Is It Safe to Travel to Europe Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak? Experts Weigh In
1,577 cases have been confirmed in Italy as of March 2, with others popping up in Germany, France, Spain and beyond
The deadly coronavirus (officially termed COVID-19) has been rapidly spreading through mainland China and other parts of Asia over the last month. But in the past week, a number of new cases have emerged far from the outbreak’s epicenter, in countries including Italy, South Korea and Iran.
In a little over seven days, Italy went from having just three confirmed cases of coronavirus to 1,577 cases as of Monday, March 2. They’re largely centered in the northern Lombardy region, which contains the major manufacturing city and tourist hub of Milan.
New cases of COVID-19 have been reported in several other European Union countries: Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece and Spain, according to The New York Times.
As the threat in popular vacation destinations for Americans continues to grow, PEOPLE spoke to a travel expert about the safety of visiting Europe in the midst of the crisis, and what tourists should know.
What should you know if you have plans to travel to Europe this spring?
The decision to travel amid the outbreak is not an easy one to make, and should be taken seriously, especially if you or your vacation companions are pregnant, elderly, or suffer from conditions that may impact the immune system.
If you do have upcoming travel plans, Stewart suggests purchasing travel insurance now, or as far in advance as you can. “Specifically, a cancel-for-any-reason policy,” Tracy Stewart, Content Editor at Airfarewatchdog.com, told PEOPLE on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, without travel insurance, it may be difficult to get your money back if you do choose to cancel your trip. Airlines’ refund policies are inconsistent, and may very by route. Some carriers, like JetBlue, are currently allowing passengers to rebook for a later date without penalty.
Should you immediately cancel your travel plans?
“The decision to travel is a personal choice,” says Stewart, who encourages travelers to make an informed decision by staying up-to-date on the virus via official sources like the CDC.
It is important to remain calm and level-headed, and when in doubt, take extra precautions and stay safe.
Is there a way you can stay safe while traveling?
The majority of coronavirus cases are in mainland China, spreading outward from Hubei province, the epicenter of the disease. As of March 2, there have been nearly 90,000 cases and 3,000 deaths worldwide.
Regardless of whether you’re traveling or staying home, there are a few basic practices to remember, including avoiding people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes and/or nose, covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue and staying home if you yourself feel ill.
Be cautious of your surroundings, and wash your hands frequently.
Should you wear a face mask while traveling?
Despite many celebrities recently documenting their face masks while traveling, right now the CDC is not suggesting them to people who are not sick.
“While it is cold and flu season, we don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks in the general public to prevent respiratory illness, and we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus,” said Dr. Nancy Messonier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC in a press briefing.
In what areas of the world is the coronavirus currently found?
On Feb. 22, Italy, South Korea and Iran reported an alarming number of infected citizens, totaling in the hundreds. Prior to that, the vast majority of new coronavirus cases had occurred in mainland China.
As of Wednesday, the U.S. has had 53 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Of those, 12 cases occurred in people who recently returned from trips to China before news of the outbreak spread. In two cases, the illness was contracted from close contact with an infected individual.
The remaining 39 cases were people who were brought back to the U.S. by the Department of State, either on one of the three chartered flights of Americans who had been living in China, or from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan.
The total number of cases globally has reached 80,980, with nearly 3,000 deaths, according to Times.
Travel during the coronavirus pandemic
To slow down the spread of coronavirus and protect the health and well-being of all Europeans, some travel restrictions have been necessary. The European Commission is doing its utmost to allow people to meet friends and family, travel for work and to ensure free movement of citizens, goods and services – with full respect of health and safety measures.
The Commission has launched initiatives to help citizens travel safely across Europe:
Find up-to-date information on the travel and health situation for European countries.
EU Digital COVID Certificate
Learn more about the travel certificates that will facilitate free movement in the EU.
Mobile contact tracing apps
Find out how you can help can help break the chain of coronavirus infections through contact tracing apps.
A common approach to travel measures in the EU
On 13 October 2020, EU Member States adopted a Council Recommendation on a coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Recommendation was updated on 1 February 2021,14 June 2021, and 25 January 2022.
Common passenger locator form
Data exchange between Member States’ contact tracing authorities can be particularly important when travellers are crossing borders in close proximity to each other, such as in airplanes or trains. Digital Passenger Locator Forms can be used by Member States to collect data from cross-border travellers entering their territory. In order for Member States to exchange relevant data through the exchange platform developed by the Commission and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the Commission published draft measures on 17 March 2021, which establish the necessary legal conditions for processing such personal data.
