It’s Probably Much Safer To Travel Right Now Than You Think (Though Not To New York)

There are over 120,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 currently in the U.S. 25% of those cases are in Manhattan and 50% in the New York-New Jersey area. I’ve got family self-quarantined with the virus and fortunately symptoms weren’t serious enough to put him in the hospital, but they’ve still been pretty miserable for him.

He obviously shouldn’t travel while he’s infected, and I’m not suggesting anyone travel to Manhattan since if there’s 10 times the number of people with the virus as there are confirmed cases, then 3.5% of the population there currently has it.

The main strategic objectives in limiting travel are:

  • Not bringing the virus into an area if you’re infected
  • Not infecting other travelers while traveling in confined spaces
  • Not getting infected while traveling in confined spaces

We don’t want people to travel from highly infected areas (because they might be infected) to areas where the virus isn’t spreading (because that could bring it in).

Having someone with the virus traveling to an area where there’s already significant spread doesn’t really change anything. When the virus is already spreading at the passenger’s destination, at most travelers bringing the virus in speed that spread where they’re going, and slow it where they’ve left. (Having lots of people with the virus travel someplace that’s otherwise getting things under control is another matter.)

If you don’t have COVID-19, you won’t make other people sick. Then the question is, are you more likely to get sick staying at home or traveling?

  • With mostly empty planes social distancing is easy. Limit contact, wash your hands vigorously, don’t touch your face unless you’ve just washed your hands. I’d avoid the aircraft lavatory.

  • Flight attendants are at relatively higher risk because they’re coming into contact with more people than average. They’re taking several flights a day, each day they work. Not so with a passenger who takes just one flight with perhaps 25 people on board a Boeing 737.

Someone who (a) isn’t infected (b) traveling to somewhere that infections are low is not a problem.

Someone who (a) isn’t infected (b) traveling to somewhere that infections are high is largely raising the risk to themselves, and they need to act responsibly, social distance, and self-quarantine if needed.

The number one reason I think it’s a bad idea to fly right now is government risk rather than virus risk. As a result the biggest concern is the ability to get home.

  • Rules are constantly changing.
  • Borders are closing.
  • Quarantines are being imposed.
  • Uncertainty and fear are keeping people away from travel (and so are government orders) and so flights are cancelling.

More broadly, the major challenges we’re facing with travel (and with being able to go out and ‘do stuff’) are three-fold:

  1. This virus spreads pre-symptomatically, so we don’t know who has it – we don’t know at any given time that we don’t have it.

  2. We aren’t doing enough testing, not just of people with symptoms to ‘track and trace’ and make sure people infected with the virus don’t infect others, but of people who aren’t symptomatic at all – to verify that they do not have the virus, and then doing that over and over.

  3. That there’s not enough personal protective equipment (like N95 face masks) for health care workers, let alone for the rest of us.

Let me be clear. I’ve been at home for three weeks. I cancelled all of my March travel, and I fully expect to cancel all of my April travel. I’m firmly on Team Stay Home. I figure May trips are even unlikely but still kept itineraries intact to wait for airlines to cancel flights, so I could push for a refund rather than a credit, and give myself hope, and something to look forward to.

My hotel in Malta for late May just cancelled on me, saying they won’t re-open until at least June. And I’m not taking advantage of the current $13 cross country fares either.

However for most people travel right now is safer than we’re giving it credit for – these things are always relative – and it’s safer for the places they’re traveling to also. Although if I was in New York City, and could verify I didn’t have the virus, I’d be trying to get out for sure. And the list of places I’ll say that about is likely growing, of course.

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. Now Gary’s an epidemiologist…

    Don’t listen to this folks, until there both is widespread and easily accessible testing, and the capacity and resiliency of the the healthcare system is built up, we don’t know how safe – either individually and collectively – it is to travel.

