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Your Pandemic Summer Travel Questions Answered

The summer snuck up on us. 

This spring, our family was busy trying to get through one week of remote schooling (ugh) and sheltering-in-place at a time. With all the uncertainty in the world, it seemed pointless to plan any sort of travel. Then suddenly it was June, school was over, and we had nowhere to go but the backyard. 

Now we want to get away, but we have so many questions. Maybe you do, too. To help us make sense of the new travel landscape, we asked some experts about everything from travel insurance to road-trip rest stops. Here’s what we learned. 

Is it crazy to consider an international trip? 

We really miss exploring the world—or even the neighborhood. But this is a tough summer for international travel. 

Most importantly, many countries are still closed to tourists (as of June 18). And those that aren’t completely shuttered are largely closed to U.S. travelers. That includes favorite destinations such as Canada (for non-essential travel), Mexico (same), France, and Italy. 

A few countries are allowing visitors from the U.S., including St. Lucia and the U.K. St. Lucia is taking travelers’ temperatures at the airport and isolating those who are sick; the U.K. requires travelers to self-isolate for the first two weeks. When other countries start allowing tourists back in, they’ll probably have similar policies—as well as curfews or mandatory coronavirus tests. Unless you’re planning an extended stay or are going to visit family members, it might not be worth the hassle.  

Of course, if we’ve learned one thing from all this mess, it’s how quickly and frequently things can change. For updates, check the U.S. State Department’s country-specific information about travel restrictions, as well as the tourism websites of destinations you’re fantasizing about considering. 

What about Hawaii or U.S island territories?

Say you want to feel like you’re leaving the country without actually…well, leaving the country. You could hop down to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is open to tourists; be aware that you’ll have to obey local health rules, like wearing a mask in public places, but as long as you’re healthy you aren’t required to self-isolate. 

Other destinations are more challenging. Puerto Rico is scheduled to reopen to tourists on July 15, but any visitor—even without symptoms—can be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks. And Hawaii is being extremely cautious, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving on the islands. That goes for residents and visitors alike. The state has even arrested violators

Is it safer to fly or drive?

Experts say that your risk of catching the novel coronavirus is higher in any enclosed public space—including a bus, train, or airplane—than in your own car.  

Compounding the problem, it’s almost impossible to avoid crowds on an airplane trip, whether in the terminal, going through security, or on the aircraft itself, says Dr. Theresa Fiorito, an infectious disease specialist with the NYU Winthrop Hospital’s Family Travel Clinic in New York. Some airlines have said that they are temporarily suspending middle-seat bookings. But even then, Dr. Fiorito says, “a vacant middle seat doesn’t provide six feet of social distancing.” 

There’s also a relationship between the risk of transmission and how long you spend on a flight, how full it is, and what health measures the airline has in place—not to mention what other passengers are doing. “The flyer doesn’t have total control over any of that,” Dr. Fiorito says. “The best thing is not to fly unless you have to, but if you do, face coverings and frequent hand cleaning remain key.” 

Should you decide to fly, take precautions, advises Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert and professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “Make sure you bring your own mask—but you can’t expect the flight personnel to make your seatmate put their mask on,” he says. You might want to bring wipes to clean the tray table, armrests, and other surfaces. Be sure to carry hand sanitizing gel—and use it. 

Is it a good idea to visit family? 

It depends on everyone’s health and risk tolerance. But if you do decide to gather, discuss the ground rules in advance, Dr. Schaffner says: “That way, you can enjoy yourself rather than being twitchy when you’re together.” 

Get on the phone with whoever you’re going to be spending time with, and make sure you’re all on the same page about health precautions. Will you go inside houses or stay outside? Wear masks or go without? Does grandma want to be kissed, hugged around the waist, or kept at a distance? Keep in mind that some family members—especially kids—will need reminders along the way. 

What about road trips—and rest stops??? 

Road trips are definitely less risky than flights. But this is not the season to play it by ear. 

