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Coronavirus crisis: What travelers now need to know

Andreas Kirchhoff
March 17, 2020

Global travel has come to a standstill in the coronavirus crisis. Many countries have banned entry for foreigners. The EU has closed its external borders. What travel is still possible?

Coronavirus - Italiy - virtually empty St Mark's Square in Venice
Venice — St Mark's Square in times of the corona crisisImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/LaPresse/A. Marinoni/

Most governments strongly advise their citizens to avoid travel and postpone their plans indefinitely. Tour operators are canceling their offers, and airlines are cancelling flights along with international connections. TUI, the world's largest tourism group, is suspending almost all its regular operations. 

The most important question is no longer where can holidaymakers travel to, but rather how to get back home. That's why the German Foreign Ministry has launched a repatriation program for thousands of Germans who are stuck abroad due to travel restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced on Tuesday (March 17, 2020) that up to 50 million euros (54.9 million USD) would be made available for this purpose. He said that the main target groups were holidaymakers in Morocco, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Egypt and the Maldives.

The politician, a member of the SPD party, spoke of an "airlift". In the past few days, many countries have closed borders and cut flight connections due to the rapid spread of coronavirus infections. Since Germany has become one of the risk countries, German travelers are particularly strongly affected by the restrictions.

What do travelers from Germany have to take into account?

The first port of call for questions from tourists from Germany is the Foreign Ministry website. It provides up-to-date travel and safety information about the risks in the various destinations. 

Until now, the German government had merely advised against travelling to a few countries that were particularly affected by the coronavirus. Now the German government has even issued a global travel warning. Such a step is only taken if there is a danger to life and limb.

In the coronavirus crisis, such a warning had previously only been issued for the Chinese region where the virus originated. "We must prevent more Germans from becoming stranded abroad," Maas explained the unusual step, adding: "Please just stay home."

The website of the Federal Foreign Ministry continues to state that further drastic restrictions on air and tourist traffic, quarantine measures and the restriction of public life in many countries are to be expected. 

Changes to the entry and quarantine regulations would in some cases be made without any prior notice and with immediate effect. Many travellers in several countries are currently affected and prevented from travelling on or returning home.

Coronavirus - Switzerland - Zurich airport
Zurich Airport is also unusually quiet at the moment due to the corona virusImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Keystone/A. Wey

Are travelers from Europe entitled to claim reimbursement and compensation?

In the event of flight cancellations or if a tour operator cancels a package tour on their own initiative, customers will be reimbursed the full price. However, there is no general right to additional compensation if the providers can point to exceptional circumstances due to the virus.

If the flight or trip has not already been cancelled by the provider, travelers can also choose to cancel themselves. If they can cite exceptional circumstances, they do not pay anything. This does not necessarily mean that a travel warning or entry restriction has to be issued: Even if a package tour is significantly impeded or impaired, those affected can cancel free of charge, for example because major sights or routes are blocked locally, which could not be foreseen before the booking was made.

Coronavirus - Thailand - a tour operator in Bangkok
Tourism has slumped worldwideImage: picture-alliance/ZumaPress/SOPA Images/A. Chabsungnoen

Individual travelers find it more difficult to get their various bookings, for example of accommodation and transport, refunded. If services have been booked directly in the country of travel, the only way to obtain reimbursement is to contact the respective contract partner. "If you do not want to travel, even though free cancellation is not possible, you should seek an amicable goodwill solution," is the advice issued by ADAC, the German automobile association.

German rail operator Deutsche Bahn is expanding the possibilities for customers to postpone or cancel their journey. "The goodwill arrangements will apply in the coming weeks, so it is not necessary to contact us immediately," the company emphasized. Refunds can also be submitted after the booked day of travel.

For all tickets purchased by March 13 with travel dates between March 13 and April 30, passengers can postpone their journey and use the ticket as a flexible fare for the booked route until June 30. For the discounted "Sparpreise" economy price and "Supersparpreise" tickets, the train connection is voided. 

What do travelers who come from another continent have to be aware of?

Again, it is best to contact your own foreign ministry or embassy to find out whether there are any general restrictions or limitations, for example regarding the accessibility of places of interest.

The Australian government, for example, advises its citizens to reconsider any overseas travel, especially because of the risk of infection and unpredictable restrictions caused by the coronavirus in the targeted area. Those who have already traveled have been asked to organize their journey home as soon as possible.

The US government is calling on American citizens to reconsider all planned trips abroad. Even countries that have not yet registered any confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections may impose travel restrictions without prior warning. In its travel advice, the State Department raised the overall level of travel warnings to three out of four. Level three states that trips should be reconsidered. The highest level four warns against traveling to these areas.  

What does the World Health Organization (WHO) advise?

Coronavirus - Japan - people wearing face masks
Face masks do not protect against infection unless you are infected yourself, says the WHOImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/K. SAto

People with pre-existing conditions should postpone or avoid planned travel to regions with an increased risk of infection, especially older people suffering from chronic illness. In addition, the WHO recommends following the generally accepted hygiene guidelines: wash your hands frequently, cough into the crook of your arm or handkerchief, and avoid touching your face.

What do travelers have to consider when returning home?

Entry requirements vary greatly from country to country. Returning travelers should also ask their embassy about the current situation.

According to Maas, the Foreign Ministry agreed on Monday (March 16, 2020) with commercial flight providers such as Lufthansa to launch a "one-off program" to bring back German tourists. All travelers wishing to use the "airlift " have been called on to check the website of the Federal Foreign Ministry and contact their tour operators.

Further details will be announced as soon as possible, Maas said. The German embassies and consulates were "already doing their utmost to provide individual and fast assistance" and remained available for inquiries.

Asked about the situation for German tourists in Morocco, Maas said that this involved a particularly large number of travelers, with "four to five thousand" people stuck there.

Because of the high volume of traffic, he said, action would have to be taken very quickly there, which poses "extreme challenges" for everyone. In some cases, however, repatriations have already begun, and Maas added that: "we will continue to push this in the coming days."

In many countries, people who return from risk areas by plane or ship are required to provide their details. In Germany, so-called exit cards must be filled out on arrival. On these cards, passengers must provide information on their state of health, where they will be for the next 30 days, as well as information on stops in their countries of origin and contact persons. This makes them easier to find later in the event of an emergency should a fellow passenger test positive.

(with dpa, AFP, tagesschau.de)