  2. I think the trouble with traveling now (even if you can prove you’re well) is that your wellness is only valid at the point and time of the test. If you go to the airport, flight, taxi, hotel, etc each of these places could have had someone infected touching surfaces in those areas just minutes or hours before you. You could pick it up from those surfaces, and inadvertently spread this around further. While I’m sure that hotel housekeeping is stepping up their efforts in cleaning rooms, I’d still be leery of staying anywhere that might have had someone infected staying there the night before.

  3. I’d be interested in hearing why people are traveling now. I can see where some may say it’s a great opportunity for air travel enthusiasts to do a one day round trip, pick up some EQMs, and experience a once in a lifetime opportunity to see near empty planes and airports. For leisure or personal travel however, the only things open on a multi-day trip are a few hotels and grocery stores. It might be safe to sit in “socially distanced” seat assignments but what’s the underlying motivation for buying a ticket?

  4. This is very irresponsible. I’ve followed you for a long time but this is very disappointing to see. What you are saying may be true for the individual, but this is not the case for society at large. You could be asymptomatic and spread to others unknowingly. Minimizing contact with others is what is key now. It’s impossible to get on a plane and stay in hotels while furthering this goal.

  5. This article is very misleading. Many people who have Covid-19 are asymptomatic, and they can infect others without knowing it. This is why all non-essential travels have to be avoided.

  6. @Andrew – I make this very same point EXPLICITLY.

    “This virus spreads pre-symptomatically, so we don’t know who has it – we don’t know at any given time that we don’t have it.

    We aren’t doing enough testing, not just of people with symptoms to ‘track and trace’ and make sure people infected with the virus don’t infect others, but of people who aren’t symptomatic at all – to verify that they do not have the virus, and then doing that over and over.”

    I guess I figured underlining stuff like “and could verify I didn’t have the virus” would help that stuff not be missed.

  7. @ivanka – two things, first I make the point very clearly about asymptomatic and pre-sympomatic spread, which is why you don’t know you won’t be spreading it given the current lack of testing. second, flying somewhere that the virus is already spreading doesn’t really do a whole lot to accelerate that. i’m not suggesting anyone travel, and am clear that I am *not* traveling (gosh, that’s bolded) I am simply making the case that where and when we limit travel is being underspecified.

  8. I think the biggest issue is that advocating for, or even not discouraging, travel right now sends a message that the situation is not as serious as it is. If it’s okay to travel between cities with low cases, and I live in a city with low cases, why do I even need to social distance? What’s wrong with going to a store, or restaurant, or out with friends? As you note, one of the issues is not testing so we don’t really know how wide spread it is. That issue is true for the Interstate travel risks, but permeates much more for the “inter city” travel, which is the real risk for everyone.

  9. @Ed – “I’d be interested in hearing why people are traveling now” just a few of the reasons,

    – getting home
    – caring for loved ones
    – medical professionals getting where they need to go
    – lobbyists seeking government bailouts from dc

  10. Gary – the deniers will take you thoughts as a permission to travel – except for emergency travel no one should be traveling now.
    1) We don’t know for sure that having had covid confers immunity!!!!! (we all hope so but not known for sure yet – and important for travel after the immediate crisis)
    2) It is impossible for regular people (not nba or celebrities or politicians) to get tested without symptoms, and even with symptoms still many cannot get tested so no one knows if they are infected and contagious for sure.
    3) You are not an MD nor able to access the info that is available to health workers and not the general population
    4) It’s sort of impossible to guess where is “safer” other than your own home with no outside contact
    Sure, if I could teleport I’d go to S Korea b/c they are fighting the virus early and properly but that’s not a real option, nor, I think is travel for travel itself (something I never thought I would say).
    Nor could I have imagined myself saying this – please Gary stay in your lane.
    OT – and by the way look into lesse majeste in Thailand for your own safety

  11. Gary, you wrote a headline that people will interpret without reading. Besides that, even in your article you say “The number one reason I think it’s a bad idea to fly right now is government risk rather than virus risk. As a result the biggest concern is the ability to get home.”. This is simply not true. The number one reason it’s a bad idea to fly right now is you could further the thread and threaten the lives of dozens or hundreds of people. #stayhome

  12. There are so many things dangerously wrong with this post. You should take it down.

    Start with the title: “It’s Probably Much Safer To Travel Right Now Than You Think (Though Not To New York)” No. It’s more dangerous than most people think, since the infection rate is far higher than the data indicates (since testing is so limited). In addition, many folks are buying into Trump’s crazy talk, such as folks going to church for Easter.

