Ask Colin: Travel and COVID-19

Colin, I’ve been planning a trip to Moscow for months now, and was just about to start buying my tickets and make my accommodation reservations when they started closing airports and canceling events around the world a few weeks ago.

Should I cancel my trip?

I haven’t bought anything yet, so the main downside is that I’d be out the time I’ve spent researching and figuring out where to go, when to go, and how to get there. I’d have to start over again whenever I decide to go, instead.

I also worry that I’ll keep putting it off if I don’t go now, though, and that I’ll be missing out on something I’ve been looking forward to a whole lot, maybe because of something that ends up being nothing.

What should I do?


Hey Ant-

This is something that’s been on my mind recently, as well. As someone who travels a great deal for work and pleasure, the news has been particularly alarming, and there are so many unknowns that I’ve been trepidatious about making any firm travel plans.

At the moment, it would seem that the COVID-19 coronavirus isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and that a vaccine likely won’t arrive until sometime in 2021—maybe sometime in late-2020 if we’re extremely lucky and if they remove some of the typical regulatory hurdles.

Reliable treatments, likewise, remain on the horizon, and although we’ve managed to do an incredible amount of research into the genetic structure of the thing in a very short time, there’s still a great deal of fundamental information we don’t have at the moment, making misunderstanding and misallocation of resources more likely.

What this means for human beings in general is that it’s prudent to stay aware and take care, and to adjust some of our behaviors.

The best information I’ve seen indicates that masks aren’t necessary unless you’re sick or in close contact with people who might be sick (so don’t go buying them all up if you’re just going about your day, lest you deny the supply to those who will actually benefit from them), washing your hands correctly and not touching your face are two of the best possible habits you can adopt (and this is true of all respiratory illnesses, all the time), and most of us don’t have too much to worry about in terms of dying from this disease, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless, and it doesn’t mean that younger folks with relatively healthy immune systems shouldn’t take care to avoid becoming asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, spreading it to other people.

Does that mean we should avoid traveling completely?

I tend to think not, but with important caveats.

If you’re prepared to take immense caution in terms of where you go, how you behave (including the aforementioned frequent hand-washing), and how you engage with other people (less hand-shaking, more head-nodding and bowing from a safe distance), there’s a chance you could still take your trip and have an enjoyable time.

Please note, though, that you’ll likely have more trouble engaging with locals (who might understandably be a little more distant and closed off than they normally would) and that many places you’d hoped to see (museums, theaters, etc) might be closed to prevent people from gathering in large groups—an understandable measure, given the severity of the disease and its potential to spread quickly and widely.

Also worth noting is that the hassle of travel will likely be exacerbated quite a bit, with more screening and probing, more barriers at border crossings, and a decent likelihood that if you’re running any kind of fever, or if you’re coming from/have passed through a hot-zone, you may be denied access to the country, you may be quarantined, and you may be treated like some kind of plague-carrier by locals.

There’s also the risk that you’ll be prevented from traveling, internally and/or to return home, which could prevent you from doing the things you want to do, but could also be quite expensive, as you would need a place to stay, wouldn’t be able to get back for work, and so on.

The budget-traveler in me initially wondered if there might be opportunities to grab cheap flights and holiday services as a result of these same risks, but we’re already seeing many service-providers—including transportation providers—choosing to scale-down or close up shop to protect their employees, or in some cases due to government mandate, instead.

So while there’s a small chance for a budget-minded silver lining here, my suspicion is that any money you might save would be negligible compared to what you give up or risk in the process.

My advice—and this is advice that I’m taking right now, too—is to rethink your travel ambitions for now, perhaps exploring nearby areas instead of far-flung locales, at least until we know more and have a better understanding of what we’re dealing with.

Many governments around the world are still dragging their heels when it comes to their response, worrying (not without reason) about the economic and political ramifications of making too big a deal about this situation. But there’s a good chance that klaxons and quarantines are genuinely warranted, and that we should all adjust our plans and habits, at least a little bit, for a time, to make sure this thing doesn’t become even more serious than it already is.

Don’t shut down with worry and don’t give up on your desire to explore: just realign those ambitions to the circumstances we’re facing, and consider taking a road trip instead of a flight, visiting someplace closer to home instead of someplace on the other side of the planet, and maybe reconnecting with family and friends rather than aiming to mingle with strangers who may—because of circumstances, not because of unfriendliness—not feel particularly inclined to put out a welcome mat for foreign visitors at the moment.

If we take some basic precautions and don’t panic, this situation will likely settle into a more manageable state in the relatively near-future, and we’ll be able to feel more comfortable making globe-trotting plans, once more.

At the moment, though, it’s possible that the on-the-ground realities of our current global situation would negatively impact your experience, and could also be dangerous for you and those you encounter along the way.

Consider applying your travel-planning skills to a scaled-down trip for now, saving that larger trip to Moscow (or wherever else) for when the sirens have quieted, venues have opened back up, and the small business owners who will suffer greatly under these restrictions will be thrilled to see you—your patronage helping them rebuild and survive at a tenuous and stressful moment.

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