Plan your road trip ahead, says Jim Stratton, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. Check the CDC’s Covid-19 data tracker and local health department websites, so you can avoid areas with active outbreaks. You should map out your route—AAA’s Covid-19 Travel Restrictions Map shows state and local travel restrictions. 

Especially if you’re traveling with kids, consider scheduling your rest stops, because some facilities may be closed. Make hotel reservations ahead of time, and look for flexible cancellation policies in case you need to change your plans, Stratton says. Pack extra snacks (to reduce stops), as well as masks, gloves, wipes, and hand sanitizer. If you don’t have gloves, use a plastic bag as a barrier between your hand and the gas pump. 

Oh, and those rest areas. Try to touch as little as possible—even less than you normally do. Cover your hands if you can, and be sure to wash them well. And consider taking a cue from pediatrician Tanya Altmann, who told the New York Times she has a motto for her kids: “Don’t touch anything, Mommy will do it all for you.” 

Should I get travel insurance? 

It’s not a bad idea to get trip cancellation insurance, but you need to know exactly what you’re getting. 

You can buy insurance for all kinds of trips, including cruises, flights, tours, and road trips. Travel agents, booking sites and airlines often offer travel insurance; you can also buy it separately on sites like SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip, which let you compare policies from different insurers.  

But—and this is a big but—to get insurance benefits, your policy has to specifically cover the event that messes up your trip. Standard policies typically don’t cover viral outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics, says Kasara Barto, a spokeswoman for travel insurance marketplace SquareMouth. 

Given that we’re currently living in crazyworld, some insurers are including COVID-19 coverage in policies, so you’ll be paid out if you get sick or are quarantined. But they’re not going to cover your trip if you cancel because you’re afraid of getting sick. 

To get that, you can upgrade a standard policy to Cancel for Any Reason, Barto says. It will be priced about 40% higher and will only cover 75% of your nonrefundable costs. You’ll have to buy it within two or three weeks of making your first booking. And it’s not an option when you buy insurance from an airline, booking site or the like. Finally, be sure to read the fine print—even if it’s really, really boring. 

Which is better, a hotel or a vacation rental? 

“I think they’re all, from the point of view of the environment, clean,” Dr. Shaffer says. But there are differences to consider. While hotel companies have put stringent cleaning and distancing policies into place, you also have to navigate elevators, narrow hallways, and dining options. 

Vacation rentals with kitchens mean you don’t have to risk restaurants or even carry-out. And if you choose something remote, you should have a very low risk of infection. The big rental platforms, including Airbnb and VRBO, have released new cleaning protocols that include washing linens in hot water and sanitizing surfaces that get touched a lot. But they don’t verify that those procedures are being followed—you’ll have to trust that the owner or management company is doing what they say they’re doing. Airbnb hosts can also opt for a “buffer” program that automatically spaces rentals 72 hours apart. 

If you do decide to stay in a hotel or resort, you don’t necessarily need to avoid the amenities, Dr. Shaffer says—assuming that the amenities are even open. Pools should be fine as long as chairs are spaced out and the number of guests is limited, he says. But keep an eye on the kiddie pool, as families tend to cluster there. Wear a mask if you use the restroom or lean over to talk to a stranger. 

And no matter where you go, beware the parking lot. “That’s where people congregate, and they forget to be careful,” Dr. Shaffer says. Some hiking trails and parks have had to close because of congestion in parking lots that increased the risk of transmission. 

What if my kid gets sick away from home? 

Don’t panic. If a kid starts to have flu-like symptoms while traveling, treat them the way you would at home, Dr. Fiorito says: “Fluids, rest, Tylenol or Motrin for fever if the child seems uncomfortable.” If the symptoms get worse, consider seeing a local doctor. 

Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist, formerly travel editor for The Wall Street Journal and news director for Travel + Leisure. She's the author of Away & Aware, a guide to mindful travel.