It was supposed to be the spring break trip of a lifetime—a family excursion to Tokyo for California’s Jessie Nagel, her husband, and their 14-year-old daughter, who is obsessed with Japanese culture.
The Los Angeles family had a multifaceted vacation booked: a boat ride past the cherry blossoms of Chidorigafuchi Park, a tour of Harajuku, a stroll along the Nakamise shopping street, and a concerted effort to eat ramen and okonomiyaki (savory crepes) across the neighborhoods.
Then COVID-19 started to spread, and everything fell apart.
The more reports of cases coming out of Asia, the more concerned Nagel became that they might become infected if they traveled there. She also worried about the overall experience. Friends both at home and in Japan suggested that sites might be closed, and that streets could be eerily empty because locals would be staying indoors. And then Nagel started to fear being quarantined upon returning to the U.S., just because of where the family had traveled.
Ultimately, Nagel, the head of a communications agency, pulled the plug.
“We canceled our hotel without issue, but now I have to find out about the flights,” she said on March 4. “We got a very good deal—a total of $1,800 for three of us—but that’s still a lot to lose.”
Families weigh their options
Nagel and her family aren’t the only travelers scrambling to rethink or rebook spring break itineraries.
Some, like Nagel, have canceled to minimize risk. Others are engaged in a game of wait-and-see, busily compiling components of a Plan B should the spread of the coronavirus get worse. Still others have sworn off travel all together—at least for the foreseeable future. And a few adventurers are pressing on, despite what they hear about the spread of the virus.
The situation is daunting. At press time, the World Health Organization (WHO) had recorded more than 120,000 cases of the virus and more than 4,000 deaths. While most cases have been reported in Asia—the disease was first reported December 31, 2019, in Wuhan, China—WHO had identified cases in at least 111 countries.
What’s more, on March 8, the U.S. State Department warned that U.S. citizens should not travel on cruise ships, where many cases have incubated. (Find out how to stay healthy on a cruise ship.) On March 9, Italy became the first Western democracy to put an entire country on lockdown since World War II.
And on March 11, U.S. President Donald Trump said the U.S. would ban all travel from Europe for 30 days beginning March 13 (though the U.K. would be exempt). March 12, Viking and Princess canceled all cruises until at least May.
According to experts, signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The official website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus is most dangerous for the elderly and those who have chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease.
For all of these reasons, many colleges have canceled study abroad programs for the spring. Large events are being scrapped, too: on March 6 organizers of the annual SXSW music, technology, and film festival in Austin, Texas, called the whole thing off for the first time in its 34-year history.
It’s all prompted some travelers to swap one itinerary for another.
Take New York City resident Vanessa Wise. She, her husband, and their three boys (ages 13, 10, and 6) were planning to spend spring break in early April in Palm Springs, California, and at Disneyland. As they saw big companies tweaking plans, the family pivoted, canceling their original lineup and booking Plan B at a small resort in Long Boat Key, Florida.
Delta waived all change fees on the flights, but Wise said, ”I gladly would have paid the fees for increased peace of mind.”
“I’m still nervous about travel with three kids, but want to live our lives and not be freaks,” said Wise, a development executive at a nonprofit. “With everything that’s going on we didn’t want to go [to a place from which] we couldn’t get home by car if we had to.”
The travel industry’s take
Within the travel industry, organizations have been quick to sound alarms, even if they haven’t gone so far as to make recommendations about spring break.
For instance, the Family Travel Association (FTA)—an organization that works with vendors serving families— issued a statement on Facebook March 1 that essentially encouraged families to stay abreast of updates from WHO and take precautions to minimize exposure.
Executive Director Colleen Hodson said that while FTA cannot advise anyone on what is the right choice for their family, it can provide calm and coherent suggestions. “Traveling with children during a period where many are fearful of possible health risks—however remote—is always extremely personal,” she said. “We suggest families traveling with children check in with their pediatrician before going, consider [what the situation is] where you are traveling to, and purchase travel insurance.”
Family physicians also encouraged caution.
Dr. Elisa Song, a pediatrician in Belmont, California, recommended that parents be “rationally cautious” as they react to coronavirus news, and that they minimize their chances of infection with diligence, rest, and good hygiene. “Doing things like wiping down surfaces on the airplane, not touching your face, and hydrating will make a difference,” she said. Song, who runs the blog Healthy Kids Happy Kids, also counsels keeping other healthful habits on track, virus risks or not. So don’t reward your kids for good hand-washing hygiene with a bag of candy, since Song says research indicates sugar suppresses the ability of white blood cells to fight infections.
Song also noted that evidence suggests nasal irrigation with neti pots or portable misters can reduce the colonization of different viruses. “When we get off a flight, we irrigate our noses with saline to flush out any viral particles that may have taken hold,” she said.
Families still hitting the road
Still, some travelers are undaunted. Matt Swenson, an editor who lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, said he and his wife were forging ahead with plans to take their two young children (ages 6 and 4) to New York City for spring break in early April.
Swenson said that he lives 40 miles from one of the world’s busiest airports (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport), and notes that, “the disease could just as well be at the local supermarket.”
He added that he and his wife are “always harping on the kids to wash their hands anyway.”
Even with a similar plan to keep exposure risk low, California’s Noelle Thill says she’s not sure she’ll go through with her family’s spring break plans in late March. She, her husband, and their two daughters (ages 15 and 10) currently are scheduled to visit Disneyland for three days, but because her younger daughter has asthma, Thill doesn’t want to take chances.
“If more cases come forward in the next few weeks, we will probably cancel,” said Thill, who lives in Healdsburg. “We’ll see what next week looks like. We’re re-evaluating every day.”
Matt Villano is a California-based writer focused on travel, parenting, and science. Follow him on Twitter.
This story was originally published on March 10 and was updated March 12 to reflect breaking news.