For the 50+ Traveler

Coronavirus may be the most talked-about topic in the world, but that doesn’t mean travelers are getting the best information. And for those who are 60 and older, information is more valuable than ever. Not only is this demographic made up of passionate travelers, but it’s also among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus’s effects.

Here are answers to some of the coronavirus questions you might have.

Why Are Older People So Vulnerable?

Older people are normally among the most vulnerable during any public health crisis, and the coronavirus is no exception. However, the coronavirus is unique in that children -- who are normally among the vulnerable -- are proving to be particularly resistant to it.

So what makes those 60 and older especially susceptible? In general, the immune systems of older people aren’t as strong. Furthermore, one of the symptoms of the coronavirus is pneumonia, a condition that is more dangerous for older people. Social conditions are a compounding factor. Elderly people who are socially isolated may not have people looking out for the first signs of illness. Finally, otherwise healthy older people may easily contract the virus from their service providers and health care workers, who count many frail people among their clients.

It’s important to remember that, for approximately 80 percent of patients, the coronavirus will be mild. Of those who experience more severe symptoms, almost all will make a complete recovery. Those are encouraging statistics. However, half of United States coronavirus cases involve patients who are 50 or older. Those who have an underlying medical condition are doubly vulnerable. Even if you’re feeling in peak health, it’s prudent to check in with your doctor before you travel and to heed travel warnings.

Should I Stop Flying?

Unless an official recommendation has been issued against flying, such as a State Department advisory against visiting a certain destination, you can still fly.

However, on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, President Donald Trump announced that restrictions on travel to and from Europe would go into effect at midnight on Friday, March 13, 2020. The restrictions apply to foreign nationals who have visited countries in the Schengen zone -- including Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, among others -- during the past 14 days. Travel to and from the UK and Ireland, however, is still permitted.

The Department of Homeland Security has specified that these restrictions do not apply to American citizens. Americans who are currently in Europe will be allowed to return; however, they must undergo medical screenings first. Those who show symptoms will receive medical attention, and all travelers coming from Schengen-zone countries must self-quarantine for 14 days.

The restrictions, which will remain in place for 30 days, have left many travelers concerned and confused. For more information on the ban and its consequences, visit the State Department’s website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, and the Department of Homeland Security’s website.

Is Cruising Still Safe?

As of Friday, March 13, 2020, major cruise companies are changing their business practices to reflect the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Princess Cruises has suspended operations until May 10. Viking Cruises has canceled all cruises until May 1. Disney Cruise Line has suspended all new departures from March 14 through the end of the month. This follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s and State Department’s recommendations that all travelers, especially those with underlying medical conditions, avoid cruise-based travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

There's a good reason for this. While the vast majority of cruise vacations won’t see an outbreak of the coronavirus, if an outbreak does occur, it isn’t good news. The combination of close quarters, a closed community, and common amenities (from deck chairs to buffet ladles) provides the coronavirus with the perfect environment in which to spread. On a cruise, it’s virtually impossible to practice “social distancing,” which means keeping 6 feet away from other people in order to reduce direct disease transmission.

Even with the most responsible crew and the best-organized ground response, being quarantined on a cruise ship is a horrible experience. Would-be cruisers need to take a long, hard look at their risk tolerance for this kind of trip. While the risks remain relatively low in general, the outcome would be miserable -- and could be dangerous -- should you lose your gamble.

What About Airplanes?

Airlines use high-quality air filters to keep the cabin air clean and fresh. Most are similar to systems used in hospital operating rooms. Many airlines have also improved their cleaning procedures. For example, Southwest Airlines announced it was expanding the use of hospital-grade disinfectants during the cleaning that takes place on every plane each night.

The greatest threat isn’t being in an airplane per se, but rather the risks that come from using any form of public transportation. Handrails, seat belts, and trays that haven’t been properly disinfected are a problem whether they’re on an airplane, a train, or a bus.

Frequent handwashing combined with an effort to disinfect hard surfaces can help. Travelers can use cleansing wipes to attend to their trays, armrests, seat belt buckles, and more. It’s a good practice regardless of the coronavirus threat!

What Travel Activities Carry A Higher Risk?

Any activity that brings you within 6 feet of another person carries a risk. If you’re thinking that means just about every activity imaginable, you’re not wrong! Avoiding close contact is hard.

Gatherings with a lot of people -- like parades, conventions, concerts, or bus tours -- almost always involve a large number of people crammed into a small space. Imagine just how far one sneeze could travel in such a situation!

However, small-group activities like guided walking tours, hikes, and outdoor art classes maximize fresh air and minimize close contact. This is a good time to visit smaller museums and attractions during the quiet hours, usually just after opening and just before closing.

Should I Travel To X? What About Y?

In February and March of 2020, popular travel destinations like Japan and Italy experienced numerous coronavirus cases. However, they’re just two examples of countries where the coronavirus is active. More than 100 countries are now battling the virus. Saying where someone should or shouldn’t travel isn’t so simple. Often, it isn’t a question of avoiding a certain country or not, but rather knowing what regions are currently most affected.

Is Any Country Guaranteed Safe?

In a word: No. As with all emergency situations, this incident is ever-changing.

I’ve Heard That A City Has Declared A State Of Emergency. What Does That Mean?

While it may sound alarming, state of emergency is usually a political or administrative term. When one is declared, a municipality can access emergency funds and mobilize other resources from the state and federal governments. It’s a sign that the city’s leaders are taking the crisis seriously. You don’t need to automatically avoid these cities -- rather, you should assess them like you would any other destination.

What Are Airlines And Hotels Doing To Help? Will They Let Me Reschedule?

The good news is that a lot of airlines, hotels, booking agents, and tour operators are working with travelers to offer them flexible solutions. They want to keep your long-term business and earn your trust.

That doesn’t mean that rescheduling or getting a refund will be easy, however. Expect long waits on the phone. Social media teams may be able to provide information like a dedicated hotline for affected travelers.

Will Travel Insurance Help Me At All?

Yes -- and no. There are many different kinds of travel insurance, from basic policies that only cover you in the case of extreme emergency to comprehensive packages that cover nearly every possible scenario.

What they all have in common is that they offer limited protection when it comes to coronavirus. If you become ill and require hospitalization, you will likely be offered some reimbursement. But you just can’t cancel your trip and expect a refund. Even the most generous cancellation policies will not reimburse you for 100 percent of your costs. You shouldn’t expect compensation should you be quarantined. Most companies consider the coronavirus a known condition, and as such, they place restrictions on what kind of coverage they will offer.

That being said, travel insurance is still a good idea for any trip. Situations that negatively affect travelers, like sprained ankles or motorcycle accidents, are as prevalent as ever.

Should I Cancel My Trip?

This is one of the most difficult questions for a traveler to face. It’s hard to imagine canceling a trip you’ve saved and planned for. And, frankly, the idea of smaller crowds and great travel deals is really appealing.

However, the decision to cancel or not involves more than just how comfortable you feel with risk -- the risk of being ill, the risk of being quarantined, and the risk of changing plans. It’s also about whether your presence as a visitor will do more harm than good.

Travelers bring invaluable support to small businesses and communities around the world. Their purchases have a real and positive impact. Plus, many communities are suffering when there’s no virus in their region at all.

However, travelers also drain resources. It’s hard to convince a local population to maintain social distance when visitors are traipsing around town. Plus, a sick visitor -- with coronavirus or something else -- challenges the resources of the local clinic or hospital.

Your best resources are your own judgment, advice from your family physician, and data from a reputable organization such as the World Health Organization. These resources will let you know if you can travel to a destination while maintaining normal precautions, if you should limit your travel, if you are in a vulnerable category, and if you should avoid all but essential travel to certain destinations. This helpful map indicates the risk level in each country.

If I Decide To Travel, What Should I Bring With Me?

It may sound a bit unconventional, but a small digital thermometer would be a great addition to your travel first-aid kit. If you are sick, you can give your attending doctor an accurate history of how your fever has progressed. And if you’re not sick but simply feeling a bit flushed and tired after a long day, you’ll gain valuable peace of mind knowing you don’t have a fever.

Despite widespread calls to wash your hands, it can be difficult to do so in a world that doesn't always provide soap. Many travel shops sell tiny containers of soap “leaves” that can easily fit in your pocket or purse. You can also make your own (and enjoy your own high-quality soap on the road). Use a cheese grater to shave your preferred soap into small curls. Store them in a container like a Tic Tac mint box. When you need to wash your hands, just shake a few pieces out.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies or hay fever, bring your medication along. You don’t want to scare everyone around you when you have a sneezing fit innocently brought on by spring flowers! If there is any medication you regularly take -- prescription or not -- bring more than you think you’ll need. If you find yourself in an unexpected quarantine situation, you’ll want to have your blood-pressure medication on hand.

An elegant pair of travel gloves or driving gloves will help you solve a tricky problem. While it’s prudent advice to avoid touching your face during a pandemic, it’s nearly impossible to change an unconscious habit. Wearing gloves will help disrupt your routine of scratching and fiddling. Plus, you’ll feel quite stylish!

How Can Travelers Help?

Even if you choose to stay at home, there’s a lot you can do to support the small businesses and communities you love around the world. Writing detailed reviews online demonstrates your support and helps other travelers find an amazing destination. You can buy books and other products from shops you admire. You can make online donations to hospitals in the countries and cities you love. And you can support expats in your own community by visiting restaurants, exhibits, and shops that highlight the talents of an international community.

More Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institutes of Health

European Commission -- Public Health

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Infection Prevention and Control Canada

National Health Service United Kingdom