I’m about to go on spring break, and if I test positive for COVID before flying home, I can’t afford to isolate for five days in a place or miss extra work. It seems like everyone is coughing and sneezing on planes these days, and folks are opting to fly anyway. As much as I want to be a conscientious traveler, why should I pay another thousand bucks to stay in a hotel and quarantine for five days when nobody else appears to be doing that? —Weary of the Pandemic
You’re right. Most Americans are tired of dealing with pandemic rules and regulations—including the government. On January 30, President Biden announced that, as of May 11, the administration would officially shift away from treating COVID as a national public-health crisis and instead begin to manage it more like the flu or other seasonal respiratory disease. But does that mean we should be flying if we’re infected?
If you travel, even infrequently, and haven’t yet grappled with this question, chances are you will. I found myself in the throes of such a predicament right before the holidays. I was on assignment in Antarctica on a 100-passenger cruise ship, and although cruises were considered a hotbed for the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic, almost two years later, any fear of catching the virus had faded from my mind. I should have known better and read the obvious signs: namely, being welcomed aboard by masked staff.
In hindsight, I probably should have taken a COVID test before flying home to New Jersey for Christmas to see my virus-phobic mom and immune-compromised aunt. But I’d been vaccinated, did not feel sick, and assumed that if anyone on the ship had gotten sick, we would have been alerted.
On the ten-hour leg of my flight from Buenos Aires to Houston, I sat next to a lovely elderly couple from the cruise, both of whom were vigilant about keeping on their N95 masks. Two days after I returned, I received an email from a passenger I’d befriended, who reported that at least a dozen people on the cruise had come down with COVID—including the couple I sat next to on the plane.
“Yes, I felt like an asshole,” a friend of mine who recently flew home when she thought she might have COVID admits. “Yes, I worried that I could’ve infected someone with a weak immune system. But people are coughing and sniffling on planes and in airports all the time.”
Thankfully, I tested negative, but the incident made me realize how easily I could have unknowingly gotten my family sick, perhaps with serious consequences. It also made me consider what the travel repercussions of testing positive might have been: missing Christmas with my family and having to quarantine alone in Ushuaia, Argentina, for at least five days (as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
When I mentioned the situation to a friend, she admitted she’d recently taken a flight to Oahu, even though she knew she had COVID. “It’s so unethical, but I honestly was adamant about this trip,” she confided. “I needed a vacation, and I felt totally fine. I wore a mask, obviously.”
With Relaxed COVID Requirements, Many Sick Travelers Have Opted to Fly
We all have our reasons for traveling while sick. For better or for worse, sidestepping COVID guidelines has become much easier for travelers. For more than a year, providing timely proof of a negative COVID test ahead of your flight was a pricey, stressful hassle. So, as a road warrior, I was relieved when the CDC dropped this mandate for domestic travel last June. (Regulations for international travel have largely followed suit, with very few nations still requiring testing or proof of vaccination for inbound passengers; a full list of country-specific entry requirements can be found here.)
Quarantining while traveling has also been a costly and inconvenient part of the pandemic, as anyone who has been required to do it can attest. Now given the choice of traveling with COVID or hunkering down and isolating, which could cost thousands of dollars in hotel fees, room-service meals, missed work, and child care, many choose to fly infected with the coronavirus. And there are no rules stopping them from boarding a plane.
Last August, Ellen (not her real name) started to feel a tickle in her throat on the final day of her weeklong trip to Kauai. “I thought, Oh shit, I cannot get COVID right now,” she recalls. Her first vacation since pandemic travel restrictions had relaxed was, it turns out, anything but relaxing: The town of Hanalei felt super crowded. Restaurants averaged two-hour waits for dinner. And everything, from her Airbnb to meals, was expensive.
In this transitional period of the pandemic, many people are already treating COVID like the flu or a cold, says Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center in Atlanta.
“By the last day of the trip, I started feeling run-down, and I really wanted to get home,” she says. “I didn’t want to be isolated in a last-minute, overpriced hotel room for five more days on the island and deal with flight-change costs. Not to mention my partner and I were due back at work.”
Ellen decided not to test before her flight back to the mainland, rationalizing that germs were everywhere and other passengers on her flight likely had COVID, too. She took extra precautions to assuage her guilt, double-masking with N95’s and sanitizing her hands more frequently than she normally would. But by the time she got home from the red-eye flight, she had a fever and sore throat, and when she finally took a COVID test, it was positive. Her partner, who had been around her unmasked at the height of contagion, never got sick.
“Yes, I felt like an asshole,” she admits. “Yes, I worried that I could’ve infected someone with a weak immune system. But people are coughing and sniffling on planes and in airports all the time.”
Amid the height of cold and flu season, it can seem like everyone traveling has a sniffle and the majority of people aren’t letting any illness—a common cold, COVID, or RSV among the top three this year and difficult to discern, based on symptoms—cancel big plans. In mid-January, Jamie DeLancey flew from Denver to San Francisco to watch the 49ers play in the NFL’s wild-card championship game, with what he assumed was a bad cold. He’d come down with COVID before and this felt different, so he did not test, noting that he hasn’t found such tests to be reliable. While he wore a mask on his flights, he didn’t wear one at the game.
In this transitional period of the pandemic, many people are already treating it like the flu or a cold, says Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center in Atlanta. “In a way, that’s a logical rationale if you’re vaccinated and unlikely to get sick,” he says. “But that’s not the reality for some people who are elderly or immune-compromised. In many ways, things haven’t changed. If you’re sick and in contact with them, you could put them in the hospital.”
