Famous for all the wrong reasons, the novel coronavirus has unfortunately taken the world by storm. Originating in Wuhan, China, there are 90,000+ confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and growing. More than 65 countries have reported infected citizens, and there have been over 3,000 deaths.
A large share of travelers who had planned their vacations abroad in the first part of 2020 are now cancelling those trips due to fear of contracting COVID-19 — and you may be wondering if you should do the same.
Coronaviruses are nothing new. They’re the reason for respiratory tract illnesses such as the common cold. You may have experienced a coronavirus if you’ve ever had a fever, cough, headache, or sore throat. It’s called “corona” because it resembles a crown under a microscope.
However, COVID-19 is more serious than a simple cold. The contagion is not believed to be as deadly as the 2003 SARS outbreak, but the disease’s impact has eclipsed that of the SARS epidemic many times over and the travel industry has been rattled. Popular squares are desolate, cruise ships quarantined, restaurants deserted, and factories have closed in areas where the coronavirus has been concentrated, such as Italy, South Korea, and (of course) China.
Many airlines, hotels and trains have offered travelers free change fees if their plans had them traveling to certain affected locations. The 2020 Summer Olympics may be cancelled. The Professional Golf Association has postponed its golf tournament in China by two months. The stock market hasn’t suffered this much since the 2008 financial crisis. Even the release of the latest James Bond movie has been delayed by seven months.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at this new coronavirus, and examine the precautions you should take if you have travel plans — including how to decide whether to go or stay.
What is the new coronavirus (COVID-19)?
COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new respiratory virus and varies dramatically in severity (similar to the flu). It can cause cold-like symptoms such as a sore throat and runny nose, but it can also cause labored breathing and even pneumonia.
Whether the new coronavirus prefers certain hosts is still unclear — thus far it appears to be an equal-opportunity offender. However, the majority of deaths have occurred with older adults who already struggle with their health, not unlike any other respiratory virus. You’ll notice the pervasiveness of surgical masks among those in affected areas. That’s because the virus is most easily spread through coughs and sneezes, though you may also acquire it by touching contaminated items. Vigorous and frequent hand-washing is one of the best measures you can take to protect yourself from illness.
What if I need to cancel or rebook my trip?
You may discover that your travel itinerary has been canceled or changed regardless of your feelings about the coronavirus. Select flights are being temporarily discontinued. A number of cruise lines have canceled or changed 100+ trips across the Pacific and completely halted any voyages to China. Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Crystal Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Holland America and Princess Cruises are among popular cruise lines that have canceled trips for months to come. The Diamond Princess, a vessel belonging to Princess Cruises, was quarantined in Japan for two weeks after the coronavirus was discovered aboard. More than 600 travelers were diagnosed with the illness.
While this certainly sounds alarming, you’ll find that being afraid to travel is not a covered reason that will allow you to request a refund with most travel companies. If you’re not traveling to an infected area, but would like to play it safe until the coronavirus has been extinguished, you’ll likely have to eat the cost of your nonrefundable travel.
However, depending on your planned destination, airline, hotel and cruise companies may be quick to offer you an out. Japan and Iran are under a Level 2 travel warning from the U.S. government, and Italy, South Korea and China are under a Level 3 warning. As the coronavirus continues to spread, more airlines and hotels have extended the time frame for reduced/waived fees for passengers to change or cancel their travel reservations.
Many Chinese airlines have offered full refunds for travel within China, including:
- Air China
- Cathay Pacific
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Hainan Airlines
- Xiamen Air
Several U.S. airlines currently offer a window of waived change/cancellation fees, including:
- Alaska Airlines
- Change/cancellation fees waived for tickets purchased on or before February 26, 2020, for travel through March 31, 2020. You can rebook for travel up to February 28, 2021, or receive credit in your Alaska Airlines account. Award flights fully refunded for free
- One-time change fee waived for flights booked between February 27 and March 31, 2020
- American Airlines
- Change fees waived for flights reserved on or before February 29, 2020, for travel through April 30, 2020. You can rebook for travel up to December 31, 2020 (you’ll have to pay difference in fare)
- Change fees waived for flights reserved from March 1, 2020, at 5:30 pm Eastern Time through March 4, 2020. Must change your flight at least 14 days before travel. Award tickets not eligible
- Change fees waived for flights reserved between March 5 and March 31, 2020 (you’ll have to pay difference in fare). Award tickets not eligible
- One-time change fee waived for flights reserved on or before March 9, 2020, for travel through April 30, 2020. You can rebook for travel through December 31, 2020 (you’re still responsible for difference in fare)
- One-time change fee waived for flights reserved in March 2020 — you can rebook for travel through February 28, 2021 (again, you’re responsible for difference in fare)
- Change fees waived for flights purchased between March 3 and 16, 2020, for travel by June 1, 2020 (you are responsible for difference in fare). You may also cancel your flight and receive a credit that expires in 90 days
- Receive a refund in the form of JetBlue credit for flights reserved between February 27 and March 5, 2020, for travel by June 1, 2020. Credit expires one year after deposit date
- Receive a refund in the form of JetBlue credit for flights reserved between March 6 and 31, 2020, for travel by September 8, 2020. Award flights and taxes will be completely refunded
- Change fees waived for flights reserved before March 10, 2020, for travel through April 30, 2020. You can change your travel to dates through October 24, 2020, or you can request a refund in the form of JetBlue credit (expires one year after deposit date). You’re responsible for difference in fare
- Change fees waived, or request a credit for future flights
- United Airlines
- Change fees waived for flights booked on or before March 2, 2020, for travel through April 30, 2020. You can rebook for travel through December 31, 2020. You are responsible for the difference in fare, but if the new fare costs less than your booking, you’ll receive a travel voucher
- Change fees waived for flights booked between March 3 and 31, 2020, for travel within one year. You will be responsible for difference in fare, but will not be refunded if your new flights cost less
In addition, Amtrak will waive change/cancellation fees for trips made through April 30, 2020.
