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Peter Greenberg: Swine Flu & Your Travel Plans

AP

As reports continue to come in about the swine flu and travel, it's important to remind you that there's a great deal of difference between an abundance of concern and the worst four letter word that starts with f --- FEAR.

When it comes to travel to Mexico, we need to put all of this concern into some realistic historical context.

Remember the SARS "outbreak" and the SARS "crisis?"

Well, there was NO SARS outbreak. And the crisis happened because no one traveled to the region. It wasn't a medical emergency, but an economic one powered by fear. It didn't stop smart travelers from going, and when I traveled during that time to Hong Kong - when hotel occupancies hovered around 3 per cent - I had one of the best travel experiences ever.

How about the Avian Flu? As things developed, about the only people infected (and there were incredibly few of them) were those who actually worked on chicken farms.

And who can forget the hoof and mouth diseasescare in the United Kingdom? Did that stop you from traveling to London? And when you got off the plane, did any people frothing at the mouth greet you? Of course not.

And now we have swine flu. Should we be concerned? Of course we should. But concern should lead to proactive thinking.

Check with your doctor. Based on age, your own immune system and medical history (as in, do you have a pre-existing medical condition) - those should determine whether or not you travel- to Mexico, or for that matter...to Montana.

Then it gets down to your own personal hygiene routine. Do you wash your hands before and after eating? Before and after going to the bathroom? And when you fly, consider all the surfaces and fabrics you touch. Short of wearing a hazmat suit onto your plane (and considering the condition of the interior cabins or many airplanes these days, it might not be such a bad idea) you need to wash your hands before and after your flight. This is simple, basic, but effective common sense.

Now, having said that, should you travel to countries like Mexico? Embracing the above caveats, then the answer is...of course you can, and you should.

My philosophy is going to sound somewhat politically insensitive, but anytime there's a natural disaster, a civil disturbance or just a medical crisis such as this one, it’s often a great time to travel.

Why?

Because you’re traveling when everyone else isn’t, and you’re putting your travel dollars into a destination that desperately needs it. We’re talking great deals, great service, and great opportunities as travel providers roll out the red carpet for your arrival. And in some cases, it gives you an additional opportunity -- to give back. How many vacationers to New Orleans after Katrina helped in the rebuilding effort? Thousands. It was a win-win for all concerned.

Young boy wearing protective mask against possible swine flu
AP
Young boy wearing protective mask against possible swine flu

Again, there’s nothing wrong with an abundance of caution; the problem is when there’s an abundance of fear.

It shouldn't take a medical "emergency" to force us into good care habits. This applies to planes, trains, buses and automobiles.

In fact, you should be doing this whether there's a flu outbreak or not. And if you practice that, the likelihood is that you'll be OK.

This is not really about wearing a mask. It's about being aware of your immediate environment, staying hydrated, and carrying hand sanitizers when you travel.

That said, if you have a pre-existing medical condition, or are concerned that your current immune system might be weak, of course you shouldn’t go to Mexico City But otherwise, get on the plane.

Right now, Asian countries like Japan and China have the right idea. When travelers arrive from North America, they have someone at the airport with a thermal device that will take your temperature. This is technology that was first used during the SARS threat, and it makes sense today. If your temperature registers too high, you might be quarantined.

Swine Flu
AP
Swine Flu

But the reaction to the swine flu "emergency" begs another question. Given the increased mobility of people throughout the world, and the ease at which some diseases can be transported - and spread - by travelers, shouldn't entry to any particular country be conditional on being in good medical condition?

Specifically in areas of communicable people-to-people diseases?

I'd argue that EVERYONE entering a country - including the U.S. - should have their temperature checked.

It couldn't hurt.

For now, nearly all of the airlines in the United States are waiving any penalties or cancellation fees if you don't want to travel to Mexico, and that is the responsible thing for the airlines to do.

But what about hotels? It’s one thing for airlines to announce that they’re waiving cancellation fees, but hotels are currently doing it on a case-by-case basis. For a lot of people, that means saying goodbye to their deposit. Just another argument for purchasing travel insurance.

The bottom line during the swine flu crisis—which may, or may not be a crisis at this point—is that as long as you practice smart personal hygiene, preventive medical care, and common sense, you'll have a great time.

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Peter Greenberg

PETER GREENBERG is America's most recognized, honored and respected travel expert.

Travel Weekly named Peter one of the most influential people in the travel industry.

Greenberg was the Creator, co-Executive Producer and host of CNBC's acclaimed ratings winner "Inside American Airlines: A Week in the Life," and "Cruise Inc: Big Money on the High Seas.".

Visit his Web site, PeterGreenberg.com