Passenger and traveller rights
Travel during the pandemic FAQ
Passenger travel guidance on health safety
Under EU rules, passengers and travellers have the right to choose between vouchers or cash reimbursement for cancelled transport tickets (plane, train, bus/coach and ferries) or package travel. While reaffirming this right, the Commission recommendation of 13 May 2020 aims to ensure that vouchers become a viable and more attractive alternative to reimbursement for cancelled trips in the context of the current pandemic, which has also put heavy financial strains on travel operators.
You can check the list of all the national authorities in Europe that issue travel advice:
Travel from non-EU countries to the EU
EU members have agreed on a common approach to travel from non-EU countries to the European Union as set in a Council recommendation. On 22 February 2022, the Council updated the recommendation to further facilitate travel from outside the EU into the EU. Member States agreed to apply these updates as of 1 March 2022.
EU citizens and residents, their family members as well as those who have an essential reason to come to Europe should continue to be able to do so.
On 2 March 2022, the Commission proposed to activate the Temporary Protection Directive to offer quick and effective assistance to people fleeing Ukraine. The Commission also adopted operational guidelines to help Member States’ border guards efficiently manage arrivals from Ukraine. Member States are encouraged to facilitate border crossings at the EU-Ukraine border, including for persons who are not sufficiently documented (e.g. do not have testing, vaccination and, or recovery certificates).
According to the Council Recommendation on travel to the EU during the pandemic, all requirements prior to arrival to the European Union should be waived for people fleeing war zones.
Vaccinated and recovered persons
EU countries should lift the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU for persons vaccinated with an EU-authorised or a WHO-approved vaccine, provided they have received the last dose of the primary vaccination series at least 14 days and no more than 270 days before arrival or they have received an additional booster dose.
EU countries should also lift the temporary restriction on non-essential travel for persons who have recovered from COVID-19 within 180 days before travelling to the EU if they can prove their recovery with an EU Digital COVID Certificate or a non-EU certificate deemed equivalent to the EU Digital COVID Certificate.
Children over 6 and under 18 who fulfil the conditions set out for adults should be allowed to travel.
All other children over 6 and under 18 should be allowed to travel with a negative PCR test taken at the earliest 72 hours before departure. EU countries could require additional testing after arrival, as well as quarantine or isolation.
No test or additional requirements should be applied to children under the age of 6 travelling with an adult.
Countries on the EU list
When the epidemiological situation in a country improves sufficiently, the Council can include it on the list of countries from where all travel should be possible, regardless of vaccination status. The following countries are currently included on the list:
- China (subject to confirmation of reciprocity)
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
- South Korea
- United Arab Emirates
Travel restrictions should also be gradually lifted for the special administrative regions of China Hong Kong and Macao. Under the category of entities and territorial authorities that are not recognised as states by at least one member state, travel restrictions for Taiwan should also be gradually lifted.
The Council last updated the list on 17 January 2022. This list is reviewed every two weeks.
Residents of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican should be considered EU residents for the purpose of the recommendation. Schengen-associated countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) also take part in this recommendation.
The Council recommendation also includes an ‘emergency brake’ mechanism, allowing Member States to act quickly and in a coordinated manner to limit the risk of coronavirus variants entering the EU.
As a Council Recommendation is not a legally binding instrument, Member States and Schengen Associated Countries might apply different measures. Detailed information on the measures in place is available at Re-Open EU.
Overstay caused by travel restrictions
In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, visa holders present in the Schengen area who could not leave before the expiry date of their short-stay visa have had their visa extended up to a maximum stay of 90/180 days by the designated Member States’ authorities. If the visa holders were compelled to stay beyond the extended period of 90/180 days, a national long-stay visa or a temporary residence permit should have been issued by the national authorities.
Member States are encouraged to waive administrative sanctions or penalties on third-country nationals who during the period of travel restrictions were unable to leave their territory due to travel restrictions. Overstays due to the temporary travel restrictions should not be taken into account during the processing of future visa applications.
Nationals of visa-waived third countries who have remained in the Schengen area beyond the permitted 90-day stay
For nationals of visa-waived third-countries who are compelled to stay beyond the extended 90/180 days, the competent national authorities should extend the validity of the authorisations for legal stay, issue a new one or take other appropriate measures that ensure a continued right to stay on their territory. Information is available on the websites of Member States’ national authorities.
