded that my flight would be crowded and another message appeared saying that I had the option of changing my flight for free.
I was given the option to depart from any Orlando area airport and arrive at any New York area airport but there were no flights available for the same day.
The next available itinerary wasn’t departing until the next day at 3 p.m., which is usually the case with airlines offering free flight changes as there are fewer flights due to the pandemic.
This was our jet for the 2-hour flight to Washington, an Airbus A319 painted in the airline’s new colors.
The gate area similarly featured the partitions separating the passengers and staff.
There was also this tiny sign letting passengers know their aircraft was being cleaned to United’s new safety standards.
Other than that, though, there was little signage about United’s safety policies or protocols at our gate, though agents made some announcements.
The gate across from ours, however, had some rotating signage like this one. Another display outlined mask requirements on United flights.
Flyers were asked to scan their own boarding pass at the podium equipped with a passenger-facing scanner and hand sanitizer station. We boarded the aircraft back to front and in groups of five rows.
That was, of course, after first class and United elites boarded first.
The jetway had no markers or placards reminding people to social distance, though it didn’t appear to be a problem.
Here’s a closer look at our Airbus jet taking us to Washington.
All passengers and cabin crew are required to wear face coverings on United flights.
Everybody was given these alcohol pads upon boarding to wipe down seats or sanitize hands.
The seat area was already very clean and I didn’t notice any issues but the pad did come in handy.
Very few middle seats were occupied and the ones that were seemed to be because families wanted to sit with each other.
We got lucky the flight wasn’t too popular. United wasn’t blocking these seats for booking but was limiting non-revenue standby passengers, like airline employees who fly for free, from using them to keep the flight loads down.
All literature had been removed from the seat-back pocket, just like on Southwest.
The air vents also proved to be stronger than the ones on Southwest.
The flight, otherwise, was boring and routine as the in-flight service was suspended and drinks were given on-request.
Flight attendants only came around to collect any trash as the gate agents had advised passengers to purchase food and drinks in the terminal.
The airport experience was completely opposite in Washington compared to Orlando with social distancing reminders lining the jetway, spread throughout the terminal, and on nearly every informational display.
Here’s one next to the departures and arrivals board.
The airline even showed a video of its electrostatic spraying procedure, known as fogging.
Signs like this covered the terminal. I didn’t see any signs like this in Orlando, which isn’t a hub but still a popular destination and COVID-19 hotspot.
I had time in between flights so I headed to the main terminal to see if check-in would be different here than in Orlando. Dulles Airport is one of United’s East Coast hubs.
The airport was crippled by this pandemic as it lost nearly all of its international flights on foreign airlines. The check-in area was a ghost town at a time of day when it should be packed for the evening transatlantic departures.
The iconic terminal, however, didn’t fail to impress.
There were similar signs at United’s check-in area, unlike in Orlando. United is partnering with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to ensure that its planes and facilities are cleaned.
Middle kiosks were also blocked at check-in.
And floor placards reminded passengers to social distance.
Back in the terminal, the difference between the signage at the gate for my next flight and the one I had just taken was also drastic. This is just one example, where United outlines the new boarding procedure.
Here’s another explaining the new face-covering policy.
There was also a small video that showed the benefits of HEPA filters onboard and United’s electrostatic fogging procedure.
The gates also featured plexiglass partitions, like in Orlando, though there was quite a big opening at our gate where the main gate agent workstation was.
The plane taking us back to New York was an Embraer E175 regional jet with seating in a 2-2 configuration. It was over 70% full so gate agents informed passengers they can take the next flight, which was 24 hours later, for free if they wanted.
There were no takers so we boarded, again back to front. The jetway was similarly lined with social distancing reminders.
First class wasn’t boarded first, this time, but United’s highest elites were.
It was a tiny plane and being over 70% full meant that a lot of people would have a seatmate.
The seats, thankfully, were clean and I found no issues there.
Flight attendants also distributed these sanitary wipes to passengers.
The perks of flying on a regional jet are slim but include a close overhead air vent.
We were just slightly delayed leaving the gate as we waited for passengers coming from a delayed connecting flight. United’s ConnectionSaver program in action.
There was absolutely no in-flight service in coach, again, but it was only a 45-minute flight.
Before I knew it, we were back in New York.