    “If you don’t have COVID-19, you won’t make other people sick. Then the question is, are you more likely to get sick staying at home or traveling?”
    First of all, you don’t know if you have covid-19, so you don’t know if you won’t make other people sick. (More on this below.) And of course you’re more likely to get sick if you travel. Your discussion makes it seem like you magically drop onto an empty plane and drop out of it into whatever home you’re visiting. At the very least, there is all of the potential contact with people and surfaces getting to and from the airport and at the airport.

    “We don’t want people to travel from highly infected areas (because they might be infected) to areas where the virus isn’t spreading (because that could bring it in).” Some serious misinformation here. The virus is spreading in just about every state. We just don’t know the extent and rate for certain in many places.

    “Someone who (a) isn’t infected (b) traveling to somewhere that infections are low is not a problem.” A real doozy. (a) Right now most Americans don’t know for sure whether they’re infected. One insidious thing about the virus is that people can be pre-symptomatic for 14 days while still spreading it or may not develop symptoms at all but still be contagious. (b) As I’ve already noted, the infection rate is considerably higher than the data indicates, even where the rates seem low.

    “Let me be clear. I’ve been at home for three weeks. I cancelled all of my March travel, and I fully expect to cancel all of my April travel. I’m firmly on Team Stay Home.” So preach what you practice.

    The very best thing everyone can do right now is maintain their physical distancing as much as possible, including by refraining from travel. In its own small way, your advice helps put us on the catastrophic road to where Italy or Spain (or increasingly NYC, for that matter) are. Please reconsider the misinformation you’re spreading.

  13. @Andrew – I made a claim about RELATIVE RISK in my title which I think is accurate, it’s safer than most people think it is, which doesn’t mean that most people should do it to most places thanks to lack of testing. Are the people who are going to (mis)interpret without reading the same people we have to slow down for because they might iron their clothes while wearing them or stick their heads in a ceiling fan?

  14. @est net – no one will count me among the deniers, I’m pretty sure this is the first main stream travel blog that really sounded the alarm about coronavirus, I was first to tell people to stock up supplies and first to tell them to get off of their trips and return home.

    re: immunity – we don’t know very much “for sure” about this virus, however anthony fauci says he is “really confident” of immunity

    it’s not impossible to make estimates of relative risk, even without adequate testing, for instance we know hospital admission stats

  15. I’ve read your article 3 times now. My take away is still the same. You’re saying while you’re not traveling, you think it’s not that unsafe for others to do it as long as they’re not infected. This is not how you end a pandemic and counter to what all of the epidemiologists are telling us.

  16. @Andrew – somebody who is not infected BY DEFINITION can’t infect others. The challenge – as I explain clearly – is that the disease spreads asymptomatically, and so we need testing not just of those who seem sick but of everyone who doesn’t, repeatedly, to confirm they don’t have the virus.

    Instead of pointing to ‘take aways’ and ‘impressions’ maybe actually say what not accurate in the piece?

    There actually shouldn’t be anything in here that is controversial.
    – people who aren’t infected don’t infect others
    – what we want to do is keep the virus away from places where it’s contained
    – the travel experience has a lot more distancing right now than it has in the recent past
    – if we get a rigorous testing regime in place to know you aren’t infected we won’t worry so much about you traveling
    – without more rigorous testing, not a good idea to be traveling now
    – even though the movement of people between areas that are infected doesn’t do much to change spread rates

    The barrage in the comments is actually proof of the point made in the title about people not thinking clearly about relative risks. Saying the risk is lower is not saying anyone in particular should do it, or that it’s risk free.

  17. Gary, someone who is not infected can infect others. They get exposed by taking societal risks like traveling when they don’t need to, getting infected and spreading it to others afterwards. Your line of thinking is why this is spreading so quickly. If you don’t need to travel (i.e. you’re not traveling for work in an essential service) #stayhome

  18. @Andrew – when you write “someone who is not infected can infect others” I think what you mean to write is “someone who is not symptomatic can infect others” which is EXACTLY what I’m saying in the piece. At least I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt on that 😉

  19. Testing is a waste of time. There is no cure. Even if you could test everyone it doesn’t mean they would safe from picking up germs 5 seconds later and getting sick. This is a highly contagious flu virus with no vaccine. We’ve had them.before and will have them again. This time we decided to stick a gun in our mouth and pull the trigger in fear. This virus will kill many thousands more because of the steps we have taken than if we just treated it like any other flu outbreak. They will commit suicide because of fear, depression and other reasons based on isolation, financial ruin, etc. Others will die from stress induced self medication and other lifestyle choices.. We will look back on this event and see how stupid we’ve been. It will be a text book example of worldwide panic. I doubt the USA deaths from.this will top the annual deaths from thinks like motorcycle accidents which are 100% preventable. We kill thousands of unborn weekly, other viruses kill tens of thousands annually. Should you travel right now? Not if you can avoid it on public transit. Besides there is nothing to do when you get to where you’re going. No beach, no golf, no pool, no running outside, no playgrounds….

  20. Occasionally you publish content that, while accurate, perhaps shouldn’t have been published. Often, your loyal readers share their thoughts, and on more than one occasion the post has been pulled. My view is that this is one of those situations.

  21. Respectfully disagree 100% with everything in this article, but the second to last sentence really irked me. I am in NYC and I am not positive to the best of my knowledge. Would rather stay here with the state and city government that we have doing everything they are doing and knowing that I can rely on the best healthcare in the world, than be anywhere else on planet earth right now.

  22. Think you should have delayed publishing of this post for (hopefully only) a month or two, as I think this is sensible advice for what travel will probably look like then and for some period of time thereafter.

    Right now though, it’s imperative on everyone to do what we can to stop the spread of the disease for the sake of society as a whole. It is still showing exponential growth; we have no idea how bad it could get and should therefore be doing things which hopefully end up looking like “overreactions” (by definition anything that stops the spread of the virus will look like an overreaction in retrospect). When travel even so far as to the grocery store is something we should all be judicious with, travel on an airplane should be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

  23. @Ari – NYC health care is pretty overtaxed, I’m not sure it’s where the median person with the virus will get ‘the best healthcare in the world’ right now, and there’s a good shot that 3.5% of the Manhattan population *or more* is currently infected, I’d rather be where I am than in NY for sure.

  24. I’m not sure what the point of this post is. Gary doesn’t know how safe it is to travel in general or as to many specific locations. He admits that when he claim uses the term “probably.” That gun is probably not loaded. Probably safe = not safe. I agree we don’t know where the virus has spread/is spreading because of the failure to test enough people. Gary is better than this post. Please delete.

  25. Gary has no credentials to make any determination about relative risk, etc. It’s all uninformed speculation. Could be right, could be wrong. Unfortunately, his uninformed speculation on epidemiology takes on undue respectability from his credentials when writing about travel. Sometimes its more responsible to simply say “you know, my opinion is worthless, so I won’t share it”.

    As for spreading the disease during travel, the chances may be a little less than “people think” (I’m no more eligible to offer an opinion than Gary), but there is really no situation in which you’re doing the fight against this disease any good by traveling now. There is only downside, except possibly to yourself if, in fact, you are infected and are seeking to relocate to someplace with more available medical services — and that is exactly the worst thing that anyone can do for the fight against the virus more broadly.

