Hoo boy. It seems like just a few days ago, this pesky little coronavirus was China’s problem. In the span of a few weeks, the coronavirus has exploded all over the world and is currently present in varying degrees of severity in over 60 countries. What does this mean for travel and how can you protect yourself financially in the event of coronavirus-related travel cancellations?
Don’t get suckered into cheap fares
The coronavirus has put the entire world on edge and it’s seriously affecting the travel industry. That’s why a lot of airlines are slashing their prices, especially to suddenly unappealing routes. Just remember that those routes are unappealing for a reason. You probably don’t want to go to South Korea or have a flight connection in Milan and risk getting stuck in one of the latest coronavirus hot spots. So if you didn’t already have a flight booked, you may want to think twice about snatching up those low fares you’re seeing. Based on what we’ve seen over the past two months, the situation can only get worse before it gets better.
What happens to flights you had booked in advance?
The answer to that depends on who is doing the cancellation. Many countries around the world are enacting temporary travel bans to nations and areas they consider risky. That means flights to China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea, among others are likely to be cancelled. Even countries that have not been severely affected, like Thailand, are seeing travel bans because other countries don’t consider they’re doing a good enough job of limiting travel from affected areas. If an airline can no longer fly you into a country because of travel restrictions, you should have no problem getting a refund or getting rebooked for another date or another destination.
However, the story is a lot different if you choose not to fly for any reason related to the coronavirus. If you booked a non-refundable fare and you’re potentially sick or don’t want to fly for fear of getting or spreading coronavirus, then the airline doesn’t really have a legitimate reason to give you any money back. At that point, cancelling your flight is a personal choice, and it would be out of the kindness of the airline’s heart to refund you. If baggage fees are any indication, most airlines are not so kind.
Will travel insurance help?
I’ve seen a lot of misguided articles online suggesting that you can protect yourself financially by getting travel insurance. But if you read the fine print, most travel insurance companies exclude issues related to contagious disease, pandemics, epidemics, and in some cases, even to government regulations. What does this mean for you? Basically, the second the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency at the end of January, your travel insurance may have become void for any coronavirus-related cancellations. This is for the same reason that most travel insurance policies don’t cover extreme sports or safaris. If you put yourself in a situation that you know to be inherently risky (like traveling to a country that has a coronavirus outbreak), that’s your problem. The situation can only get worse if WHO declares a coronavirus pandemic.
To protect yourself, you have to get very familiar with your travel insurance policy to ensure it would cover the kinds of costs you might incur from a coronavirus-related cancellation. In many cases, you may have to pay extra for a cancel-for-any-reason policy which doesn’t have many stipulations. You could simply decide not to go. However some of these policies only reimburse you for a percentage of the amount you spent on non-refundable costs. You must read the fine print.
Consider the costs of testing and quarantine
A lot of people think about the possibility of being quarantined on a cruise ship or a hotel as a huge inconvenience. Depending on where you are, this could also be a huge financial cost for you. Don’t take my word for it. A Pennsylvania man living in China accepted the US government’s offer to evacuate him and his daughter from Wuhan. They spent two weeks in quarantine in San Diego despite repeatedly testing negative for the virus. After being cleared and arriving home, they were met with hospital bills totaling almost $4000. This is just one example of what are undoubtedly thousands of people living in financial uncertainty because of the coronavirus.
Different countries might have different guidelines about who is financially liable for medical care in the event of an outbreak. There’s also a huge range in what healthcare costs around the world. Some countries like Japan offer coronavirus testing for free, but in others, you might face several hundred dollars in emergency room and lab fees. Navigating these differences probably involves doing the kind of research you don’t normally do when you’re traveling, like what are the country’s healthcare laws regarding pandemics.
Protect yourself by booking with free cancellation
Part of what makes travel possible is that it’s cheap. If we could all afford to buy a full-fare refundable flight, which is sometimes more expensive than flying business class, then we probably wouldn’t care about losing a few hundred bucks on coronavirus-related travel cancellations. However, if you’re thinking about traveling during a full-blown coronavirus outbreak, you may want to insure yourself by booking a refundable flight. Most other travel expenses like hotels and car rentals can usually be booked with free cancellation at no extra charge. At this time, it’s imperative that you do so.
Maybe just stay home instead
Perhaps the best way to protect yourself from financial loss due to coronavirus-related cancellations is to not spend any money booking travel right now. I’ve seen a lot of stubborn people complaining about how the media is sensationalizing this and how they’re healthy so if they get a little coronavirus, it doesn’t matter. That may be true. But even if it doesn’t cost you your life, that doesn’t mean coronavirus can’t cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars and a couple of weeks of work if you end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Just ask the people on the Diamond Princess.
You don’t even have to be quarantined because of the coronavirus for it to ruin your trip. A lot of countries are enacting closures on public places like bars, shutting down popular tourist attractions like Disney, the Louvre, and the Great Wall and cancelling large gatherings like music festivals, Carnival parades and the Cherry Blossom Festival. Even if your vacation goes off without a hitch, it might not be the vacation you hoped it would be. Your flight to Paris doesn’t have to be cancelled for you to feel like you wasted your money because you couldn’t visit the Eiffel Tower or any of the museums.
Lastly, though no less important, even if you’re the picture of health and you’re convinced your immune system could fight this off in 12 hours, by traveling unnecessarily, you’re also potentially spreading it to others who might not be so healthy. The Czech Republic had zero cases of coronavirus up until yesterday. Now there are four, all people who came from Italy. Those people might be okay, but the girl from Milan who showed up to a hospital without requesting proper transport could have already spread it to sick people and older folks, and maybe they won’t be okay. A man from Italy was also reported as being the first coronavirus case in Nigeria – a country hardly equipped to be able to handle a large-scale coronavirus outbreak. Perhaps this is a good time to ask ourselves, are we being unnecessarily selfish and irresponsible by traveling?