Coronavirus & travel plans: What to know

by Hanna Horvath
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Coronavirus & travel plans: What to know

A primer on restrictions, refunds and travel insurance in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

You’ve probably heard of the coronavirus by now. The virus, which causes respiratory symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath, was first identified in Wuhan, China. It has infected more than 87,000 people and killed over 2,800, according to the World Health Organization.

The outbreak has disrupted the global economy, but has also impacted the travel industry — making people think twice before boarding planes or buying tickets for future trips. U.S. health officials are on alert for anyone showing symptoms and some tourists returning from certain countries have been detained, the WHO reports.

The idea of sitting in an enclosed space with potentially sick passengers is causing many travelers to stay home. Here are some precautions to take if you’re traveling in the near future.

How to stay safe while traveling

While it’s still not entirely clear how coronavirus is spread, travelers should take the same precautions they would take with the flu, said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert in Berkley, CA.

“If you’re in a situation where you’re in crowds or in close proximity to other people, the chances of being exposed to the virus are much greater,” he said. “Travel, and especially air travel, fulfills that criteria. You have no idea who’s sitting next to you, or who’s in the plane with you.”

Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face with unwashed hands. Carry hand sanitizer with you while you travel, and wipe down everything you come in contact with, like tray tables and bathroom door handles. If you’re traveling, prepare ahead. Pack extra medications or essentials in case your trip is unintentionally extended. Avoid anyone who is coughing or sneezing, Swartzberg said.

If you’re feeling sick before you travel, do not go. It’s better to be safe than sorry (and quarantined).

“If you can change your travel plans, I would do so,” Swartzberg said. “At least until we understand the risk better.”

Could I get a refund for my travel plans?

Travel restrictions are in place for China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan. Travelers can stay up-to-date on future restrictions on the CDC’s website.

Airlines are beginning to address traveler concerns by waiving fees or, in some cases, issuing refunds. Here is a breakdown of the major U.S. airlines that have suspended or reduced routes, as of March 4.

  • American Airlines: Offering waived change fees for flights to Italy, South Korea, Hong Kong and China. Valid for those who book flights between March 1 and 31, for travel through June 30.
  • JetBlue Airways: Offering waived change fees for any flight booked between Feb. 27 and March 31, for travel completed by September 8. The airline is also offering travel credits for those who cancel their flights, valid for one year.
  • Alaska Airlines: Suspending change and cancellation fees for those who purchased tickets between Feb. 27 and March 31 for travel through February 28, 2021. Travelers who cancel will receive their money back in travel credits.
  • United Airlines: Full refunds are provided to those traveling to Wuhan, China. Change fees and fare differences are waived for flights to China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Northern Italy, and any flight booked between March 1 and March 31.
  • Delta Air Lines: Offering waived change fees for passengers flying to Beijing, Shanghai, Incheon, South Korea and Italy. Fare differences may apply. Waived fees apply only to travel days through April 30. Travelers can also cancel their trip and use that value toward the purchase of a new ticket.

These numbers are being continuously updated. Check back to stay abreast of changes.

Even if you’re not flying to one of these places, it doesn’t hurt to call your airline and ask about their rescheduling policy.

Will travel insurance cover a cancellation?

All travel insurance providers now consider coronavirus a “foreseen event”. This means travelers can no longer purchase trip cancellation benefits for that event, said Kasara Barto, spokeswoman for Squaremouth, a travel insurance company.

Some providers are still offering medical benefits for travelers who contract coronavirus during their trip. Coverage varies by provider.

The only insurance policy that may still financially protect you is the ‘cancel for any reason’ policy, which is typically more expensive than regular travel insurance policies and will only reimburse you for a portion of your losses, said Barto. This policy can typically only be purchased within 14 to 21 days of booking.

You may also be able to purchase additional coverage for things like travel delays and baggage loss in the event coronavirus impacts your trip.

If you already have travel insurance for your trip, you won’t be covered unless coronavirus was specifically listed in your policy as a “covered” event. Viral outbreaks are typically not covered. If you cancel your trip due to coronavirus fears, your travel insurance policy will likely not cover you, said Barto.

Trip cancellation may be covered by travel insurance if you’re sick beforeyou travel. Your illness must be considered disabling enough to make a reasonable person cancel their trip and if you have a doctor’s note. If you contract the virus while traveling, you may be covered for medical expenses, depending on the provider. Read through your policy carefully and contact your provider to learn more.

Check out this guide to read more about what travel insurance does and does not cover.

Image: Michele Constantini