The destination matters
Whether you’re looking to change or cancel an upcoming trip to China or Italy (where there’s been a more recent but much smaller outbreak reported) or to other destinations, the options will vary—and here’s why. There’s a big difference between your trip being canceled and you deciding to cancel your trip.
In the case of China, where Wuhan in the Hubei province has been identified as the epicenter of the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak (officially known as COVID-19), quarantines and travel bans have severely limited travel into and out of the province and the country. As officials work to contain the spread of the virus, numerous airlines have canceled their flights to and from China altogether, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines.
When it comes to travel to China, for the vast majority of travelers it’s not just about whether you would want to go or not—if your flights have been canceled, you can’t go and the airlines should work to reaccommodate you. That being said, just because your flights have been canceled, that doesn’t mean all the elements of your trip will automatically be compensated—you’ll still have to sort those out separately. Numerous hotel chains are waiving cancellation and rebooking fees for stays in China, including Accor Hotels, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Marriott International, Rosewood Hotel Group, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, the Peninsula Hotels, and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.
As for destinations other than China, thus far we aren’t seeing the sweeping cancellations and offers for refunds in other countries where there have been coronavirus cases reported—there are currently 29 countries with confirmed coronavirus cases. The countries with the largest numbers of cases outside of China are South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Iran. If you have travel plans to any of these destinations or others and are thinking of canceling or changing your bookings, there’s a good chance you will absorb some losses or added expenses for cancellation and change fees or won’t be able to claim a refund. Even in the case of China, there are stories of travelers who ultimately ended up with some losses because they weren’t able to track down refunds.
The type of trip (and travel company) makes a difference, too
For those who want or need to change their plans, if you booked all the components of your trip on your own, you’re basically on your own to rebook. You’ll have to work with each individual travel supplier (the airline, the hotel, etcetera) to change or cancel each element of the trip.
Typically, the options are pretty standard for flights—there will be a change fee added to the difference in airfare for a new flight to a different destination or at a different time. Or there will be a cancellation fee for a flight you simply want to cancel.
Hotels tend to be a bit more flexible and often have more lenient cancellation policies, unless you booked a discounted fare that didn’t include the option to receive a full refund or to not be charged a fee if the reservation is canceled.
If you booked a package or a tour, the company you booked through might be willing to work with you in an effort to keep your business. Rather than have you cancel altogether, it might find a way to simply transfer your booking to another date or destination. At times like these, certain travel companies will really shine from a customer service perspective, while others might be a disappointment. Keep in mind that they are all probably in crisis mode (and in financial distress) as they work to address this outbreak. Some companies will respond better than others. Many reputable tour companies are members of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, which requires members to be ethical and show financial responsibility. It includes well-known and respected operators such as Tauck and Abercrombie & Kent, which have weathered many global travel storms and are known for doing right by their customers.
Numerous cruise lines have canceled and altered itineraries in Asia and are offering full refunds and the option to rebook for passengers affected by the changes. Cruise review and news site Cruise Critic has been amassing those changes and cancellations in an online story that it is updating regularly.
A travel advisor can serve as a great ally. While travel advisors can’t force travel suppliers to refund their clients, they typically have stronger relationships with suppliers and thus more sway. They will be better able to help you navigate through the options for changing your trip plans. And as travel professionals (who likely have dealt with numerous crises such as this), they can offer their advice and the insights from their contacts in the destination—all of which can assist in making a final decision.
How to time your decision
One of the more challenging factors of the fast-moving nature and uncertainty of an outbreak such as the current coronavirus one is knowing what to do about trips that are weeks and months from now. Should you go ahead and cancel a trip that is several months out still, or should you wait and see how things progress?
For pre-existing trips, now’s the time to go through your reservations and check the cancellation policies. If there are cut-off dates for your hotel or vacation rental stays, mark those on your calendar as a deadline for when to make a final decision. Similarly, keep an eye on airfares to ensure that, if you do want to shift gears, you don’t take too big a hit on a new set of flights.
If you haven’t yet booked your trip, you may either want to go with a destination you feel confident that you won’t want to (or need to) change, or give yourself a deadline for when to book a destination that you maybe have some concerns about now and aren’t sure how things will progress (maybe it’s a country where there are currently just a handful of coronavirus cases). Consider factors such as ideal times to book flights and hotels by and circle a date on the calendar when you will need to make a call one way or another.
How travel insurance can (and can’t) help
Simply wanting to cancel or change a trip due to fear or worry is not something that is typically covered by most travel insurance policies, according to Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer for travel insurance search and review site Squaremouth.
“In order for an insured [person] to be covered to cancel, the event that is impacting their trip must be explicitly listed within their insurance policy certificate,” said Moncrief. “Canceling because they are too scared or concerned to travel isn’t listed under a standard trip cancellation policy. The only option for travelers who want this type of flexibility, who otherwise are not outright impacted, is a Cancel For Any Reason policy.”
Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) is an optional upgrade to a travel insurance policy that covers cancellations for reasons not otherwise covered by a standard travel insurance “such as fear of traveling due to the coronavirus or simply not wanting to travel to a country that may be affected,” said Moncrief.
The CFAR upgrade has to be purchased within 7 to 21 days of making the initial trip deposit and it will reimburse travelers for up to 75 percent of their trip cost—for a price. CFAR coverage typically costs between 5 and 10 percent of the total trip cost. To get a sense of what that means in dollars and cents, Moncrief said that so far this year, the average cost for a policy with CFAR coverage was $489, and the average cost of all policies purchased through Squaremouth was $291.
The bottom line when it comes to coronavirus concerns: Either splurge for the CFAR coverage, which will cost you but will also help you recuperate some funds if you decide to change your plans, or skip the coverage altogether because other than CFAR coverage, no other travel insurance will help if you decide to change or cancel your trip simply because you are worried about the outbreak.
To cancel or not to cancel
We empathize with travelers who are truly torn about what to do about upcoming trips. Many of us at AFAR are in a similar boat as we look at the travel plans ahead of us. Here are some of the actions and insights we can recommend. Do ample research on the destination. Look on the World Health Organization’s coronavirus landing page to see whether there are coronavirus cases in the destination you are heading to and where those cases in fact are (for instance, in Italy, the majority of coronavirus cases have been reported in the Lombardy region in the north). Look specifically at whether or not there have been any new cases reported. If the last new cases reported were weeks or months prior to your trip, maybe there is less cause for concern.
“It’s important to keep the headlines in perspective. The vast majority of coronavirus cases remain in China and the current travel advisories remain focused on avoiding travel to China. The latest reports show fewer than 2 percent of confirmed cases outside of China. World Health Organization officials are advising travelers to take the same precautions they would take to prevent seasonal flu,” Travel Leaders Group, a consortia of travel advisors, said in a statement to AFAR.
Ultimately, it’s an extremely personal decision and travelers will have to do whatever feels right to them.
>> Next: Can Wearing Masks Protect Travelers From Coronavirus?
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