Expired travel documents due to an unexpectedly extended stay abroad
EU citizens and their family members who are not in possession of a valid passport and/or visa should be allowed to enter the EU territory, if they can prove by other means that they are EU citizens or family members of an EU citizen. Possession of an expired passport should be deemed to constitute proof by other means in the current situation. Family members should always be able to prove that they are family members of the EU citizen.
Consular assistance for EU citizens abroad
Under EU law, citizens are entitled to seek help from the embassy or consulate of any EU country other than their own if they find themselves in a situation where they need assistance outside the EU, with no available embassy or consulate from their own EU Member State.
After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission and the European External Action Service have helped to bring home stranded EU citizens from all over the world. EU citizens in need of assistance outside the EU are encouraged to contact their Member State.
Council Recommendation on a coordinated approach to facilitate safe free movement during the COVID-19 pandemic and repealing Recommendation (EU) 2020/1475
Annex to the Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a coordinated approach to facilitate safe free movement during the COVID-19 pandemic and replacing Recommendation (EU) 2020/1475
Commission proposal to amend the Council Recommendation of 13 October 2020 on a coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
(Предложение на Комисията за изменение на препоръката на Съвета от 13 октомври 2020 г. относно координиран подход за ограничаване на свободното движение в отговор на пандемията от COVID-19)
(Propuesta de la Comisión relativa a la modificación de la Recomendación del Consejo, de 13 de octubre de 2020, sobre un enfoque coordinado de la restricción de la libre circulación en respuesta a la pandemia de COVID-19)
(Návrh Komise na změnu doporučení Rady ze dne 13. října 2020 o koordinovaném přístupu k omezení volného pohybu v reakci na pandemii COVID-19)
(Kommissionens forslag om ændring af Rådets henstilling af 13. oktober 2020 om en koordineret tilgang til restriktioner for den frie bevægelighed som reaktion på covid-19-pandemien)
(Vorschlag der Kommission zur Änderung der Empfehlung des Rates vom 13. Oktober 2020 für eine koordinierte Vorgehensweise bei der Beschränkung der Freizügigkeit aufgrund der COVID-19-Pandemie)
(Komisjoni ettepanek muuta nõukogu 13. oktoobri 2020. aasta soovitust, mis käsitleb koordineeritud lähenemisviisi vaba liikumise piiramisele COVID-19 pandeemiale reageerimisel)
(Πρόταση της Επιτροπής για την τροποποίηση της σύστασης του Συμβουλίου, της 13ης Οκτωβρίου 2020 σχετικά με την εφαρμογή συντονισμένης προσέγγισης όσον αφορά τον περιορισμό της ελεύθερης κυκλοφορίας για την αντιμετώπιση της πανδημίας COVID-19)
(Proposition de la Commission visant à modifier la recommandation du Conseil du 13 octobre 2020 relative à une approche coordonnée de la restriction de la libre circulation en réaction à la pandémie de COVID-19)
(Togra ón gCoimisiún chun leasú a dhéanamh ar an Moladh ón gComhairle an 13 Deireadh Fómhair 2020 maidir le cur chuige comhordaithe i leith shrianadh na saorghluaiseachta mar fhreagairt ar phaindéim COVID-19)
(Prijedlog Komisije o izmjeni Preporuke Vijeća od 13. listopada 2020. o koordiniranom pristupu ograničavanju slobodnog kretanja kao odgovor na pandemiju bolesti COVID-19)
(Proposta della Commissione relativa alla modifica della raccomandazione del Consiglio, del 13 ottobre 2020, per un approccio coordinato alla limitazione della libertà di circolazione in risposta alla pandemia di COVID-19)
(Komisijas priekšlikums grozīt Padomes 2020. gada 13. oktobra Ieteikumu par koordinētu pieeju brīvas pārvietošanās ierobežošanai sakarā ar Covid-19 pandēmiju)
(Komisijos pasiūlymas iš dalies pakeisti 2020 m. spalio 13 d. Tarybos rekomendaciją dėl suderinto požiūrio į laisvo judėjimo apribojimą reaguojant į COVID-19 pandemiją)
(A Bizottság javaslata a szabad mozgásnak a Covid19-világjárvány miatti korlátozására vonatkozó koordinált megközelítésről szóló, 2020. október 13-i tanácsi ajánlás módosítására)
(Proposta tal-Kummissjoni biex tiġi emendata r-Rakkomandazzjoni tal-Kunsill tat-13 ta’ Ottubru 2020 dwar approċċ koordinat għar-restrizzjoni tal-moviment liberu b’reazzjoni għall-pandemija tal-COVID-19)
(Voorstel van de Commissie tot wijziging van de aanbeveling van de Raad van 13 oktober 2020 betreffende een gecoördineerde aanpak van de beperking van het vrije verkeer in reactie op de COVID-19-pandem ie)
