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Travel and the Coronavirus: Answers to your top questions

If you cancel your flight, will you get your money back? Should you just stay home? Experts answer your most pressing questions

By Andrea Salcedo
Published: Mar 11, 2020

Travel and the Coronavirus: Answers to your top questions
Image: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, whether to travel, and where it’s safe to go, has become increasingly complicated. Experts say you need to stay informed. Here, their advice on some of the most pressing questions facing people who might be considering traveling.

I have a vacation planned. Is it safe to go?

This is up to you, experts said.

“People need to make an individual decision at this point, weighing the risks and benefits,” said Scott Weisenberg, an infectious disease doctor at New York University School of Medicine, and director of the university’s Travel Medicine Program.

Weisenberg said travelers should consult with a health care provider and monitor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for the most up-to-date travel notices before making a decision. The CDC has recommended travelers avoid “all nonessential travel” to destinations with Level 3 travel notices. These countries include: China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.

If you are an older adult or you have a chronic medical condition, the CDC is advising you to avoid visiting Japan, which now has a Level 2 travel health notice.

If you are thinking about boarding a cruise, the CDC recommends that travelers defer those plans — especially if they have an underlying health condition. Cruises group large numbers of people in very close proximity, which “promotes the spread of respiratory viruses, such as the virus that causes COVID-19,” according to the agency’s website.

“For people who are at a higher risk, they should really think carefully about what is the risk of the coronavirus in the area that they are going to,” Weisenberg said.

If I cancel my flight, will I get my money back?

It depends. Typically, you would have to at least pay a cancellation fee or booking penalty if you did not buy a fully refundable ticket, which is usually more expensive.

But the coronavirus has hit airlines hard, and many, including Delta, United and American, are loosening their booking policies and suspending cancellation or rescheduling fees.

“At the moment, the airlines are being very helpful,” said Jonathan Breeze, chief executive of AardvarkCompare Travel Insurance, a travel insurance company. “These are not normal circumstances and the airlines are seeing that people are not booking flights, so airlines are offering commercial flexibility.”

I can’t get my airline on the phone, what should I do?

“Obviously, the 800 numbers are overwhelmed,” said Michael Holtz, the founder and chief executive of SmartFlyer, a luxury travel agency. “Because of the coronavirus and the news, things have just spiraled out of control and a lot of people have questions.”

On Tuesday, many of the major airlines in the United States informed travelers that they could expect longer wait times to speak to a customer service agent.

“We are receiving more calls than we typically do and your hold time may be longer than usual,” a United recorded message said. The wait time was 90 minutes.

Other airlines like Delta, redirected callers to their websites and their apps, where they could find more information about rescheduling or canceling flights, a recorded message instructed. American had the option to leave your contact information for an agent to call you back in the next two hours, the longest you could hold your place in line.

Holtz said the airlines’ websites and apps are travelers’ fastest way to answer their questions or change their travel plans.

“My advice is to use technology,” Holtz said. But in the current situation, when customer service representatives are overwhelmed, he does not recommend resorting to Twitter. “It’s not necessarily going to make things faster,” he said.

If travelers have the good fortune of having a travel agent, they should contact the agent as soon as possible, as many have direct connections with airlines, Holtz said.

What about travel insurance?

Insurance companies have very specific circumstances under which they pay out if you decide to cancel or interrupt your trip.

Choosing not to travel because you are concerned about getting infected with the coronavirus is not one of them, nor is a government advisory, said John Cook, president and chief executive of Quotewright.com, a travel insurance company.

“Those covered reasons are very specific and they do not include being fearful of being exposed to a virus and the government telling you not to travel,” Cook said.

The answer has been to buy what is called cancel-for-any-reason coverage, which costs more, but usually lets you recoup about 75% of your money, Cook said.

But that option may be disappearing. Jason Schreier, the chief executive of APRIL Travel Protection, a travel insurance company with yearly sales of more than $1.1 billion, said that his company’s sales of cancel-for-any-reason insurance had jumped 275% since the outbreak began. As of last week, APRIL stopped selling the upgraded policies, after its underwriters required the company to pull them from the market, saying that it was not meant to cover such a concentrated risk among travelers.

“We’ve never seen a spike in the any-reason purchases like we’re seeing now,” Schreier said. “It’s an unprecedented spike, which caused an unprecedented reaction.”

Other companies, like Generali and RoamRight have also stopped letting purchasers upgrade to a cancel for any reason policy, according to letters they sent to insurance agents.

But others, including Allianz Global Assistance, are going in the opposite direction and extending their coverage. Epidemics are usually not included in travel insurance coverage, but Allianz has said that for a limited time it will accommodate claims for trip cancellation and emergency medical care for travelers who become ill with the coronavirus. Those who cancel their trips to China, South Korea and the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy would also be covered, said Daniel Durazo, director of marketing and communications at Allianz Global Assistance USA.

Will I be quarantined when I come back?


If you travel to a city that does not have a large number of confirmed cases — or perhaps no cases at all — but the number of confirmed cases rapidly increases during your stay, it could affect what happens when you return home, Weisenberg said.

“You might be restricted on your re-entry,” Weisenberg said, adding that you could be asked to quarantine yourself at home, or be placed in a special facility.

Even if you are not quarantined by health officials, some companies are requiring employees who have been traveling to work remotely, he added. And things are changing rapidly.

“Those answers may vary depending on ongoing public health changes,” Weisenberg said. “Once we have widespread testing available, then it will be easier for travelers to have a better idea of what the risk is in different areas.”

Some places in the United States have declared states of emergency. Can I still travel to those places?

More than 10 states have declared a state of emergency or a public health emergency, including Washington, California, New York and Florida. As a practical matter, that does not affect travel — flights are not canceled and the CDC has not issued any travel restrictions. States of emergency are used by local and state governments to help them shift funding, as well as to have the authority to close schools and other facilities.

“You can go there,” Weisenberg said. “The main risk would be to your health.”

There could be other consequences, however. Your employer, for example, might decide that you have to self-quarantine once you have returned to your home state. Check and see what policies are in place before you travel.

Should I just stay home?

As of right now, Weisenberg cautioned travelers who might be tempted by a cheap airfare to put a lot of thought into whether they should book. Their safest option is to limit travel until the world has a better understanding of the virus, he said.

“Think it through, don’t go on a whim,” he said.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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