Coronavirus: Is It Safe (Or Sensible) To Travel To Asia At The Moment?

Some links to products and partners on this website will earn an affiliate commission.

With the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) continuing to lead headlines throughout the world, I have been asked by friends/family/readers whether I think travel to Asia at the moment is safe. My answer so far has been that statistically it is probably reasonably safe, but that does not mean that travel right now is necessarily sensible.

Gilbert (who is always worth reading) over at GodSaveThePoints made the argument a few days ago that the chances of contracting COVID-19 while travelling in most parts of Asia is extremely low and that the chances of death are much smaller still.

I don’t entirely agree with the specifics of his analysis, because it is largely based on static data when this is a rapidly evolving situation. In fact, as the virus has now got a foothold in Italy, Iran and elsewhere, the question must really be widened to include all affected regions. That said – I do agree with Gil’s main point, which is that if you are reasonably fit and healthy, the chances of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 while travelling are currently still statistically low.

My bigger concern isn’t whether travel is safe, but whether it is sensible

What I mean by that is that if you decide the risk of infection is tolerably low, the steps that businesses and governments are taking to combat the spread of COVID-19 could still lead to your trip being negatively affected. As we saw yesterday in Tenerife, just one suspected case led to hundreds of people in the same hotel being placed under quarantine conditions.

Small numbers of potential cases are now popping up across Europe (Spain, Switzerland, Sicily, Croatia, etc). Given how infectious the virus seems to be and how interconnected the world (and particularly Europe) is, it would be remarkable if that trend does not continue in the coming days. All the evidence so far suggests that strict quarantines are the favoured option of governments dealing with suspected cases of COVID-19 – and airports, borders, etc, are precisely the places that are going to become (or already are) under intense scrutiny.

My point is that the chances of getting caught up in a quarantine (which could last for 14 days) when travelling are much higher than your chances of contracting the virus itself. How many people can realistically take two unplanned weeks away from their family, work and other commitments without it having a big negative impact on their life?

Even if you are happy to accept those risks, there’s still the question of whether it would be enjoyable to visit somewhere right now if the cultural events have been cancelled, the streets are empty, and the bars are shut?  Going next year instead might be a lot more fun.

Why I don’t like my own argument

The above is my genuine assessment of the current situation, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the conclusions.

Tourism is a hugely important part of the economy of many countries and provides livelihoods for millions of people. I hate the idea that good businesses might go bust and people will lose their jobs due to tourists and business travellers not visiting.

It is always important to consider the wider context when discussing ‘risk’ – scaremongering is despicable and has real world consequences. Unfortunately, it really does now seem likely that COVID-19 is going to be a significant public health challenge for at least some countries outside of China (where it already is) and the travel industry will be at the sharp end of that.

What can be done?

Rather than giving up on travel plans altogether (including to currently affected regions), I think there is a more moderate way forward – and it doesn’t involve anything hugely complicated. Consider things like:

  • Booking refundable rates for accommodation. That gives you time to see how things develop, without risking either your money, or your holiday. In fact, refundable rates might be a good idea at any time.
  • Similarly, using points/miles (perhaps even buying them) to book flights can be an excellent way of effectively booking a refundable flight without the massive price tags that refundable cash tickets usually involve. Most miles/points bookings can be cancelled (with the points/miles returned to your account) for a very modest cancellation fee.
  • Double check your travel insurance. The devil is in the detail, so make sure you are 100% certain about what is covered and in what specific circumstances. It might be a good time to consider paying more for something more comprehensive and/or with better customer service.
  • Keep a close eye on government travel advice, which could change rapidly over the next few weeks.
  • If you are travelling, follow the World Health Organisation advice on how to help keep yourself and others healthy.

Bottom line

The coming weeks could well be challenging for travellers, and even more so for those who work in the industry. Delays due to things like health screening at airports are to be expected, and more profound disruption is possible. Ensure that you have a contingency plan (particularly things like carrying extra medication if you have an existing condition) just in case you do find yourself in a quarantine situation.

