Pandemic Travel Advice
This information is supplied by Riskline: travel risk intelligence (last updated May 1, 2021). Please note, the following is provided for informational purposes only. Please refer to Cornell University's Pandemic Travel Policy before undertaking any Cornell-related travel.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced individual travelers and entire industries – aviation, accommodation, mobility – to rethink how we travel. The pandemic has created a challenge of how to resume traveling while minimizing the risk of exposure to the virus, complying with a growing list of new directives, and grappling with many uncertainties. Consumer confidence is very unlikely to immediately return to pre-pandemic levels, even with extensive mitigation efforts, leading to persistently low demand. Any further highly-publicized outbreaks onboard a cruise ship or at a business conference would cause immediate disruptions. Until more effective therapeutic treatments and/or vaccines are widely available, localized outbreaks will prompt the implementation of new lockdowns, potentially stranding travelers again in quarantine zones. Expect a reduction in capacity for transportation services of all kinds to be the new norm in 2021. Travel and security managers will have to carefully weigh a multitude of risks against the necessity of a trip before authorizing travel.
What to Expect When Traveling
As the COVID-19 outbreak took on a global dimension and the WHO declared it a pandemic, most countries around the world took steps to prevent the outbreak from spreading further. Travelers should expect health screening measures – ranging from non-invasive temperature screening to a full COVID-19 test involving nasal and throat swabs – at points of entry that remain open. Travelers may be quarantined until test results are complete.
Visibly ill travelers or those suspected of having the virus are likely to be interviewed and may be required to fill out health declaration forms to allow for a proper risk assessment and possible contact tracing; in some cases, the visibly ill will be prevented from traveling altogether. Travelers displaying symptoms, including a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing; those with potential exposure to the virus; and those testing positive for COVID-19 are likely to be isolated at the point of entry before being transferred to a designated quarantine or healthcare facility for further assessment and treatment. Those deemed healthy that are allowed to enter may still be required to monitor their health daily and report it to local authorities by phone or through an app.
Many countries have implemented a mandatory quarantine period ranging from 7-14 days, either at home or at a designated facility or a combination of both, for all arrivals regardless of nationality, symptoms, or recent travel history. In some locations, this quarantine has been extended to 28 days. Elsewhere, authorities have implemented similar quarantine measures only for travelers arriving from countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases. A growing minority of countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have either banned all foreign nationals or restricted entry for passengers who have recently been to coronavirus-affected destinations.
We encourage all travelers to use Cornell's International SOS online portal and membership number (11BSCA827281) to find relevant destination-specific information including travel restrictions and flight operations in the COVID-19 section.
Airports have attempted to implement social distancing measures to limit the spread of the virus. Many airports have deployed workers to manage queues and have used signage and physical barriers to separate passengers. Airlines have also encouraged passengers to use online instead of in-person check-in procedures. However, enforcing social distancing remains a challenge at these facilities.
Enhanced screening measures have led to increased wait times at airports. In addition to causing frustration for travelers, long queue lines also pose a risk of overcrowding that could potentially expose travelers to infected individuals. While upgraded screening equipment and thermal imaging cameras help expedite the screening process, wait times are likely to ultimately differ from airport to airport, depending on how effectively officials account for the impact of the screening process on passenger queues.
Acknowledging that social distancing is not always possible in crowded places, most airports have mandated that face masks be worn by travelers and staff. The provision of masks, unfortunately, remains inconsistent: some airport operators and carriers have indicated they will provide them to travelers, while others have told travelers to bring their own or be refused entry.
Airports have also implemented various health checks. Temperature scans may be required at various stages of travel, including entry to the airport itself, during check-in or security procedures, and boarding the aircraft. Contact and/or health questionnaires may be required by local authorities or airlines during booking, check-in, or after landing. Many countries now also require rapid Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antigen tests for travelers before departure and/or after landing; positive results will undoubtedly result in the denial of boarding and possible isolation. With the growing need for pre-departure COVID-19 tests, some airports have also opened testing centers on-site for PCR and antigen tests, with fast turn-around times for travelers' convenience and peace of mind.
