Photograph by FETHI BELAID, AFP/Getty Images
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Travelers around the world are scrambling to get home. But what do you do if your trip never got off the ground?

Photograph by FETHI BELAID, AFP/Getty Images

You’ve had to cancel your vacation. Here’s what to do next.

For travelers, social distancing tests the limits of wanderlust—but there are ways to cope.

What’s a traveler to do when the next destination is a short hop to the kitchen or a long weekend in the living room?

For many in the travel and tourism industry, the first priority during the coronavirus pandemic has been helping tourists return home as travel bans take effect and countries enact measures to limit public contact. But for the countless people whose vacation plans were canceled before they could even get off the ground, the best advice is to stay put. Here’s what to do you if your trip’s scrapped—and how to make the most of staying home.

Go for the refund

A frustrated vacationer’s first thoughts might be about getting their money back, but it can be tough to untangle itineraries that took months to assemble. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, and tour companies are offering different refund options, some under policies that change by the minute. As businesses scramble to save profits—particularly airlines, which are staring down looming bankruptcy—some travelers are left in the lurch.

Tiffany Hines, who runs the Athens, Georgia-based travel consultancy Global Escapes, recommends checking your airline’s policies to see what refunds, vouchers, or other compensation is on offer in exchange for a canceled trip. If you booked an Airbnb, you’ll likely get your money back—though the company’s policy puts the onus on hosts to pay up. Even if you purchased travel insurance for your trip, be aware that policy benefits don’t always cover every aspect of your booking.

In many cases, prepare to get only what you can bargain for. And don’t be afraid to seek advice and allies. Hines has offered her company’s expertise to travelers even if they weren’t previously clients, and she suggests other companies might be willing to do the same.

“We can read between the lines [of cancellation policies] and provide insight,” Hines says. “You may have looked at our services as an extra cost, but in the end, it can save you so much time and headache and worry and stress.” Another bonus? Building a relationship with travel advisers gives you an advantage when the storm clears and the industry is flooded with rebookings, Hines says.

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“It’s a human crisis,” says travel adviser Tiffany Hines about the coronavirus pandemic. “And we need to be human” when dealing with trip cancellations.

Go local—maybe

As iconic destinations sit eerily empty, some thwarted travelers are turning to their own backyards in search of places to discover. The temptation to get outdoors is powerful, but are local trips a good idea? It depends.

Ditching the city for the great outdoors might not effectively “flatten the curve”—that is, keep the daily number of disease cases at a manageable level for medical providers. Parks can offer open space and social distance. But unsafe exposure is still a risk on crowded tours and at viewpoints and visitor centers—a risk disproportionately shouldered by low-wage hospitality and sanitation workers, according to the Guardian, in a report describing packed scenes at Big Bend and Zion National Parks this week.

A few national monuments and recreation areas have closed their gates in response to COVID-19, but the National Park Service has drawn criticism for opting not to shutter heavy-hitters such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Instead, NPS is merely restricting operations—and waiving entrance fees, CNN reports.

In some places, the decision to venture out is moot. In California, six counties in San Francisco’s Bay Area have enacted sweeping “shelter in place” measures—the country’s strictest—ordering 6.7 million people to stay in their homes. Though there’s no magic number when it comes to a safe gathering size, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends restricting gatherings to fewer than 50 people, while the White House says that through April 1, all gatherings of more than 10 people should be canceled or held virtually to prevent the virus’s spread.

The best advice is to look at the CDC’s risk assessment. Do you have underlying conditions? Are you more vulnerable or would your trip threaten others who are? Individual circumstances vary, but you might need to postpone your commune with nature. If you go anyway, make sure to maintain social distance and take other preventative measures.

Go virtual

So, you’re stuck at home. What now?

Just as technology has made remote work more feasible, it also offers the chance to travel without leaving your couch. For about as long as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have been around, people have used the tech to prepare for vacations: taking a digital walk through airports, exploring a hotel ahead of time, even previewing a lavish meal.

But in a time of pandemic, virtual tourism could help replace the vacation itself. Pull up a 360-degree video on your smartphone, and you can hurtle down a snow-covered mountain in a wingsuit, roam the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá, or even explore the surface of Mars. Want a more sedate pace? Take a virtual tour of a world-class museum.

Some travelers have even argued that, pandemic aside, virtual experiences are a more responsible alternative to overtourism, since they can ease the infrastructure demands and carbon footprints of actual travel. Virtual reality may even expand travel opportunities in years to come, as researchers focus their work on experiences that are expensive, dangerous, rare, or even impossible in the real world. Bucket-list items such as whale-watching or seeing the Sistine Chapel could become accessible to everyone—with all the thrills but very few of the environmental impacts.

The benefits of virtual reality also extend to how travel makes us feel, says Sarah Hill, who develops AR/VR experiences that change in response to customers’ lowered heart rates. Hill’s first project provided VR encounters to ailing veterans unable to travel to see memorials to their service. She discovered that the technology not only provided psychological comfort, it also helped relieve physical stress.

As lockdowns and self-quarantines confine people to close quarters, “finding ways for your brain to escape and travel is not only important, but therapeutic,” Hill says. “We all need some virtual peace. This is a walk in the park for people who can’t take a real walk in the park.”

Go literary

Alas, even virtual experiences can fall short in recreating a real sense of place. Sometimes the best option is curling up with a good book.

“There’s nothing like a book to immerse you instantly in the culture and history of a place,” says Amy Alipio, National Geographic travel editor and resident bibliophile. “So if you can’t head to Paris for spring break, maybe tuck into Little by Edward Carey, a curiosity-filled novel about the life of Madame Tussaud, set in the years before and during the French Revolution.”

Her other recommendations: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of farm life in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); Aravind Adiga’s prize-winning tale of an Indian chauffeur-turned-entrepreneur, The White Tiger; and Without You There Is No Us, a look at North Korea’s rising ruling class for which author Suki Kim lived undercover in Pyongyang for three months.

If cabin fever is still creeping in for you and your family, just keep reading. You can replace your canceled spring break trip with one of these page-turners. Can’t get to your favorite national park? Try these books instead. Or dig into 12 years of the National Geographic book club’s favorite recommendations.

When the best way to protect ourselves and our communities from a global pandemic is to stay at home, Emily Dickinson’s words may be truer than ever: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.”