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coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 in airports. Quarantine and protective measures to stop the spread of the virus around the world.
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Travel in the Time of COVID-19—What You Need to Know

SmarterTravel

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 is unknown. And even once a decrease occurs, it’s worth considering that 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 rule changes coming every day or two. And with the U.S. State Department assigning a Global Level 4 Health Advisory (do not travel), existing travel plans for the next several weeks (or possibly months) poses a major quandary for many consumers.

SmarterTravel.com and its sister sites are regularly updating the following resource guides to travel companies’ COVID-19 responses:

The Main COVID-19 Travel Dilemmas to Consider

Travelers face three main areas of risk to think about:

  • Getting quarantined: If you need to travel, you almost certainly face the possibility of immediate quarantine of up to 14 days. If you’re lucky, it could be at home. But it could also place you in a strange city. U.S. citizens returning home from affected areas are being funneled to 13 airports where they will be screened and then asked to self quarantine.

Many countries have halted at least some flights, or closed their borders entirely. There are no indications about when normal activities will resume. The U.S. State Department currently assigns a Global Level Four Health Advisory (do not travel) for all international travel. The State Department also recently said Americans “should not travel by cruise ship.”

Many areas have taken actions that effectively work to deter tourism. Large public gatherings throughout Europe and the U.S.—including international conferences and meetings—have been canceled or postponed. Restaurants have been forced to close in many U.S. states. Authorities are considering canceling or postponing the Tokyo Olympics. Outside of Asia and Europe other countries are following suit: In Israel, 14-day quarantines have been mandated for anyone entering the country. India has halted all visa requests as of March 11. The list could go on: Check the State Department alert for any country you have travel planned to, and enroll in State Department STEP Alerts to receive updated information.

Travel Industry Responses to COVID-19

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 for canceling airfare will 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, or credits toward a future cruise within a year or through 2021. See our sister site Cruise Critic’s guide to cancellations for more.

Major hotel chains Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Choice, and Wyndham are refunding travelers and waiving change fees. Travelers who booked through third-party online travel agencies (OTAs) will need to go through those agencies for refunds. Travelers who booking through independent hotel-type properties will need to go to those properties 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. 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 need to travel, even domestically, 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; that loss might be better than the risk of traveling.

More from SmarterTravel:

Stay safe and healthy this travel season with the following recommended travel gear:

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.

Editor’s note: This story is updating as new information becomes available and is current as of the publish date.

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