Advice for before you arrive and when you are at an airport:
- Check-in online and use an electronic ticket. Otherwise, use self-service kiosks at the airport to minimize contact with staff.
- Check with the departure airport about how far in advance to arrive before your flight.
- If you aren't feeling well in advance of your flight, consult with a doctor. Individuals showing symptoms may be denied entry or boarding.
- Wear a high-quality face mask at all times. Opt for mask types that are proven to be effective such as KN95, N95, or three-ply surgical masks. Bring enough spares to change wet or soiled masks and consider replacing disposal medical masks every four to six hours.
- Maintain a safe distance from other passengers and airport staff.
- Pack hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in your carry on.
International air travel remains stunted due to constantly changing government border restrictions and low demand. The 'stop-start' nature of international travel is characterized by frequent schedule changes and cancellations. International long-haul flights remain the most affected, while domestic flights and short- to medium-haul regional flights are likely to see better recovery.
Airlines have stepped up sanitary measures in an attempt to reassure weary passengers. In addition to pre-boarding health checks and mandatory face masks, airlines have implemented enhanced cleaning and disinfecting for aircraft and personal protective equipment (PPE)-integrated uniforms for flight attendants.
Multiple airlines have also implemented health screening for passengers, with temperature checks becoming a regular feature, with some even expanding to on-site pre-departure Covid tests.
Some airlines have also implemented various measures for social distancing, including blocking middle seat bookings, limiting the usage of lavatories in certain areas of the aircraft, and reducing food and beverage services, especially on short-haul flights. However, several major airlines gradually abandoned attempts to maintain social distance within aircraft – largely citing potential losses from operating routes well below capacity – and began seating passengers in middle seats.
Likewise, government regulations and airline rules on the use of masks during flights vary greatly, but governments and/or airlines are gradually making it compulsory onboard flights. There is substantial evidence indicating that wearing masks in-flight – in concert with an aircraft's air filtration system – significantly reduces the risk of transmission if one or more passengers are infected with the virus. It should be noted that the risk of infection - even with face masks - is higher in long-haul flights, particularly when the environmental control systems are temporarily inactive during refueling and stopovers. Some airlines have added restrictions on the type of masks that can be used onboard flights, and authorities in several countries have made it a requirement that passengers wearing disposable medical/surgical masks should replace it every four to six hours. Travelers should verify their airline's policies before booking their flight.
Some airlines have begun offering 'COVID-free' or quarantine-free flights on a pilot basis. Under such schemes, all passengers will be required to submit a negative test result no older than 48 hours and then take a second test, in exchange for a quarantine-free stay. With many airlines desperate to encourage travelers to fly again, such options may be offered on a growing number of flights in the future. Another option that many airlines will likely implement - once vaccines are more readily available - are 'vaccine passports', whereby travelers are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before being allowed to board. Pilot programs are already underway by some airlines and countries. As vaccine requirements for travel become more commonplace, expect verified digital vaccine passports to become much more widely used, to counter the risk of fraudulent vaccine certificates. These measures, if widely adopted, may also prompt countries to gradually reduce travel restrictions.
Advice for when you are onboard an airplane:
- Wear a face mask at all times. Opt for mask types that are proven to be effective such as KN95, N95, or three-ply surgical masks. Bring enough spares to change wet or soiled masks and consider replacing disposal medical masks every four to six hours.
- Pack hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in your carry on..
- Remain in your seat whenever possible and minimize movement around the cabin.
- Consider bringing your own food and beverages if this is allowed by the airline.
- Make sure to book a flexible ticket that is fully refundable, especially for international flights, as schedules can change and cancellations occur frequently.
