10 Things Every Traveler Should Expect From Coronavirus

Richard Kerr wrote at The Points Guy that he is going to live his life and keep traveling, in spite of coronavirus risk.

He argues that we’ve overreacted to past public health scares (West Nile, SARS, Swine Flue, Ebola etc) and that frames his view of coronavirus. If mortality rates are low (and by the way, centered on people older than Kerr and his family). We’re past containment, So he’s going to keep on keepin’ on.

It’s possible that he’s right. There are generally two perspectives on the virus.

  • Status quo bias. The world stays the way the world has been. Past scares haven’t materialized, why will this one be different? That was my view of the 2016 election – that Donald Trump would underperform Mitt Romney with women and minorities, and you don’t become President by underperforming Mitt Romney. The world stays the same until it doesn’t. It’s a useful frame most of the time, it’s usually right, but fails to account for long tail risk / black swan events.

  • Math. Plot out infection rates, we have no reason to believe at this point that each person will be infecting fewer than one other person for awhile. The CDC has performed poorly. So plot out a geometric progression of infection and anything near the mid- or high-end of the mortality range gets to be pretty bad. There’s much we don’t know still and we may not get there, but this view focuses on worst case scenarios. ‘Precautionary principle’ is actually usually the wrong approach, but coronavirus isn’t controllable at this point in any case.

Overall I’m in the ‘math’ camp. I not only don’t want to get affected (I’m desperate to avoid the flu to begin with) I don’t want to get it and infect others. On the other hand maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to get it now rather than later, from a purely selfish perspective. Medical resources are far more abundant now and could be overwhelmed later (assuming some form of immunity after recovery). This would be a terrible strategy if everyone tried it…

Here are my 10 mental models for what to expect from, and how to approach, coronavirus.

  1. Keep planning trips. Airline change fee waivers help for those buying their own tickets. If you’re buying for other people that’s no help, they retain the credit you don’t get a refund. This is a useful perspective only for those who would use the credit naturally anyway within a year. Nonetheless I have trips on the books for March, April, and May.

  2. There will be great deals into the future. Mileage redemptions especially are usually very cancellable with little penalty. So book the guts of a trip, air and hotel on points, taking advantage of extra good award availability where it exists. Book hard to find seats and accommodations. Lock in the option to travel later.

  3. It’s a bad idea to make unchangeable plans. Continue to live your life but recognize that each day, based on the best new available information, you may need to change your plans. So don’t make bookings that come with big deposits, that aren’t cancellable or refundable. The key to life right now is contingency and flexibility. Expect the price of cancel for any reason travel insurance to go up, and for some insurers to exclude coronavirus from ‘any’.

    I do not know for certain that I will take all of the trips that I have booked. But the cost to cancel mileage bookings is low. The cost to cancel Southwest bookings is zero (I just have to use travel funds within a year). And my hotels are cancellable. I’ll make decisions about each upcoming trip based on best available information at the time.

  4. Coronavirus will get worse before it gets better. New cases of coronavirus are outside China. China is trying to get back to business, subsidizing international flights even. It’s hopeful that more people with confirmed cases have recovered from coronavirus than are currently confirmed to have it. But there’s been very little testing in the United States, that’s changing, and we’re seeing more confirmed cases. We’re seeing spread elsewhere. Will it return to China, even, from passengers flying there who have it?

  5. The economy will get worse before it gets better. The economic consequences are going to be harsh. My own view is that a recession has started. That’s far from the consensus. A month ago a U.S. recession in 2020 was unthinkable. As I write this betting markets have it at 50-50. However the biased sample of conversations I’m having and what I’m seeing is business slow down to halt, taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude on investments and projects – and that’s even outside the travel space. And lack of travel means lack of deals getting done (teleconferencing isn’t the same). Businesses will pull back not getting deals, not getting visitors, not serving restaurant meals. That pullback will have a knock on effect.

  6. We’ll see some amazing travel deals, far better than what we see today. Right now there’s very little a travel brand can do to goose business. That’s because price isn’t what’s keeping people away, it’s fear and uncertainty. Once we get past that stage it’ll be possible to generate incremental trips at the margin through discounting and other offers. Then we’ll start to see real deals.

  7. We’ll see airline failures. The first sign will be credit card processors holding back funds. Norwegian was supposed to earn a ton of cash this summer that would sustain them over next winter. Where’s next winter’s cash going to come from? Without coronavirus they might have made it. Now I wonder what their future looks like. It won’t just be Norwegian that struggles.

  8. We could see more airline consolidation (even with a new President). My belief had been that if a Democrat won the White House there’d be more aggressive anti-trust enforcement and that would turn off the possibility of U.S. airline mergers. Coronavirus is the sort of black swan event that makes a change in control of the executive branch more likely, but struggling airlines are hard to say no to when they look to merge. American doesn’t have the cash to buy Alaska, but if AAL keeps falling could Alaska take over American? Or could Warren Buffett who owns around 10% of each of the large airlines already buy a couple and put them together?

  9. Financial markets will probably go lower but I’m not selling. The investments I have are for the long term. I’m nowhere near retirement. I still be the world is going to be a better, more productive place in the future than it is today. Even full-time experts on the market get killed half the time, and I’m not a full-time expert so I’m not going to try to time this. If I knew when the market would bottom and when it would start to rise it would be a different matter. I saw too many individuals and institutions sell close to the bottom a decade ago and not get back in until the market had risen substantially.

