To travel or not to travel? What to weigh up in a coronavirus world

Do you board that train or plane, or just stay home? We look at the options.
Do you board that train or plane, or just stay home? We look at the options.

Should you or shouldn't you? Vanessa Wu looks at how you can travel and stay healthy.

It's the new reality for families across Australia: Go or stay? Fly or drive? Cruise or cocoon at home?

After two months of living with a barrage of reports about the coronavirus (or COVID-19), many people have cancelled or postponed their trips in response to an unprecedented amount of information.

But some are starting to say: if this is the new reality, how are we going to manage it?

Travelling in the current climate is not without its challenges - but it is definitely something you can still do while taking precautions to stay as safe as possible.

And now there is a barrage of bargains tempting us all. So for those daring to venture out to their travel agents, here's how to handle our new decade's biggest holiday dilemma.

Some questions to start you off

Am I going to a destination affected by COVID-19?

Have I chosen flights that take me through a country from which I might not get home without a period of quarantine?

Are my travel companions (or myself) at risk because of age or pre-existing conditions?

Does my travel insurance not cover cancellations?

If the answer to any of these is "yes" - think very carefully.

Before you go

Check with your travel agent, airline, cruise operator, accommodation and travel insurance provider to consider your options regarding any potential changes in services.

Understand the risks you're taking and that efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 may cause further travel disruption.

Talk to your doctor before travelling with young children or the elderly. Also consult your doctor if you're pregnant, or have a weakened immune system or chronic medical condition.

Check the travel advice for your destination, especially regarding infectious diseases and how to access medical assistance overseas.

There are regular updates on the website Smartraveller.gov.au. There is a heightened risk in some countries.

Currently the government has raised the advice level for six countries: China and Iran - to "do not travel"; South Korea, Japan, Italy and Mongolia - to "exercise a high degree of caution".

Be sure to take with you the phone number for the Australian Government's 24-hour consular emergency assistance.

Wash those hands

When travelling, wash your hands often with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser, especially before and after eating, and after going to the toilet.

There is evidence coronaviruses last from three hours to several days on surfaces, which is longer than most flu viruses.

Avoid touching your face and avoid contact with others (touching, kissing, hugging and other intimate contact), especially if they are sick.

The safest seat on the plane

On airplanes, the coronavirus is more likely to spread by touch than through the air, says Qingyan Chen, an air-quality expert from Purdue University.

Air conditioning systems on planes are capable of filtering out particles as small as viruses. But air carrying the virus could transfer to others sitting in the same or neighbouring row as an infected passenger.

"The further away you're sitting from a person who is infected, the better," says Chen, who also warns that toilets are the biggest hotspot for the virus on a plane.

"Stool also contains viruses. Close the lid before you flush to limit how much goes into the air."

He also suggests travellers use alcohol-based disinfecting wipes to prevent the spread of the virus through touch.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that the 11 people seated closest to the sick passenger had an 80 per cent chance of becoming infected themselves.

Sitting in a window seat and staying put lowers your likelihood of coming into contact with an infectious disease. In the study, window-seat passengers had far fewer close encounters than people in other seats, averaging 12 contacts compared to the 58 and 64 respective contacts for passengers in middle and aisle seats.

Passengers in middle and aisle seats - even those that are within the World Health Organization's two-seat range - still have a fairly low probability of getting infected.

Howard Weiss, one of the lead researchers of the study, told National Geographic that is because most contact people have on airplanes is relatively short.

Cruising healthily

The majority of cruise itineraries outside Asia are operating as normal. Check with your travel agent or cruise company for travel advisories for your destinations.

Cruise lines also have measures in place to protect guests and crew, including embarkation restrictions and screening passengers and crew for illness.

Consider booking cruises on smaller ships as they are often less crowded which ensures there's plenty of space to avoid close contact with other passengers when needed.

Also, look for a higher crew-to-guest ratio, so the ship's crew are in a good position for taking care of all guests and maintaining hygiene throughout.

Don't end up doing the time

Many countries have introduced entry restrictions and screening measures at border crossings and transport hubs, including some which have not had cases of COVID-19.

You may not be allowed to enter or transit, or you may be quarantined, based on your previous location and symptoms.

Entry, exit and transit conditions can change at short notice. Not all officials or transport providers are applying their policies consistently. Contact the nearest embassy or consulate of the countries you are visiting before you travel.

If you're in an affected area or transiting an area with cases of COVID-19, contact your travel agent and accommodation and transportation providers about any potential changes in services or entry requirements.

Play it safe

Continue to follow the general Smartraveller advice of avoiding farms, live animal markets and areas where animals are slaughtered, including fish and seafood.

Avoid contact with animals (alive or dead), including pigs, chickens, ducks and wild birds as well as surfaces with animal droppings or secretions on them.

If you come into contact with animals, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth until you have thoroughly sanitised your hands.

Keep a close eye on your own health

If you develop symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, tiredness or shortness of breath), see a doctor for an urgent assessment and follow the advice of local authorities.

You do not need to wear a face mask if you are well. Surgical masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who are infected with coronavirus from spreading it to others. However, if you are travelling in an affected country, follow the advice of local authorities.

Keeping kids safe

Mum-of-two Rose Jacobs examines the options for the upcoming school holidays.

As we now know COVID-19 is going to be around for a while. And as a mum, with Easter school holidays to plan for, it has got me wondering: what's safe?

A last-minute overseas trip is probably not top of the list. So do we lock the doors and opt for an enforced staycation? No thanks.

It is still possible to take an Easter holiday that is safe.

It's all about escaping the crowds, entertaining the kids, keeping your holiday budget down - while also supporting our regional tourism in towns that need our support after such a tough time over the summer.

My top tip on where to go: think small. Small towns, small hotels, small hassle.

We don't want to freak kids out by telling them there's a pandemic on the way and it has ruined Easter. But we also don't want to book into a big resort in a big city and end up with a big virus on our hands (literally).

So pack the kids in the car, throw in a bucket-sized hand sanitiser and prepare to embrace Australia. Here's my pick of the out-of-the-way holiday spots.

Caloundra, Qld

This is a family-friendly spot on the Sunshine Coast with an array of watersports and a buzzing cafe and dining scene. Just north of Brisbane, the heavenly beachfront stretch is also blessed inland with the majestic Glass House Mountains. There's plenty to do - and plenty of fresh air - to keep the whole family happy and active.

Kiama, NSW

An ideal spot for a little break away, the stunning coastal town of Kiama is south of Sydney. The Blowhole is always a hit with kids and the Kiama Coast Walk trail is popular with families and there are whale-watching spots along the way. The surf beach has calm water for swimming.

Daylesford, Vic

In the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, Daylesford is known for its natural mineral springs. It has got that cosy, B&B, natural hot springs kind of vibe and the leafy Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens atop an extinct volcano is a must-see. Nearby, Wombat State Forest shelters rare wildlife, including the spot-tailed quoll.