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Travel Safety

Zika Virus, Travel to Cuba, Caribbean Hurricanes: Travel Advisory News to Know Before You Go

It seems like there’s always some headline about changes in travel regulations or weather forecasts that could derail any vacation. To ensure a smooth trip, it’s best to stay aware of the big travel issues happening now, from new TSA rules to Department of State advisories. Here’s what you absolutely need to know before you go.

Chelsea is Brooklyn-based travel writer, editor, and photographer. When not home eating her way through NYC, she's gallivanting across the globe, sailing the coast of Croatia or hiking the peaks of Peru. Her superpowers include booking flight deals and sleeping in small plane seats.

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The Cuba Travel Ban

We don’t know about you, but we’ve found it nearly impossible to keep track of all the administration’s policy changes surrounding travel to Cuba. Although it’s still possible to visit, getting to the Caribbean island is a bit more difficult than before. Starting December 10, the Transportation Department will suspend flights from the United States to nine Cuban airports (except for Havana’s José Martí International Airport). If you do want to buy a plane ticket to Havana, the airline will ask you for the reason of your visit. Make sure to check off the “support for Cuban people” category, as the previously popular “people to people” educational trip option was eliminated. Then, when you get to the airport, you can purchase your tourist card at the gate. Some carriers also allow you to get a tourist card in advance, either online or through the mail, so be sure to check with whomever you’re flying with.

Unfortunately, there’s still a ban on cruise ships as well as hotels owned by the Cuban military, which includes most stays. Because of this, travelers typically book Airbnbs. Before you leave the United States, make sure to withdraw cash for the entirety of your trip. Cuban businesses and ATMs do not accept American cards or dollars, so you must get Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), which all foreign visitors use in place of the local Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP). At least the exchange rate is conveniently easy: one peso (CUC) equals $1.

Zika Virus in 2019

In July, The World Health Organization made some updates on Zika zones. The mosquito-spread virus has receded, but it’s still minorly active in 87 countries across most of Latin America, the Caribbean islands, and the United States as well as a few cases in Africa and Asia. If you’d like to travel to a country that still has a Zika warning, consider going in the winter and staying in a city (where bugs are less active). Once you return home, use insect repellent for two to three weeks to avoid contracting or spreading the disease. For pregnant women (or couples planning on becoming pregnant), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend additional precautions be taken.

Atlantis hotel on Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas.

Visiting the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian

In September, Hurricane Dorian slammed the Bahamas with 185 mph winds, but a big misconception is that the country as a whole is now destroyed. The reality: the Bahamas are comprised of 700 islands across 100,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean, and popular atolls like Nassau, Paradise Island, and the Exumas were virtually untouched by Dorian. Airports on all 14 of the major resort islands are open to travelers, and United just added a non-stop route from Denver to Nassau starting on March 7, 2020. Abaco and Grand Bahama were hit the hardest, but the latter is bouncing back quickly. Cruise ships and domestic flights have resumed service to Grand Bahama in November, and hotels like Old Bahama Bay Resort & Yacht Harbour and Lighthouse Pointe at Grand Lucayan Resort have reopened.

According to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, traveling to the Bahamas is the best way to boost the economy and help recovery efforts. If you’d like to donate or provide supplies, check out the tourism board’s list of charities.

RELATED: The 8 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the Bahamas Right Now

California Fires

California was scorched by two fires in October—Saddle Ridge in Los Angeles County and Kincade in Sonoma County. Kincade’s flames burned nearly 78,000 acres of Sonoma County, but the damage was still relatively minimal, especially in wine country as the grapes were already harvested for the season. In fact, according to Visit California, only one of the 825 vineyards between Napa and Sonoma burned. For real-time updates, you can check the current conditions and live cams with the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection.

RELATED: 10 Incredible Places to Visit in California

Current State Department Warnings

The U.S. Department of State has four travel advisories, ranging from level one (normal precautions) to level four (do not travel). Although you should always follow common-sense safety tips abroad, it’s good to check if a country has any current political or civil unrest before you go. We also recommend signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to get emergency alerts.

Currently, Bolivia (level four), Lebanon (level three), Chile (level two), and Hong Kong (level two) are marked due to civil unrest. Bolivia has political strikes in its big cities that have turned violent. Meanwhile, Lebanon is relatively safe, as long as you don’t venture too close to Syria and Israel borders. Chile is a massive country, and many of the large marches are only happening in Santiago, which is causing some restaurants and malls to close earlier in the evening. However, travelers are completely free to explore the country’s gorgeous landscapes, such as the Atacama Desert and Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. In the east, pro-democracy demonstrators have taken to the streets of Hong Kong over the territory’s tumultuous relationship with China. These mostly peaceful protests have occurred at MTR stations, universities, and the Hong Kong International Airport.

As with anywhere you travel, it’s wise to avoid large crowds of people, and if you do go out at night, stick to well-lit areas. Also, it’s always a good idea to consult the concierge at your hotel for recommendations and precautions.

RELATED: The Best Hotels in Patagonia Are a Design-Lover’s Dream

New TSA Airline Rules

One of the biggest TSA changes won’t occur until October 1, 2020, when travelers will need a Real ID to board a flight. Even though that sounds far away, we all know how slow the DMV is. Plus, according to a U.S. Travel Association study, 39 percent of American adults (that’s an estimated 99 million people!) don’t have an acceptable form of identification. So, if your license doesn’t have a star at the top, it’s best to apply for a new one ASAP.

On the bright side, in May, the TSA quietly made one rule a bit more lax. Passengers can now bring medical marijuana and some forms of cannabis (like Epidiolex, an FDA-approved drug used to treat seizures) on planes. CBD oil is allowed as long as it’s made from legalized hemp, as in accordance with the 2018 Farm Bill. However, other forms of weed, including any products that have THC, are still banned. Meaning, it’s probably best to leave the hash at home!

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