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European Travel and the Coronavirus

Should you plan a trip to (or within) Europe later this year or in 2021? We're inclined to say "Yes," if the pandemic has been contained, but don't plan your trip without reading our updates and advice.

Linea 1 vaporetto on Venice's Grand Canal

ABOVE: A vaporetto travels up the normally busy Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. (See our article about the coronavirus in Venice and Italy.)

Ever since the coronavirus epidemic spread from China to Northern Italy in February, 2020, tourism in Europe has taken a massive hit. Flights have been cancelled, entire countries have been locked down by quarantines, and travelers have been worried--with good reason--about Europe's ability to cope with a pandemic.

Here's our advice:

1. If you were planning a trip, be prepared to cancel or reschedule.

No one knows when the pandemic will end. Although most European countries are opening up to tourists from within Europe and the UK, the reopening process will be gradual for visitors from abroad--particularly for travelers from countries (such as the U.S.) where COVID-19 infections have yet to subside. The European Union's Re-open EU Web site has up-to-date information in 24 languages.

Just as important, it will take a while for international transportation services (especially airline routes) to return to anything resembling normalcy.

Our advice:

  • If you haven't yet booked a trip, we suggest waiting until things have settled down and you can make firm plans.

  • If you've already reserved flights, hotel rooms, holiday rentals, a cruise, etc., then check with the vendors to learn where you stand. (Airline schedules are changing by the hour, and as of mid-March, cruise lines were cancelling upcoming voyages.)

  • If you've been thinking of a cruise in Europe during 2020, see our COVID-19 cruising update before booking.

2. It's not too early to think about travel later in the year, or in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic won't last forever. In a few months, the spread of COVID-19 could ease, and you'll be in a better position to make plans. We'd expect to see a cascade of travel bargains later in the year as airlines, hotels, rental firms like Airbnb, tour companies, cruise lines, and destinations try to make up for a disastrous winter and spring.

Still, we do suggest precautions:

  • If you're over 60 (and especially if you have underlying health conditions), use common sense in deciding whether, when, and how to travel. The risk of coronavirus infection won't go away overnight.

  • Be aware of cancellation policies or change fees when you book your airline, train, cruise, or sightseeing tickets. Airline fares and other transportation tickets vary in their cancellation and change policies. If you can't afford a fully-refundable ticket, budget some money for ticket changes just in case. (Good news: Many airlines have suspended change fees and "no refund" policies during the coronavirus pandemic.)

  • When you book accommodation, make sure that your reservation can be cancelled without penalty. Avoid prepaid, discounted room rates that have a "no cancel" policy. (Most reservations through our hotel partner, Booking.com, are fully cancellable. When they aren't, the rules are clearly spelled out.)

  • Be especially carefully when renting holiday apartments, cottages, or villas. Cancellation policies for vacation rentals tend to be stricter than for hotels, although some of the big rental platforms are loosening their rules during the coronovirus outbreak.

  • Finally, don't count on travel insurance to protect you during the coronavirus pandemic. Most insurers and medevac providers are treating the outbreak as a "known event," and your claim will be turned down unless you've bought a high-priced "cancel for any reason" plan.

Bottom line:

If the coronavirus pandemic subsides in the next few months, fall of 2020 or the first half of 2021 could be a great time for European travel, thanks to discounts and smaller crowds as visitors slowly trickle back to popular tourism sites.

However, the situation could change, so build as much flexibility as possible into your travel plans.

Also, if you're in a high-risk group, don't take chances with your health--or your life.