Hotels and Accommodations
The pandemic has severely affected accommodation providers and many smaller hotels have been forced to close completely, which will mean fewer accommodation options for travelers. Well-established hotel chains have introduced enhanced health screening measures for guests and employees, such as mandatory temperature checks at entrances and enforced social distancing measures in all common areas, including in lounges and bars. In addition, facilities such as swimming pools and gyms could also be closed to guests, particularly in countries/regions with higher infection rates, due the difficulty of implementing strict sanitary measures in those locations. Some well-established hotel chains may also provide detailed information online on the availability of facilities as well as more specific information on social distancing measures for individual hotels prior to or upon booking. Depending on local regulations, wearing face masks may be mandatory whenever a traveler is in a hotel common area.
The hospitality industry in many countries has implemented certification programs as a mark of confidence for travelers that their premises are clean, disinfected regularly and that they adhere to social distancing measures as well as government COVID-19 regulations. This practice has now become more widespread and travelers should seek out accommodation providers that have such a certification. In addition, a number of luxury hotel chains are already offering COVID-19 testing options for travelers' convenience, as more stringent testing requirements are adopted across the world. The cost of a test is often included in room rates, with such hotels offering either on-site testing or facilitating trips to nearby facilities.
Advice on stays at hotels and other accommodations:
- Book your stay in well-established hotel chains and serviced apartment providers that, at minimum, comply with local regulations on cleanliness and social distancing.
- Avoid under-regulated options, such as Airbnb and home stays, where stringent health and safety measures cannot be guaranteed.
- Bring an adequate supply of face masks, hand sanitizer ,and disinfectant wipes for the duration of your stay. While some accommodations may provide them, this may not be the case everywhere.
Car Rental, Taxis, and Rideshares
Car rentals, taxis, and rideshare services were among the first to be hit when COVID-19 lockdowns took effect across the world. In order to survive, rental car companies have started providing significantly cheaper rental options for longer periods of time.
Car rental companies have also implemented some health safety measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which include adding hand sanitizers within vehicles and disinfecting them before and after each trip. Contactless pick-up options have become increasingly common for travelers from locations closer to their homes. Most taxis and rideshare operators have also implemented social distancing measures in line with local health regulations; many require customers to wear face masks and sit at the back of the vehicle to ensure sufficient distancing. Strict passenger limits have also been implemented by rideshare operators, some on their own volition and others due to government restrictions.
Advice on car rentals, taxis, and rideshares
- Wear a face mask and ride in the rear seats of the vehicle.
- Keep a window open for the duration of the journey or ask the driver to open the vents in the vehicle's climate controls.
- Use cashless payment options, when available.
- When using rideshares or taxis to order food and groceries, opt for the delivery to be left outside your doorstep.
Many rail operators around the world are also adapting as travel begins to resume. Mandatory wearing of face masks is becoming more common and contactless ticketing options are preferred. Some long-distance trains have also suspended onboard catering.
Lockdowns, curfews, and entry bans are not the only cause of rail service disruptions across the globe. Rail operators have reduced schedules to allow for deep cleaning and disinfection of trains and stations, measures which are widely expected to continue until the majority of the population is vaccinated. Many operators are also enforcing pre-boarding health screenings, including thermal testing, on passengers at stations, which often result in queues and longer waiting times.
Advice for train travel:
- Check-in online and use an electronic ticket. Otherwise, use self-service kiosks at the station to minimize contact with staff.
- Check with the departure station about how far in advance to arrive before your train.
- Wear a face mask at all times, and bring a spare in case yours gets wet or soiled.
- Maintain a safe distance from other passengers and staff.
- Pack hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in an easily accessible bag.
- Remain in your seat whenever possible and minimize movement around the train.
- Considering bringing your own food and beverages.
Lockdowns and travel restrictions combined with the difficulty of enforcing social distancing on public transport have resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of passengers using these services. Operators in turn have suspended routes, altered timetables, and reduced services and are likely to continue doing so as they adjust to low passenger numbers. As transport operators adjust, more measures will likely be implemented in an attempt to restore confidence in public transport and ensure the safety of passengers.
