The 2020 coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19, has been a moving target when it comes to travel. Nobody knows how long it will continue, whether and which areas it might hit next, when and where it will plateau and start to ease off, or when the travel world might return to something like normal. The time frame for cases to begin diminishing could be anywhere from April when temperatures begin to climb (for the Northern Hemisphere, at least), to mid-summer. And even once that decrease occurs, it’s worth considering that when temperatures drop again in fall the virus could return.
The first place travelers should look to for advice on the virus as it relates to travel plans is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) via this page on destinations with COVID-19 alerts or warnings in place. It’s a good idea to bookmark it for updates as the situation changes frequently.
Governments and travel suppliers have reacted by imposing rolling responses, with new cancellations and rules changes coming every day or two. And with so many uncertainties, traveling and travel planning for the next several weeks (or possibly months) poses a major quandary for many consumers.
The Main COVID-19 Travel Dilemmas to Consider
Travelers face three main areas of risk to think about:
- Getting sick: This one is obvious. Whether you catch it before you leave home or while you’re away, being sick with serious COVID-19 is no fun. The fatality risk is small but real. Seniors and those with existing medical problems seem to be at higher risk than the general population.
- Getting quarantined: If you’re detected with the virus, you almost certainly face the possibility of immediate quarantine of up to 14 days, even with the mildest symptoms. If you’re lucky, it could be at home. But it could also place you in a strange city, or, potentially, cruise ship.
- Canceling: Changing arrangements could entail big cancellation penalties, although many airlines and hotels are currently allowing customers more flexibility to change plans than they usually do. See our sister site Airfarewatchdog’s breakdown of airlines’ waiver options during the panmic for more. Your best bet for recouping costs is “cancel for any reason” insurance purchased before COVID-19 was a known event: Read more about travel insurance terms in our Ultimate Guide to Travel Insurance here.
Much of China, Japan, and now Italy have shut down affected areas, halted at least some flights, or closed their borders entirely (in Italy’s case). There are no indications about when normal activities will resume. The U.S. State Department currently assigns level four status (do not travel) for China, and level three (reconsider travel) for Italy, Mongolia, and South Korea. The State Department also recently said Americans “should not travel by cruise ship.”
Outside those areas, some individual cities and areas have taken actions that effectively work to deter tourism: Paris briefly shut down the Louvre, and many large public gatherings throughout Europe and the U.S.—including international conferences and meetings—have been canceled or postponed. In Asia, authorities are considering canceling or postponing the Tokyo Olympics along with other meetings and conferences—multiple cherry blossom festivals have been canceled. In Israel, 14-day quarantines have been mandated for anyone entering the country. India has halted all visa requests as of March 11.
Travel Industry Responses to COVID-19
The airlines are playing their cards very close: If an airline cancels your flight(s), no matter what the airline proposes, you can get a full refund on any ticket (see our guide to air passenger rights here). But if you have a ticket for a future flight that is not canceled or you haven’t yet bought a ticket, most major domestic and international airlines are offering some combination of postponement and refund options. Again, see our sister site Airfarewatchdog’s breakdown of airlines’ waiver options during the pandemic for more. Generally, the options include:
- Waiving change penalties for existing tickets—but in many cases, only for flights scheduled within a few weeks.
- Waiving change penalties for newly booked tickets, with booking time frames ranging from a few weeks to a full year.
- Rebooking a ticketed itinerary with no change in fares, but usually for rescheduled departures within a month or two.
- Rebooking a ticketed itinerary with no change penalty, but at then-current fares, for up to a year.
These deadlines are rolling; they’ll change from week to week and day to day depending on how the pandemic progresses.
Most cruise lines are offering refunds on departures within a few months, for both existing and new bookings, in the form of credits toward a future cruise within a year or through 2021. They’ve rescheduled cruises away from high-risk ports and high-risk areas, and they’re offering substantial incentives, such as daily cash credits, to travelers who stick with current bookings. See our sister site Cruise Critic’s guide to cancellations for more.
So far, I’ve seen only three responses from the major hotel chains: Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham. Presumably, other chains will likely follow. Travelers who booked through travel agencies will need to go through those agencies for refunds.
What to Do About Travel Plans During COVID-19
If you haven’t yet made any payments and set up any firm arrangements for a spring or summer trip, one obvious choice is to refrain until the picture clarifies. Given the elevated chance of complications for older COVID-19 victims, if you’re 65 or over, and especially if you have an existing medical condition, according to the CDC it’s smart to wait out new COVID-19 developments at home.
If you decide to travel despite the pandemic, you can protect yourself physically by taking CDC advice about hand washing, general hygiene, and avoiding crowds. You can protect yourself financially by:
- Avoiding as many nonrefundable bookings as possible—or at least making sure that any such bookings are with suppliers that have agreed to waive change penalties. Among other things, that means book direct rather than through agencies. That strategy works pretty well for hotels, but not air tickets. Refundable fares are usually a lot more costly than nonrefundable ones these days.
- Decoding your travel insurance: With nonrefundable air tickets, your recourse is either to rely on the airline’s generosity (not a very good bet) or buying cancel-for-any-reason insurance. But buying insurance now, after the pandemic has become widespread, is tricky: Most travel insurance policies won’t cover cancellation due to fear of an pandemic, so if you want to use insurance to protect your payments—particularly nonrefundable airfares—make sure it’s a “cancel for any reason” policy. Most policies exclude “foreseeable” contingencies, and the coronavirus is nothing if not very foreseen by now. Check any policy carefully before you buy to make sure it will really cover your financial risk, and don’t be afraid to ask the insurance company for help deciphering the terms.
- Considering the possibility of a 14-day quarantine: Take enough of your necessary medications to cover an unexpected/extended time away from home, or at least arrange for somebody at home to be able to send you what you need if you’re delayed.
If you can’t use or don’t like the refund/reschedule options your suppliers offer, your rights to legal recourse are limited:
- Airline: If your airline’s offer doesn’t work for you, but your flight is still currently scheduled to operate, wait until a week or so before scheduled departure. If the airline cancels any ticketed flight, you can likely get a full refund.
- Hotels: If you have a prepaid hotel, your best bet is to wait for the hotel to set a policy. You have essentially no legal and easily enforceable right.
- Cruises: As with hotels, cruise passengers have very few enforceable legal rights. You’re pretty much limited by what the cruiselines offer.
- Travel insurance: If you bought travel insurance before your insurance company’s stated date for the outbreak—January 21 through 27, for most companies—you’re probably due the full benefits of your policy. If not, your recovery is likely to be limited. Check your policy to see just what it covers, and figure you won’t get any more than that.
In general, any refund you’re due should typically come from the agency where you made your arrangements. Getting refunds from some suppliers may be tough—especially those in foreign countries that don’t have a presence in the U.S. or Canada. Don’t be surprised if you lose some money when you cancel. But that loss might be better than the risk of traveling for some—it’s ultimately up to you to weigh the stakes.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.