(Wniosek Komisji dotyczący zmiany zalecenia Rady z dnia 13 października 2020 r. w sprawie skoordynowanego podejścia do ograniczania swobodnego przepływu w odpowiedzi na pandemię COVID-19)
(Proposta da Comissão para alterar a Recomendação do Conselho, de 13 de outubro de 2020, sobre uma abordagem coordenada das restrições à liberdade de circulação em resposta à pandemia de COVID‐19)
(Propunerea Comisiei de modificare a Recomandării Consiliului din 13 octombrie 2020 privind o abordare coordonată a restricționării liberei circulații ca răspuns la pandemia de COVID-19)
(Návrh Komisie na zmenu odporúčania Rady z 13. októbra 2020 o koordinovanom prístupe k obmedzeniu voľného pohybu v reakcii na pandémiu COVID-19)
(Predlog Komisije o spremembi Priporočila Sveta z dne 13. oktobra 2020 o usklajenem pristopu k omejevanju prostega gibanja v odziv na pandemijo COVID-19)
(Komission ehdotus koordinoidusta lähestymistavasta vapaan liikkuvuuden rajoittamiseen covid-19-pandemian johdosta 13 päivänä lokakuuta 2020 annetun neuvoston suosituksen muuttamisesta)
(Kommissionens förslag om ändring av rådets rekommendation av den 13 oktober 2020 om en samordnad strategi för inskränkningar i den fria rörligheten med anledning av covid-19-pandemin)
How the coronavirus outbreak is affecting travel in Europe
As UK Foreign Office advice on travel to parts of northern Italy changes, what is the situation with regard to flights, tours and holiday insurance?
An almost-empty Piazza del Duomo in Milan on 26 February. Photograph: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
An almost-empty Piazza del Duomo in Milan on 26 February. Photograph: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
The tourism industry should ready itself for a “rocky ride” as the coronavirus spreads across Europe. The warning by data and analytics company GlobalData follows a change in Foreign Office (FCO) advice to warn against all-but-essential travel to 10 small towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto – and a warning from the World Health Organization that “the world is not ready” for a pandemic.
“If there was previously a temptation to view the coronavirus as a China, or Asia, issue then developments this week must force a shift in mindset,” said Nick Wyatt, head of R&A,Travel and Tourism at GlobalData.
“With the news that 11 towns in Italy are on lockdown and countries such as Austria and Croatia announcing their first cases, it is readily apparent that the impact is likely to be felt on a more global scale than was perhaps previously envisaged.”
In northern Italy, 12 people have now died of the coronavirus, with the number of confirmed cases at 374. The regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna are suspending public events, and closing museums and other cultural institutions until 1 March. The Venice carnival was cut short on 23 February, Milan Fashion Week has been limiting public access to shows and 40 football matches, including four Serie A games, have been postponed, along with dozens of church services, walking tours and opera performances. This weekend five Serie A matches will be played behind closed doors – including Juventus’ match at home to Inter Milan – because of the outbreak. Ireland’s Six Nations game against Italy in Dublin, on 7 March, has now been postponed.
In Venice, the usually crowded streets are quiet and hotels and other tourism businesses are feeling the impact.
“In one way the city is more relaxed without the crowds but it’s affecting the economy,” said photojournalist Giacomo Cosua, who lives in Venice.
Ted Wake, managing director of Kirker Holidays, said clients with trips to popular northern Italy destinations, such as Venice are taking a “pragmatic” approach and continuing with planned trips. Wake said it was too early to say whether there would be an impact longer term. “It’s difficult to predict. The peak travel time is April and that’s 5-6 weeks away. A lot can change in that time.”
Wake predicted that hotels that have fewer bookings due to a downturn in Chinese tourists will start to offer upgrades to visitors. “This week is the wrong week to launch offers for later in the year but I think we will start to see very good value from hoteliers.”
Elsewhere in Europe, guests have been confined to rooms at a hotel in Tenerife after an Italian doctor and one guest who stayed at the hotel tested positive for the virus; and a hotel in Innsbruck, Austria, is in lockdown after its Italian receptionist tested positive. There has also been one confirmed case in Greece and three in France, one of whom is reported to have died last night. There are no travel restrictions in place for other European destinations.
