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Is it possible to plan a ‘safe’ vacation during the pandemic?

Joel Smiler doesn’t want to miss his 50th wedding anniversary trip to Maui this September. But he’s not sure if it’s still a good idea.

For Smiler, a retired veterinarian, Maui checks a lot of boxes for safety. Hawaii is a domestic destination, and it has reliable air connections and relatively few coronavirus cases. But when Smiler talks about “safe,” he’s not talking just about health. He also wants to recover his money if there’s another COVID-19 outbreak.

“My biggest loss would be the condo if we cancel,” he says. “I would lose half of my payment.”

Smiler is not alone. As Americans cautiously look to their next vacation, they’re concerned about health – not just physical health but also financial health. They want something safe. Here’s how travel industry sectors look when it comes to safety:

Airlines: Air carriers are taking a variety of steps to protect passengers’ health, such as blocking middle seats and testing for COVID-19. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are among the major airlines blocking middle seats. Frontier Airlines announced last week that it will guarantee an empty middle seat next to you for $39.Emirates was one of the first airlines to conduct blood tests on passengers. Other carriers have announced plans to clean the cabins more thoroughly. Qatar Airways, for example, said it would install advanced air-filtration systems, adopt protocols for washing onboard linen and blankets, and sanitize its service utensils and cutlery at higher temperatures.

But passengers are unhappy with the way airlines have handled their money. When carriers canceled flights, they pushed passengers to accept vouchers instead of the legally required full refunds. No one knows what future refund policies will look like, but travelers are certain they will favor the airlines.

“While airlines were lenient and understanding with flights affected by the first waves of infection, travel booked during stay-at-home and quarantine orders may have different rules and regulations,” says Matthew Bradley, the regional security director for the Americas at International SOS.

Cruise lines: It’s too early to tell how safe cruises will – or won’t – be. Some cruise lines have taken steps to reassure prospective customers that they run a clean ship. Carnival, for example, announced new ship cleaning standards, which include more frequent sanitizing of surfaces, thorough cleaning of staterooms and nightly deep cleaning with specialized equipment.“When cruising resumes, I expect them to be much safer than they were just a few months ago,” says Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise website Cruzely.com.

Health experts warn that diseases can spread rapidly on cruise ships, and they recommend avoiding them if you are in a high-risk group.

“Even if there are doctors onboard, they may not be able to provide adequate care should someone become severely ill, and they may not be able to get that person to necessary care in a timely manner,” says Chris Worsham, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Hotels: Hotel chains have been introducing additional measures to sanitize their properties. For example, Marriott recently announced programs designed to keep its hotels virus-free, including the use of electrostatic sprayers (which disperse very fine, electrically charged particles that aggressively adhere to surfaces) with hospital-grade disinfectants.But during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, hotels were reluctant to let guests off the hook for nonrefundable stays. Some resorts also refused to refund money, forcing customers to accept vouchers instead. As the current outbreak progresses, be on the lookout for cancellation terms that protect hotels from another wave of pandemic-related cancellations.

Of course, the definition of “safe” differs from one person to the next. For some travelers, a July vacation involving a discount cruise and nonrefundable airfare may seem safe enough; others won’t leave their homes until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine.

After some contemplation, Smiler, the retired veterinarian, has decided to go to Maui anyway. But he’s taking one more precaution.

“I’m going to protect my trip with cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance,” he says. “This will at least cover some of my possible losses.”

The one thing many of us seem to have plenty of is time. Molly Fergus, general manager of the travel site TripSavvy, recommends taking advantage of it, but not necessarily to plan short-term travel.

“Take this time to plan those long-lead bucket-list vacations that require detailed planning,” she says. “That way you’re not rushing into another trip during uncertain times, but still have something to look forward to.”

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.