Featured TIPS

Pandemic Terms: The New Lexicon for Travelers

September 20, 2020
Pandemic terms for travelers

The COVID-19 pandemic has literally redefined travel, introducing a host of new words, terms and concepts that never entered our minds (or in many cases, our vocabularies) before. Many of them reflect the new emphasis on health and safety.

Whether you are currently traveling or planning to take a trip in the near future, you may be wondering what different pandemic terms mean and about the differences between them. The list of terms below (presented in alphabetical order) is far from complete but includes many of the terms that we have recently encountered. Even the ones that sound generic are of special importance to travelers.


Here are some of the common pandemic terms we’ve heard:

Antibody test 

An antibody blood test tells if you’ve ever been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Travelers with positive results are thought to have protective antibodies but experts aren’t sure about the length or strength of the immunity conferred.

Antigen test 

Pandemic terms: COVID tests

COVID tests

Also called a rapid covid test (because it can produce results in as little as 5 to 15 minutes), this immunoassay test uses nasal or throat swabs to diagnose the virus. According to the CDC, these tests perform best in early stages when viral load is highest and  may produce false negatives in asymptomatic individuals. Some travelers still opt for rapid tests prior to traveling to make sure they are healthy before leaving home. 

Asymptomatic travelers

Asymptomatic travelers—those without any obvious symptoms—can still transmit the virus. One recent study suggests that about 30% of those carrying the virus may be asymptomatic. This argues for always taking precautions in public places.

Border restrictions

Some international borders (and even regional or state borders within countries) are closed to  individuals from various geographical locations—or require that they meet mandatory testing or quarantine requirements. These restrictions often change based on fluctuating infection rates (as well as political whim). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) Travel Centre is an excellent source of up-to-date information on border restrictions. Restrictions also vary by mode of transportation: car, airplane, ship.

Blocked middle seat

Some airlines are blocking middle seats without additional fees to promote traveler confidence in flying. 

Contactless payment systems

Technology is increasingly being used by travel suppliers such as hotels, tours, attractions and restaurants, etc. that allows digital payments without physical contact for products or services.


Because the virus can linger on high-touch surfaces, travelers are advised to travel with disinfectant sprays when visiting hotels, restaurants, public restrooms, etc. This can take the form of pre-packaged wipes or spray bottles with a solution containing at least 70% alcohol, or another Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved disinfectant. 

Health and safety protocols

To protect their guests and promote consumer confidence, travel suppliers have designed (often in consultation with health, industry and/or governmental organizations) extensive health and safety protocols. Before booking, prudent consumers will want to review these protocols, often available online, in light of their individual risks or ask questions by phone or email.

Travel health kits

Travel first-aid kit (credit: Pixabay)

Travel first-aid kit (credit: Pixabay)

Health professionals have suggested that travelers review their travel first aid kits and supplement them with pandemic-related supplies to help avert unnecessary trips to emergency rooms or pharmacies. These might include disposable gloves, a thermometer, anti-diarrheal medication, and a pulse oximeter, for example. 

Immunity passports

These are virtual passports or risk-free certificates based on the assumption that someone who has COVID-19 antibodies is safe to travel (or return to work) because they can’t be reinfected. The World Health Organization cautions that this notion is speculative because there is insufficient evidence, at present, to assume immunity to secondary infection.

Infection rate

Knowing the rate of infections (the frequency of new infections among the population) at a destination—and whether it is rising or declining—can help travelers evaluate risk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses these as one criteria to determine Travel Health Notices.


Masks are one of the most effective tools currently available to limit the spread of the virus. Not only do they protect others but they also afford some protection to the wearer. Travelers need to determine local rules regarding mandatory use of masks.

Negative test results

A negative diagnostic test result suggests that the virus couldn’t be detected at the time of testing, and the person who took the test probably isn’t infected (when tested). However, reported estimates of false negatives range as low as 2% and as high as 37%.


A pandemic is a geographically widespread disease outbreak over several countries or continents (that frustrates people who love to travel).

Positivity rate

The positivity rate is the percent of all coronavirus tests performed that are actually positive. A high positivity rate (over 5%) suggests that restrictions shouldn’t be loosened.

Pulse oximeter

A pulse oximeter is a small device, usually clipped on a finger, that measures blood oxygenation levels. Travelers sometimes carry them to self-monitor for rapid dips in oxygen levels.


People who have symptoms—or who have been exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19—are advised to quarantine to reduce the potential spread of the virus to others. Some destinations have mandatory quarantine periods in place for people entering the country or even specific areas within a country.


The R-number (reproduction number) is the average number of people the virus will be passed on to by one infected person; left on its own (without any mitigating measures), coronavirus has a reproduction number of three, making it a risky infection.

Rapid COVID Test

(see antigen test)

Sanitizing station

These usually touch-free stations dispense hand sanitizer. Once primarily found on cruise ships, they are now ubiquitous in many public places including hotels and resorts.

Social distancing

In the same vein as hand-washing and use of face coverings, social distancing is a behavioral (as opposed to medical) approach to stop the spread of the disease. Experts recommend that individuals stay at least six feet (two arms’ lengths) away from anyone outside their immediate household. Many museums, theme parks and other attractions use floor markings to remind people to maintain social distance. 

Temperature checks

Digital thermometer (pixabay)

Digital thermometer (pixabay)

Temperature scans have become ubiquitous at airports, hotels, restaurants, medical offices and many other enclosed spaces. However, temperature is not a sensitive test for COVID-19. Not everyone who has the virus presents with temperature; conversely, temperature may be elevated for a host of other reasons. Some experts suggest that temperature checks may instill a false sense of security; others see them as reminders to be vigilant to the spread of the virus.

Travel advisories

In the U.S. and some other countries, travel advisories (also called travel alerts) provide citizens with country-specific cautions. These generic cautions have been updated to include COVID-19 warnings.

Travel health notices

The U.S. CDC maintains a country-specific, searchable list to alert travelers about COVID-19 and other health problems/issues that may impact travel.

Travel pods

To minimize the risks, many travelers are creating travel pods (also called travel bubbles or vacation pods) made up of two or more unrelated couples or families, multigenerational groups, extended families, or other groups of unrelated adults (e.g., solo travelers). Participants agree to strict measures to minimize risk before and during their trip.

Travel shaming

Some people are being shamed either on social media—or by friends and family—for taking trips during the pandemic, presumably because of risks to themselves of others.

UV technology

In many public places, germicidal UV technology is being used to deactivate the COVID-19 virus (and other microbes) on clothes, skin and objects. Experts suggest that more research and regulation is needed to determine its effectiveness.

Zoom towns

Zoom towns are destinations that are booming as housing markets because remote workers (who often use Zoom for teleconferencing) are fleeing urban centers in search of lower costs, less density, lower infection rates, more space, and more opportunities to enjoy nature and the outdoors.

Have we left off any pandemic terms we should add to this list?

If you learned one new term, please share with a friend:-)

Save to Pinterest!

Pandemic Travel Terms pin


  • Reply
    Jackie K Smith
    September 23, 2020 at 4:36 am

    I was just commenting that I pack differently now: masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes. . .all things I would never have packed only a year ago. Now I have a whole new vocabulary to go with them!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 23, 2020 at 10:35 am

      Yes, the thought that has to go into a trip is almost a throw-back to traveling with an infant!

  • Reply
    Jeff & Crystal
    September 23, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    Life has become so weird in 2020. Let’s hope that this vocabulary list of pandemic terms is a temporary necessity.

Leave a Reply