  10. Make preparations. This was a good reminder to improve my practices, to be better about washing my hands, to keep certain supplies on hand – not because of what’s coming with coronavirus but because there are always risks and we don’t always get advance warning. Since I have a home with storage space and a bit of discretionary income with which to buy more of what I need, I’ve done so, so that I’m ready if I need to stay at home for a couple of weeks.

At the end of the day the most important thing is to keep living life, while being flexible to adapt to new information. Remember when you used to rinse your hands for a few seconds and call it good? That was just last week.

If I can offer just one bonus – and maybe most important – piece of advice as this progresses? Be a person, don’t let this become an excuse for being a jerk.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well said Gary.
    If I can add a few more thoughts that goes with your last paragraph.
    When you talk to a friend or colleague on the phone let them know their friendship is important to you. When you talk to a CS agent be aware that as important as your problem is they might not have the luxury of being able to stay home and their family needs them to earn income. Lastly remember that several of your friends and colleagues will not make it to 2021.
    Be Kind- it’s a crappy deal for everyone

  2. I think airlines should offer 1 million point corona bonuses if you catch it on a trip flying with them.

  3. Interesting. This advice largely depends how old you are and where you live… IMO.
    I am mentally robust, have followed this health scare in the SE Asian news from before the US media became frantic.
    My conclusion: The Chinese sure know how to engineer one or two interesting viruses in their bioweapons labs. That aside, like Gary, I don’t want it. There are are, apparently, two strains. It would be just my luck to get the bad one. BTW, measles is 10X more contagious so please vaccinate your kids.
    It *has* impacted my behavior. There is a Concierge Key mixer at DFW later this month. I usually go but I will pass this time. Why spend more time in an international airport than one needs to? Especially as we now see baggage handlers coming down with the virus at LHR….
    It might also, as things develop, impact my travel plans. I may avoid traveling to the UK, where I have a home too. As my age starts with a 6 I can safely rely on the NHS just trying to kill me off quickly should I come down with Covid there.
    Is the scare factor overrated? Most likely. Doesn’t mean we need to whistle past the graveyard…

  4. @Gary, germaphobe tendencies acknowledged, what are your thoughts on the SXSW cancellation?

  5. Good post, Gleff.
    One more thing. We’re all going to VOTE IN NOVEMBER, right?

  6. @colleen – there was a TON of pressure to make that decision – i certainly understand cancelling very large gatherings. it hurts a lot of people, but one super spreader in that crowd would have significant effects. Maybe wasn’t necessary but it’s hard not to overweight the risks and be cautious.

  7. @Gary @colleen As a resident of Rainey St, I feel like I should get a cut of my rent back. This is what I’ve been paying for, right?

  8. Reasonable advice. One thing I would like to mention is I do think there is a panic over COVID-19 that is out of line with reality and this is impacting travel as well as the stock market (I’m actually buying some really good companies cheap since, while retired, I have enough cash flow to cover me a couple of years and am investing for the future and my children’s inheritance).

    Understand that “coronavirus” is a fairly generic term that is a category of viruses which cause, among other diseases, the flu, SARS, MERS and the common cold. Indications are that COVID-19 is actually LESS infectious than the flu. Also, there is no “cure” for the cold or even the flu (treatments but no cure) so why do people suddenly think there will be a cure for COVID-19 (or even should be one). The death rate is WAY overstated. When the President said that he was mocked but you can’t look at 100,000 cases, 3400 deaths and say it is 3.4%. I will argue the 100,000 number is WAY understated since some people get the disease with little or no symptoms and the 100,000 number is only documented or suspected cases typically involving high fever and respiratory issues. It wouldn’t shock me if 1,000,000 or more actually have it (or had it). Also, I’m willing to bet if someone everyone in the US were tested the number would easily be in the 100s of thousands and it would be everywhere so I’m not worried about my trip to Frankfurt next week or my planned 2 week vacation in Italy this August since I could just as easily get it going to a concert or ball game at home.

    Take reasonable precautions, focus on your overall health (which is the best defense) and don’t panic. I fully expect the economy to come back as it is currently oversold and priced in a recession. If there is a recession it will be brief since I coronavirus diseases are usually seasonal and economic activity will pick up. Also the markets are looking to the future as as soon as their is some evidence it is not spreading (or not some massive killer disease like Ebola) markets will start pricing in 2021 earnings.

  9. I’m more afraid of people and their hysteria than I am of the flu. People are treating this like the end of the world. I mean seriously? Drama much?

  10. This recurring theme in the comments about this just being a variant of the flu, and essentially not a big deal, Is becoming a real pain in the arse, in addition to being profoundly ignorant.
    Evidently what is not realised ( or perhaps it’s just ignored) is that every person infected, even with a mild or a -symptomatic case, infects somewhere between 1 and 4 others ( some of them may be in higher risk groups for whom the disease is a very big deal indeed).
    Efforts to contain the spread should be encouraged and applauded, not dismissed as hysteria.

  11. Suggested Reading: Spanish Flu, 1918. For those who may think it’s all media hype . . . Darwinism.
    BTW, if I lived on Rainey Street and SXSW was cancelled (as it has been) I’d be grateful.

  12. One Trippe said “Suggested Reading: Spanish Flu, 1918. For those who may think it’s all media hype . . .” Wow, two straw horses in one sentence. Nobody is arguing the straw horse that Coronavirus is “all media hype”. Second, nobody is arguing the straw horse a pandemic is impossible.

    Then One Trippe said: “Darwinism”. Condescending sneer based on two straw horses.

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