Updated March 11, 2020
Major hotel chains also offer some form of waived fees:
- Marriott– Waived cancellation fees through March 31, 2020, for stays in Mainland China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Macau Special Administrative Region, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Italy
- IHG– Waived cancellation fees for stays in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea and Italy scheduled before March 31, 2020
- Hilton– Waived change/cancellation fees for stays in China, South Korea or Saudi Arabia scheduled before March 31, 2020
- Hyatt– Waived cancellation fees for stays through March 31, 2020 for stays in the Greater China region, Japan, South Korea and Italy
- Accor– Waived change/cancellation fees for stays in Mainland China, Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR and Taiwan scheduled on or before March 31, 2020
- Wyndham– Waived change/cancellation fees for direct bookings for stays in Greater China, South Korea and Italy scheduled through March 31, 2020
Be sure to monitor these policies, as they seem to change daily. With the generous offers above, it can certainly still be worth booking a flight or keeping your hotel reservation for the time being while you optimistically monitor the coronavirus outbreak. You’ve got nothing to lose for speculatively booking, as many reservations are completely refundable.
Even if your vacation is outside major travel companies, be sure to ask for special circumstances due to the coronavirus. MMS editor Liz has a sister who’s booked into a Caribbean timeshare next month. Her window for rebooking is closed, but the company is making exceptions, providing her the opportunity to push her reservation up to a year in advance.
Protections for travel credit card holders
The best travel insurance credit cards come with trip delay and cancellation protection baked into their valuable suite of benefits. They assist with unexpected illness or injury, or if another unforeseen circumstance pops up at the last minute. You’ll be covered for things like:
- Inclement weather
- Jury duty
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers reimbursement of up to $10,000 per person ($20,000 per trip) for prepaid expenses such as airfare and hotels. You and immediate family traveling with you are covered. However, there are plenty of instances that aren’t covered, such as injury due to negligence, preexisting conditions and war. As you may guess, fear of the coronavirus is not listed as a covered reason. Nonrefundable expenses won’t be covered, even if your reservations are canceled.
(If you are sequestered for health reasons, you may be covered by your travel credit card — but you must in fact be infected with the virus.)
Will independent travel insurance cover me?
Many people may have purchased independent travel insurance for just such a disaster. However, be prepared for disappointment unless you’ve purchased an expensive plan such as one that allows you to cancel your tickets for any reason, or for work-related reasons. Often the insurance company requires you purchase this option a significant amount of time before your planned travel, or soon after your initial travel booking. These plans can easily cost more than 10% of the price of your covered travel.
Should I still take my trip if I am traveling to a “safe” destination?
Even if you have no intention of visiting a country with an issued coronavirus warning, you may wonder if you should postpone your travel or continue with business as usual. The answer is entirely up to your gut, though there are a few things to consider before changing your plans.
First, consider your connections. Just because your destination city isn’t on high coronavirus alert doesn’t mean you won’t visit airports near infected areas. The more connections you have, the more likely you are to encounter other travelers who have crossed paths with the virus.
Second, realize that travelers may find themselves under strict quarantine protocols when traveling to or from your destination. Newly-affected areas have been appearing suddenly and unexpectedly. The U.S. has implemented screening at 11 ports of entry, where arrivals are screened to ensure they show no indications of having the new coronavirus. While most passengers who test negative are given the responsibility to continue to self-monitor for two weeks, those coming from China’s Hubei province are being automatically quarantined for two weeks.
As a preventative measure, consider bringing extra necessities during your trip, such as medication and work supplies, in case you’re segregated for an extended period of time.
What to do to stay safe during your travels
While most preventative measures are common sense, it’s worth reiterating that to minimize chances of contracting the coronavirus, you should be washing your hands often. Sanitize your seats on the airplane, at the airport and on the train, along with frequently-used handles like those at your hotel room, in your cruise cabin and elsewhere. Alcohol-based sanitizer works like a charm.
Not much else has proven effective against the illness. Surgical masks don’t do much against the disease, as they aren’t designed to filter germs as small as the coronavirus. (They may slow down the spread of the illness if those already infected are wearing them, but those not infected likely won’t benefit from wearing a mask themselves.)
Take precautions around hyper-public areas like airport terminals, buses, taxis, trains and airplanes. Don’t touch your face until you’ve washed your hands after commuting on these forms of transportation.
If you feel symptoms of the cold or flu, don’t panic. Travel is hard on the body, and sickness isn’t uncommon. If you begin aching or coughing, or if you experience fever, stay away from other travelers as best you can and pop a surgical mask on as courtesy to everyone else. You’ll do yourself a favor, and many countless other travelers, too.
There are ways to travel cautiously and minimize your chances of contracting COVID-19. Steer clear of countries like Italy and South Korea, which have been flagged as hotbeds for the virus. Minimize your connections to and from your destination to reduce your chance of rubbing shoulders with anyone who may have come into contact with the virus. And wash your hands and sanitize your surroundings often — never touch your face after handling a tray table, hand rail, etc.
You can follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for daily updates about the coronavirus. This is the best way to stay up to date with current threat levels, and help you decide where and where not to globetrot.