The countries with the largest numbers of cases outside of China are South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Iran. As one of Europe’s most important inbound tourism markets, Europe has already begun to feel the effect of fewer visitors from China. According to travel analytics company Forward Keys, outbound travel from China to Europe fell by 41.7% in the three weeks following travel restrictions.
Overall, official tourism bodies are calling for cooperation across the industry in Europe, including a measured, evidence-based response to information provided by the FCO, the World Health Organization, and other health officials.
At a press conference on Wednesday at the Ministry of Health in Rome, the EU Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, said the commission welcomed “keeping the borders open” across the EU, instead of “resorting to what could be considered disproportionate and inefficient measures”.
“This is a situation of concern but we must not give in to panic and we must be vigilant of misinformation and disinformation,” she said.
The majority of airlines servicing Europe have stated they are still operating routes as normal, without offering cancellations, or alterations, without a fee at present. This includes flights into northern Italy, with BA, Ryanair and easyJet. However, Aegean has released a statement offering passengers who already hold a ticket for all destinations (until 20 March) and wish to change it to a later date, the chance to do so without amendment fees.
In a statement on Thursday, BA said it was cancelling some flights to and from Milan Linate due to a decrease in passenger numbers travelling to the region. “To match reduced demand due to the continuing coronavirus issue, we are merging a small number of flights to and from Milan. We will be contacting customers on cancelled flights so we can discuss their travel options: including alternative British Airways flights within two hours of their original departure time where possible, full refunds or booking for a later date of travel.”
WizzAir also announced on Thursday that it would be adjusting schedules to Italy due to decreasing demand. It will cancel 60% of flights into Italy from across Europe between 11 March and 2 April. This includes one UK route from Luton to Bari in southern Italy. Passengers with bookings affected by the change will be informed and offered alternative routes at the earliest available date.
Most tour operators have said that normal booking conditions still apply if people wish to cancel future trips in Europe, although this is subject to change depending on updates to FCO advice. There are already some reports of a decrease in new bookings for Europe among tour operators, although some are reporting no change.
“No one has any idea how soon the coronavirus will be brought under control, so it’s a waiting game at present. Most Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito) with destinations directly affected are running on a rolling three-week plan: they are not even looking at cancelling or amending any booked departures more than three weeks ahead,” said Derek Moore, chairman of Aito.
The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said “While these towns are not considered to be popular tourist areas among UK holidaymakers, if the towns are part of a holiday itinerary, customers imminently due to travel should speak to their travel provider.
“Passengers who have booked flights directly with an airline and are imminently due to travel should contact the airline to discuss their options.” Abta’s latest advice and Q&A’s for travellers is available at abta.com/coronavirus.
Tour operators are reporting a variety of responses from customers in terms of new and booked trips in Europe, and most have seen an increase in concerns and questions.
“All we’ve seen so far is a handful of customers asking to clarify their cancellation policies and insurance position should things change,” said Sam Bruce co-founder, Much Better Adventures. “We’ve certainly not been experiencing any adverse impact on bookings so far.”
Similarly, Intrepid Travel has not experienced an impact on bookings for the region, said Robyn Nixon, interim managing director: “Brits have always been some of our most resilient travellers. While bookings to south-east Asia are slightly down on last year, we have not seen an impact on bookings to Europe.”
“Our trips to Italy and other parts of Europe are operating as normal as do not visit the areas listed under the FCO’s recent advisory. Usual booking conditions apply for travellers wishing to cancel or change departures to destinations other than China. We have seen an increase in questions from customers looking for information and guidance.”
Peter Sommer who runs escorted cultural tours in Europe said he has received one cancellation and although enquiries have slowed in the last few days clients with forthcoming trips “are remaining calm and level headed and keeping a good sense of proportion”.
Insurance firms are largely still stating that as the FCO advice has not changed for European countries (other than the northern Italian towns), if people wish to amend or cancel trips, that they should contact tour operators in the first instance, and then check Ts&Cs of specific policies. This includes Direct Line and Alpha, the latter stating that they can change policy dates without a fee if customers amend dates of their trips.
Allianz Partners has reported a large number of travel claims linked directly to the outbreak have been filed, although mostly in the US, Canada, Australia and China. It is also “handling several highly-sensitive customer cases including several confirmed cases and customers still under investigation”. The insurer still recommends customers contact them to be dealt with on an individual basis as “eligibility for coverage depends on the customer’s travel insurance policy and the specific circumstances in the country in which the policy was purchased”.