The headline of this post is the question that Inside Edition put to me today. And the question is an important one. Below are a few answers, based on how the situation with the novel coronavirus outbreak currently stands. My guess is that this is a post I'll revisit, as it seems like every day travelers are being confronted with different issues surrounding the virus. But here's what I'd advise at present.
If You're Traveling in Several Weeks
The worst could blow over by the time you're scheduled to leave for vacation. I don't think I'm being a Pollyanna by saying that. So far, COVID-19 has been far less deadly than SARS was, and people continued to travel during that outbreak in 2003. We should have more clarity about how dangerous and/or widespread this outbreak will be soon.
Also important: If you cancel right now, very few travel companies will offer you a refund. I'm including insurance companies in that group. Cancellation insurance does not cover a "fear of travel," and that's the category you'll be assigned if you try to cancel a trip headed anywhere but China right now.
That said, JetBlue, Alaska Air and Windstar Cruises announced this week that they'll waive cancellation and change fees due to coronavirus concerns. As well, most major airlines are allowing cancellation without charge to Asia and Italy. Should the situation worsen and quarantines are instituted in new areas of the world, more companies will undoubtedly follow, for more destinations, meaning that it will be far easier to get a refund if you wait.
Note: The only type of travel insurance that will cover cancellations right now is so-called "Cancel for Any Reason" insurance. But those policies tend to cost upwards of 40% more than standard insurance. And because COVID-19 is what's called in the industry a "named event," you may or may not be able to find a company willing to sell you a new Cancel for Any Reason policy.
If You're Traveling in the Next Few Days
There are certain parts of the world, most notably China and South Korea, that you should not visit right now. But you probably already knew that. For other parts of the planet, you should be fine, but it's wise to do some advanced planning and take a few precautions. These include:
Pack an ample supply of any prescription medicines you take. This is so that you don't have to scramble in the unlikely case that you are quarantined.
Purchase medical travel insurance. As I mentioned above, you can't buy cancellation insurance right now, but medical insurance should still be available—and it could come in handy for international travel (as your own insurance likely won't work abroad).
Bring energy bars and other portable snacks. The testing at transportation points may cause delays, and you don't want to get hangry.
If you're flying, bring a pack of sanitizing wipes. This is to wipe down the tray table and armrest. Interestingly, medical experts contend that airplanes aren't by themselves dangerous transmission points—it's the proximity to infected individuals that can spell trouble. That's because COVID-19 seems to be transmitted through droplets, meaning that one needs to be relatively near an infected person to contract the virus. If you're 10 rows away from someone who is coughing, you should be ok.
Carry hand sanitizer and use sanitizing wipes that contain 60%–90% alcohol. In addition, you'll want to make like a surgeon and wash your hands with soap and water frequently, and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
Bookmark the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel advisories page. It offers straightforward advice on the countries that are currently no-gos as well as those where you'll need to take extra precautions.
Watch this excellent video from the World Health Organization for useful information about the virus.
Note that the CDC is currently not discouraging travel as an activity. And I, for one, am not canceling the travel plans I have in the coming weeks—and they are extensive, though all within the United States.
But like you, I'll be keeping an eye on this ever-changing situation and will report back here on what I find.