    As for NYC, I’m in Manhattan and have three days to go in quarantine since a possible exposure on 3/19. After I can be considered virus-free, I’m not planning to flee. It’s true, the next four weeks or so will be a very, very bad time to require hospitalization in New York. However, as long as you can avoid hospitalization, life in NYC isn’t really any different than any other responsible locale in the US where people are staying in their houses. I believe my family and I can ride this out for a month or two with the same level of outside contact or less as traveling to and through several airports, one or more flights, and getting to another place of shelter. And I’m not sure that any place that’s available to me is more than a week behind NYC in terms of running out of medical supplies and ventilators.

  26. The mood affiliation in the comments is striking. Everything Gary wrote is either true or at least very defensible, but there’s very little quibbling with the actual argument, just a bunch of verbal diarrhea about not being ‘helpful’ to say it or other excuses not to engage with it.

    The level of discourse in the comments hasn’t ever been super high in the time I’ve been reading, but the commenters take it to a new low here.

  27. I love the controversy and reaction generated by this post. It is time to start having a debate on what individuals can or should be permitted to do before this crisis ends.
    There is a reason we don’t have speed limits set at 25 mph on freeways and breathalyzers attached to all ignitions. Sure, we could save thousands of lives annually, but the economic cost would be unbearable.
    Is it morally wrong for me to go to the store 2x per week when I could probably suffice at 1x per week? Was it wrong for me to pick up a cappuccino for my wife at Peets today (didn’t touch anything except the cup, which was left by a gloved employee) instead of making a pot at home as I’ve done all week?
    If someone has been isolated at home for 3 weeks, no illness, the chances they have the virus are slim. So if they decide to travel for whatever reason, take precautions on what they touch (e.g. does TSA allow people to go through security theatre with gloves on) wear a mask – that’s about 1000x less risky than the people going to church in Louisiana or flooding the beaches in Florida.
    Gary did not say everyone should hope on a plane today, or even in April. Rather he said it is safer than people believe it is. He is right.
    Does that mean that healthy people who have self-quarantined should take optional trips right now? That’s a risk that only you can personally decide (unless – like me – you live in an area where the county government has ordered me not to leave the county).

  28. Too much criticism of Gary here. First, he says he’s staying home and recommends you do, too. But he’s right on the facts. If you’re not travelling through NYC, the risks associated with domestic air travel right now appear to be very similar to the risks associated with, say, going grocery shopping. I know there are people who don’t want to hear it — who somehow think they no better — but there is ZERO science to suggest that air travel right now is particularly risky.
    That said, it’s obviously better for our country for everyone to stay home for the next couple of weeks. There is definitely a chance that travellers will bring the virus with them. It’s not a huge risk if you live in a place with low transmission, but it’s more than a zero risk.
    Honestly, though, the best reason to stay home now is that it sucks to travel. It’s no fun. Nothing is open. You’ll be a pariah to most. They’ve even closed most recreation areas, so you can’t even do anything fun outside. I’d wait a few weeks and reassess. Not because it’s dangerous, just because it’s common sense.

  29. @Chopsticks, “there is ZERO science to suggest that air travel right now is particularly risky.” Please show us the science that says air travel is safe. There is no such science either way. That’s because science needs data. The ongoing failure to test significant segments of the population leaves us not knowing what is or isn’t safe.

    As I said, saying that gun is probably not loaded means it is not safe until you have the data to say if it is or is not loaded. Same thing with a deadly, invisible, and often asymptomatic virus.

    Another reason to avoid travel is the risk of falling ill outside of your regular healthcare network. To the extent those medical costs are covered at all, it will be with lower reimbursement in most plans.

  30. The left recently came up with the term “denier” to describe those that think the economy should be opened up earlier.
    –They have also published polls that say Democrats are more concerned about the coronavirus than Republicans. Replay of the basket of deplorables, Republicans are now “virus deniers.”
    –It is really an old playbook. Anthony Weiner (formerly rising Democrat politician before a scandal) used to rant on the Congress floor about Republicans wanting to throw Granny off the cliff.
    –In line with the playbook, if the Republicans want to restart the economy, they are virus deniers that want to kill old people. The commercials are already written.
    –If they can milk this out until November, happy days in swampville again.
    –But hey, a gift wrapped health crisis is a bad thing to waste.

  31. Sorry Gary, but this is the most asinine stuff you’ve ever published. This is on Trump level. The a over comments totally sum it up. ‘nugh said.

  32. Gary-

    This article, and particularly its title, is misleading. You may be trying to make a point about relative risk, but on a quick reading, or particularly just a reading of the title, people aren’t taking it that way. As you said in the comments: “The barrage in the comments is actually proof of the point made in the title about people not thinking clearly about relative risks.”

    People are interpreting this as you saying ‘It’s safe to travel’.

    You’re a blogger, not a journalist, so you don’t have to go through an editorial review to publish content, but this would never pass if you did have such a review. Going forward, I’d strongly encourage you to follow the same standards for clarity that your peers at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and so on have to follow.

    -D

  33. Do you suppose the type of bizarre rationalization spouted in this piece is the basis for Trump’s misguided push to return to ‘business as usual’ by Easter?

    We are to believe that for would-be travelers so-called “government risk” is greater than “virus risk”. However, is it not obvious that what is being referred to as “government risk” is simply the necessary and inevitable consequence of trying to contain “virus risk”, which can actually kill a lot people, unlike so-called government risk?

  34. @Sidvicious
    +1
    Gary has given his readers too much credit to be able to parse what he actually says.

  35. @DaninMCI – about 5,000 people a year die in the US from motorcycle accidents. We will probably get around 5,000 deaths from Covid- this week. Would suggest you are off by 1-2 orders of magnitude in your estimate.

    @Chopsticks – “ZERO science to suggest that air travel right now is particularly risky”- hello, McFly- how do you think the virus got circulated all around the world- by boat? Pretty much every outbreak outside of Wuhan was fostered by people who thought they were OK or going to places they thought were OK, and then returning home- by airplane.

    Stay in place until cases go down, unless you are a medical worker. Don’t go home, don’t go to DC to lobby, don’t fly somewhere to “care for a loved one”- you could be the one who kills them instead…

  36. @JDN — A blogpost that requires the inherently subjective exercise of “parsing” to be understood is also known as ‘sophistry’, to which you and @Sidvicious, rather than the dissenting readers, have fallen. I would thus say that it is you who are giving yourself too much credit…

    G’day.

  37. The biggest issue is that one can be asymptomatic and still spread the virus. IF their was a proper testing regimen in place, then travel may be deemed to be safe.
    I dont think it makes sense to take the risk of travel, whether you have been tested or not, because there is no way of knowing that everyone you interact with on your travels is virus free.

  38. Hi Gary,

    Long time lurker here. Please swallow your pride and take down this post. You clearly aren’t stupid, but you made an incredibly bad judgement call with this. In situations like these, it is important to understand that you are looked up by a lot of people, especially with your long successful history with this blog and it’s honorable mentions and references in print and electronic media. Sometimes, it’s better to acknowledge a mistake and rescind content than just chase increased viewership and post engagement which can have risks long term.

    Ricardo Powell

  39. There is nothing wrong with the post. Everyone who travels has to make a personal decision when it is safe enough to travel again. Gary just shared his thinking process. If Gary pulls this post because of pressure, he is participating in cancel culture, by cancelling himself. Freedom will dies in darkness.

  40. How is one supposed to know that they do not have COVID-19? It is everywhere and is spread by asymptomatic people.

    Honestly this blog has been going downhill for a while. Maybe use this opportunity to take a sabbatical? (and stop posting about COVID-19 please)

  41. Yep, chump open her up by Easter and see the death rate rise. What did you say today chump, that cities are hoarding ventilators. Just another lie in the life of War President ole bone spurs general chump. What a man.

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