The CDC continues to advise avoiding travel if you are sick with or have tested positive for COVID, and isolating for at least five days after your positive test if you’re either asymptomatic or your symptoms first appear; following these guidelines, you should test again on day six and then wear a high-quality mask, such as an N95, when outdoors between days six and ten if you are around others, including on a plane. Whether the masses of travelers adhere to these is another thing altogether, as we’ve all seen play out on airlines.
How to Avoid Frustration, Fees, and Questionable Choices if You Get COVID Before or During a Trip
When Ross Holbrook flew from Denver to San José del Cabo, Mexico, with his wife and two young daughters last May, he watched his seatmate chug a bottle of DayQuil cold medicine. Holbrook was vaccinated and wearing a mask, but on day three of their family vacation, he tested positive for COVID; by day eight, his wife and one of the girls were also positive. Their Airbnb had a pool, so they made the best of things, but due to the mandatory quarantine rules in effect at the time, the family estimates they spent nearly $3,000 extending their car and Airbnb rentals. “We did consider driving home,” he says, but that idea was abandoned as impractical.
Five extra days in a destination like Mexico or Hawaii can cost a small fortune, not to mention difficult to find a room at the height of spring break or summer travel. What if you can’t afford to isolate and stay extra days in a place if you get COVID? Should you put off travel completely? Not necessarily, but you should have a COVID game plan that protects others, says Richard Martinello, the medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut.
“We all have busy lives, but as part of society, we have responsibilities not to put others in harm’s way, like not driving drunk,” he says. “Putting yourself in prolonged close contact with fellow travelers when you are knowingly sick, whether with COVID or any other contagious virus, is irresponsible. You never know who you’re sitting next to on a plane. If they’re immune-compromised, even a cold could push them over the edge to serious illness.”
Martinello acknowledges that the average traveler can’t afford to miss five additional days from work and home, so if you must travel sick, he suggests driving rather than flying or another form of public transportation. That said, if a partner or friend will be driving with you, they should be aware that you’re sick, he says, so they are consenting and can test and isolate appropriately.
Stuck somewhere like Hawaii, where flying home is the only option? Take every precaution to limit contagion spread. Wear an N95 mask. Paper surgical masks are the next best option, and homemade cloth masks even have some value in preventing the spread of germs, he says. You can also request to be moved next to an empty seat.
Check Your Airline’s COVID Policies
Several airlines, including Delta and United, continue to waive change fees for travelers looking to rebook due to COVID. Hawaiian Airlines will allow a one-time ticket change (with the difference in fares charged) for the same circumstances. Purchasing travel insurance for a flight also covers most COVID cancellations and rebookings.
Such thoughtful policies have prompted some travelers to make the morally conscious decision when illness sets in. Carmino DeMecurio was one of those people. He was booked to fly from New York City to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a business trip on January 19, but tested positive for COVID on January 16. He canceled the entire trip and said Delta immediately issued him an e-credit for a future flight. He was able to call in remotely for his meeting. “It wasn’t ideal to be the only person on a screen, but out of respect for others, it seemed like the right decision,” he says.
Consider Getting Travel Insurance
While airlines can be accommodating, quarantine lodging accommodations can be the real zinger for travelers. According to a spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, it’s up to individual hotels to decide whether to offer a discounted rate if a guest must extend a stay due to quarantine. If you’ve splurged on a big trip, or you’re traveling far from home, trip insurance might be a smart investment. Allianz Travel Insurance recently added an Epidemic Coverage Endorsement to some of its plans. Under this new policy, if you have proof—a PCR test or a physician’s note—that you’ve tested positive for COVID during a trip, you can be reimbursed for unused, prepaid, nonrefundable trip costs, as well as additional accommodation and transportation costs incurred, depending on which situation applies.
Allianz’s OneTrip Basic policy, for example, offers up to $10,000 in trip cancellation and trip-interruption benefits per insured person, while the OneTrip Prime, the company’s most comprehensive policy, covers up to $100,000 in trip cancellation and up to $150,000 in trip-interruption benefits, with the option to tack on what’s called a Cancel Anytime upgrade, an option that reimburses travelers for up to 80 percent of prepaid, nonrefundable expenses for a trip that must be canceled for almost any reason not already covered by the policy.
According to an Allianz spokesperson, travelers can typically expect to pay 5 to 6 percent of the cost of their vacation for a standard travel-insurance policy. Actual prices will fluctuate based on a traveler’s age, state of residence, primary destination, length of stay, and total cost of their trip. For example, a 34-year-old from California traveling to Africa for a $9,700 three-week safari would pay $443 for a policy.
So should you travel with COVID if you come down with it on your upcoming spring-break trip? That depends on how prepared you are with a contingency plan, an adequate insurance policy, and the risk you’re willing to take when it comes to your personal health and the health of others, as you can still be hospitalized and even die from the virus. Not least is the ethical consideration of it all. Martinello advises travelers to follow the simple golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And if you don’t trust your fellow air passengers—which, as this article reflects, are generally as eager to get away or get home as you are—do everyone a favor and wear a mask.
Any number of concerns are on our radar as we plan our next trip, from serious issues like how destinations are working to mitigate tourists’ environmental impact to inconveniences like months-long passport wait times. In this column, our travel expert Jen Murphy will be addressing your questions about how to navigate the world. Check out her previous column, on how to avoid bed bugs during your next hotel stay, here.