Some standard operating procedures have been implemented by many public transport operators, including reducing available seats, requiring passengers to wear face masks, pre-boarding temperature checks, changes to payment methods and the daily sanitization of buses, trains, ships, and other vehicles.
Social distancing has become the new norm but its application on board public transport has varied. Many operators are operating at a reduced capacity and have applied various methods for enforcing social distancing, including a ban on passengers standing, new seating arrangements or simply asking people to stay a certain distance from one another. With the reduced demand during lockdown, the measures were relatively easy to apply, however, social distancing will be much more difficult as commuters return to work, especially during peak hours. Indeed, social distancing measures on public transport have been abandoned completely in some countries where cases of the virus have been suppressed dramatically.
COVID-19 Security Risks
There are related risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic which may manifest as the crisis develops in certain countries.
The infection of essential workers and measures to prevent the spread of the virus in critical sectors of the economy have the potential to cause both short- and long-term impacts on critical services and infrastructure. In a worse-case scenario, this could cause disruptions to essential services such as drinking water, electricity, and food production and distribution. The risk of looting and other unrest sparked by poor service delivery increases as the virus spreads.
In addition to service disruptions caused directly by the outbreak, workers may strike or participate in other forms of labor action. Warehouse, delivery, and healthcare workers have already walked off the job in several countries over a lack of protective equipment and other work conditions. Further strikes are certain and carry the potential to disrupt essential services.
Protests and Unrest
Some populations may respond with hostility to prolonged movement controls – such as curfews or household lockdowns – invasive government tracking or the economic impact of COVID-19-related measures. The perception that personal freedoms are under attack has led to some protests in countries like the United States and Australia. Likewise, proposals for temporary treatment and isolation facilities or the burial of COVID-19 fatalities have led to protests by local residents in several countries. Further unrest directed at authorities and symbols of the government is possible and may have a negative impact on the containment of the virus. As governments begin their vaccine roll-out, protests by growing anti-vaccine and anti-expert movements also cannot be ruled out, particularly in Europe and the United States.
Anti-government and other extremist individuals or groups may attempt to carry out attacks targeting symbols of the state – including politicians, government infrastructure, or military personnel – or health workers and medical infrastructure in response to actual or perceived government overreach during the pandemic.
Violence directed at foreigners perceived to be responsible for the outbreak of the disease is increasingly likely over time. In the initial stages, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment and physical attacks were reported globally. As the pandemic has taken hold across the world, triggering an economic crisis, some lower-income groups suffering from unemployment in countries that have a large migrant workforce have begun targeting migrant workers and asylum seekers.
Fraud and Scams
Criminals may attempt to exploit the pandemic as an opportunity to profit through scams, phishing attacks, malware, and other forms of fraud. Indeed, approximately 3,600 new internet domains containing the word "coronavirus" were created between 14 and 18 March alone. Common scams involving soliciting donations for medical supplies through email and fake fines sent by text message for violating lockdown.
Take common-sense precautions for digital security, including verifying URLs and the source of message attachments before opening them.
There is a possibility of increased surveillance of individuals and the general public. Personal information may be disclosed to the public, especially for those who are diagnosed with the virus. Exercise discretion in deciding to communicate sensitive or personal information through electronic devices.
Targeting Vulnerable Groups
Using the COVID-19 outbreak as a pretext, governments may attempt to target vulnerable groups – minorities, LGBTQ+ community, journalists, opposition politicians, and activists – in arrests or violent attacks.
Severe Weather and Natural Disasters
Preparations for and response to natural disasters are complicated by the COVID-19 outbreak; authorities must update plans and respond in ways that reduce the risk of transmission. This can limit the effectiveness of emergency response and hamper post-disaster recovery. In the Caribbean for example, many island nations such as the Bahamas are left more vulnerable to the impact of hurricane season as usual hurricane preparedness and response have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Those affected by evacuation orders or forced to seek communal shelter following a disaster may be at higher risk of contracting the virus as some distancing measures – such as 'stay at home' – may not be possible. These risks are amplified in developing countries with limited resources and large populations.