The 2020 coronavirus, or COVID-19 pandemic, 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 often. 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:
- SmarterTravel’s guide to 14 OTA Booking Sites’ COVID-19 Cancellation Responses
- Airfarewatchdog’s COVID-19 Flight Waivers and Refund Policies by Airline
- Oyster’s COVID-19 Hotel Cancellation Policies and Closures
- Family Vacation Critic’s COVID-19 Refund Policies by Vacation Rental Website
- Cruise Critic’s COVID-19 Cruise Ship Policies and Cancellations
- Tripadvisor (our parent company) offers COVID-19 travel information here
- If you still need to travel, here are 8 Major Travel Companies Offering Flexible Hotel and Air Bookings for COVID-19
The Main COVID-19 Travel Dilemmas to Consider
Travelers face three main areas of risk to think about:
- Getting sick: This one is obvious. Whether you catch it before you leave home or while you’re away, being sick with serious COVID-19 is no fun. The fatality risk is small but real. Seniors and those with existing medical problems seem to be at higher risk than the general population. TSA is changing its liquid limits on hand sanitizers for those who need to fly. Here’s what airlines and hotels are changing about cleaning processes during COVID-19.
- 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.
- Canceling: Changing arrangements could entail big cancellation penalties, although many airlines and hotels are currently allowing customers more flexibility to change plans than they usually do. However, the Department of Transportation recently issued a warning to airlines that were not refunding travelers for canceled flights. See Airfarewatchdog’s breakdown of airlines’ waiver options during the pandemic for more on which airlines have been issuing refunds. Your best bet for recouping costs outside of the company you booked with is “cancel for any reason” insurance purchased before COVID-19 was a known event: Read more about travel insurance terms in our Ultimate Guide to Travel Insurance here. Read more about cancel for any reason insurance here.
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 said Americans “should not travel by cruise ship.”
Many areas have taken actions that effectively work to deter tourism. Large public gatherings have been canceled or postponed, including the Tokyo Olympics. In many places, 14-day quarantines have been mandated for anyone entering the country; some nations have halted all visa requests. 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 often.
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.
Deadlines for making such changes are rolling; they’ll change from week to week and month to month depending on how the pandemic progresses. 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 likely need to go through those agencies’ websites or help lines for refunds. Travelers who booked through independent hotel-type properties will need to go to those properties for refunds. See our guide to which hotels (and airlines) are changing their points and loyalty membership terms to accommodate the pandemic.
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/or 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, wearing a mask, employing general hygiene like washing your hands often, 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.
- Doing as much as you can to stay informed: If you’re outside the country, register with the State Department’s STEP program early on. And no matter where you travel, keep up with the latest news on the road with news alerts and bookmarked resources like the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) travel pages.
- 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’re entitled to 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 cruise lines 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:
- 10 Eerily Beautiful Photos of Empty World Cities
- 11 Books We’re Reading to Inspire Future Travels
- 7 Bad Travel Habits and How to Quit Them
Stay safe and healthy this travel season with the following recommended travel gear:
Traveling? Consider Bringing These:
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.