As always, try to be patient and kind when travelling – not least if things get stressful!


  1. Craig Sowerby says

    Good advice. I’d add the idea that you should carry around antibacterial gel and use it obsessively. Those masks – usually worn incorrectly – don’t do much at all, but washing your hands after touching just about everything reduces your risk substantially…

    A lot of it is human nature. Even though you are probably no more likely to pick up coronavirus in Italy or Japan than taking the tube to work every day with a bunch of strangers, there’s something about the optionality of leisure travel that means you’d kick yourself for becoming ill in Italy whereas back home it’s “unavoidable”.

    The main point against travelling right now… is being quarantined. This is especially important if you aren’t a citizen of your country of residence, as certain countries can randomly throw up barriers to entry. (but obviously can’t really refuse to repatriate their own citizens)

    • joe bloggs says

      “Good advice. I’d add the idea that you should carry around antibacterial gel and use it obsessively. Those masks – usually worn incorrectly – don’t do much at all, but washing your hands after touching just about everything reduces your risk substantially… ”

      But are you going to fully enjoy a holiday where you are obsessing on hand cleaning, and what you’ve just touched, and did I just touch my face, and hearing every cough as a potential personal threat ?

      I agree, potential quantine is a mjaor issue.

      Also the risk in any particular country is one thing, but what about the risk of getting there ? Oone imagines that international airports are (in relative terms) locations where you are more likely to be in close proximty to someone that is infectious (and who may not know it).

      Also one wonders how likely a plane’s AC is to take infection from one person and disseminate around the entire plane for 10hrs or whatever the length of the flight is.

      Mind you, I don’t recall any cases from the UK super-infector, where he passed it on, on the plane. He flew from Asia to Europe for skiing and then back home. He infected many at the ski resort and some back in the UK, did not hear that they attempted to track those that were on the planes with him.

      • Craig Sowerby says

        Actually, there is no shortage of countries where one must be obsessive about hand washing, unless one enjoys Delhi belly… I don’t believe that practising good hygiene ruins people’s trips to India…

        I’d have to do a deep dive into the details / statistics, but I’m of the impression that an airplane’s air circulation is far better than what is typically imagined, especially on the newer 787s and A350s. And I’d genuinely be far more worried on the tube/train than in an airport…

    • Joe Deeney says

      Yeah, the chances are that you will have a great trip with only minor disruption. Just make sure you have some back up plans if things do go wrong.

  2. Pangolin says

    Good article. I’ve been arguing the exact same point to friends/colleagues recently when they took a similar stance to GSTP.

    The biggest risk is quarantine and spending two weeks in an isolation centre or hospital in a foreign country isn’t most people’s idea of a good time (or being locked down in a hotel in Tenerife either). The point about the risk being even greater when you don’t have citizenship of your country of residence is a good one also (which is the case for me).

    Q: If you guys had a trip to South Korea due in 3 weeks time, would you bail? (asking for a friend)

    • Joe Deeney says

      Honestly, if I had to make the decision today I would bail. I would try to keep my options open for as long as possible though. Obviously everyone has different risk tolerance depending on what else is going on in their life and how much a particular trip means to them (will they get the chance to go again, etc), but for me the risk of quarantine is too high considering it’s a trip I could still make whenever I want in future.

      • cinereus says

        The question then is are there any trips you’d make under current circumstance? And if not, how long do you put on hold all international travel?

        • Joe Deeney says

          Fair question. Yeah, there are still quite a lot of circumstances where I’d travel at the moment if required (even to countries/areas that are relatively high risk), but I’m not really looking to book discretionary travel in the short term. Would I enjoy a quick weekend away somewhere? Absolutely – but I’ve had scores of weekends away, so it’s not really a big deal for me to stay at home for a few weeks and see how things develop.

          If there was a special reason for the trip, or I had the chance to go somewhere that I wouldn’t normally be able to, then I’d be willing to accept more risk. But, I do think the risk of quarantine is a real one and something that is likely to become more so over the next week or 2. Therefore the ‘value’ of the trip would have to outweigh that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *