March 9, 2020 -- Johnny “Jet” DiScala, a veteran travel blogger and influencer based in Los Angeles, decided to celebrate turning 50 by splurging on an 8-day around-the-world trip. He’d planned to meet his best friend in Europe last month, and they’d fly together to Singapore, then go on to Bangkok and Hong Kong for a few days before returning to the U.S.
They had already bought nonrefundable business-class tickets with a mix of cash and frequent flyer miles. But in January, they heard news reports about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, followed by confirmed cases in the Asian countries they planned to visit.
The two friends, who have young children at home, began to reconsider going to Asia. DiScala reached out to his blog readers and Facebook followers and asked them whether he should cancel his trip.
“I was amazed by how many people said I should not go, including airline executives and friends based in Asia,” he says.
Many other travelers who are booking trips or have booked trips with travel advisers are also wondering whether it is safe to go and whether they should cancel their trip.
“It’s up to the individual traveler to make that decision, depending on their risk tolerance and hopefully with objective third-party information from the CDC and State Department. The message to travelers is that it depends on many variables, including their health condition, their destination, and time of year,” says Erika Richter, senior director of communications for the American Society of Travel Advisors.
The timing of the trip matters, she says. “If someone is planning a trip in 2 weeks on spring break to an impacted area of Europe, they will have a different discussion with their family, friends, or travel adviser than if they are going to Europe 6 months from now.”
Because spring break and summer vacations are fairly set travel periods, there will “certainly be travelers who continue to move forward, given the time and investment they’ve made,” says Richter. But she cautioned that it’s premature to know the full impact of the coronavirus epidemic on spring break travel.
Jay Shabat, senior analyst and lead writer for Skift Airline Weekly, doesn’t anticipate that the coronavirus will have much impact on domestic spring break travel to Florida or the Caribbean, but the cruise industry has had a lot of cancellations. (The U.S. State Department has now urged Americans not to travel by cruise ship.)
“There are many more cancellations and no-shows on longer-haul international flights -- East Asia for sure, and increasingly Europe, Mideast, India and Australia,” he says in an email.
DiScala and his buddy canceled their worldwide trip on Jan. 31 and contacted the airlines to request refunds and credit for unused frequent flyer miles.
How the Airlines Responded
At first, American Airlines didn’t refund DiScala’s canceled flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles because it was still operating in early February. DiScala, who has Executive Platinum member status, says, “I was shocked because I fly over 100,000 miles with American annually and spend more than $15,000 on flights. Hong Kong was also a hot spot.”
But when DiScala took his frustration to Twitter, where he has 123,000 followers, American quickly gave him the refund. “I suspect it was because I have a large social media following. They should do this for everyone,” he says.
Finnair also first refused to refund his ticket from London to Singapore via Helsinki because DiScala wasn’t going to China. But when he emailed Finnair about his concerns, an executive agreed to make an exception and refund the fare. It was much easier getting American Airlines and its partner Cathay Pacific to redeposit his unused frequent flyer miles and refund the taxes he paid.
DiScala says that if he had waited a few more weeks, American Airlines would have given him a refund when it suspended its flights from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. He also says Delta granted his friend a full refund for his ticket to Europe from the United States.
“I think all the airlines should give passengers a refund if they change their minds about traveling to the coronavirus hot spots. In addition, the airlines should give passengers a travel voucher good for 1 year and waive the change fee if people change their minds about traveling to other destinations,” he says.
More Flexible Policies
With each passing day, more and more airlines are making cuts to schedules, budgets, and more. AirAsia, a low-cost carrier based in Malaysia, recently announced an all-you-can fly pass for selected routes. “As for U.S. carriers, none have released any hard data, but most are now telling people they can book without worrying about cancellation or change fees if they decide later not to travel,” says Shabat.
Major U.S. carriers -- American, United, and Delta, as well as Alaska Airlines and JetBlue -- have announced they will suspend change fees for a limited time for passengers anxious about committing to their travel plans. United, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue have also waived cancellation fees for a limited time, but there may be some restrictions.
On March 2, British Airways announced it would waive fees for customers changing flights, in an attempt to boost public confidence for future bookings, according to The Guardian newspaper.
The airlines have had a wave of cancellations that track with the coronavirus hot spots. “Things are changing by the day, but so far, what we've seen is an extreme demand collapse in China initially. In February, Chinese airlines operated about 80% fewer flights than the same month last year. International demand to China basically fell to zero for carriers like United,” says Shabat.
The outbreak then began to affect airlines flying to nearby markets in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Then last month, it spread to Italy. American and Delta suspended flights temporarily to Milan after the U.S. State Department issued level-3 warning against nonessential travel to Italy, and a level 4 for northern Italy in late February. Delta is also delaying its flights to Venice until after May 1. Italy now has more than 7,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, placing it behind China and South Korea.
Demand for Travel Insurance Surges
Travelers are also buying more insurance to cope with doubts brought by the coronavirus epidemic. “We have seen a 208% surge in demand for travel insurance from Jan. 21 to Feb. 26 compared to the previous 5-week period,” says Kasara Barto, a spokesperson at Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison website.
The demand has dramatically increased for the optional “cancel for any reason” upgrades on standard policies because that is the only way to cover a viral outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic. Standard travel insurance policies will cover most other types of events, including bad weather, hurricanes, and illness, but not viral outbreaks like COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus
The cost is 40% more than a standard insurance policy. For example, a quote on squaremouth.com shows that a standard comprehensive travel insurance policy, including trip cancellation for a $3,500, one-week trip for a 45-year-old traveler, can cost as little as $108, says Barto. To include the “cancel for any reason” upgrade, the same policy would cost $193.20, but that allows the traveler to cancel their trip for fear of the coronavirus outbreak and receive a 75% reimbursement of the cost.
But, there are conditions: A traveler must cancel their trip at least 2-3 days before their scheduled departure date and buy a policy typically within 14-21 days of making the first payment or booking..
Some policies also cover emergency medical care and/or medical evacuation if people contract the coronavirus during their trip. This would include medical benefits if they are quarantined. Some policies also cover trip cancellation or interruption due to quarantine or in the event that the CDC issues a travel warning about their destination. But in those instances, the traveler must have bought the policy before the outbreak became a known event, which Barto says was Jan. 21 for the coronavirus, based on news reports and government alerts. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency on Jan. 30.
Meetings and Conferences Canceled
Another casualty of the coronavirus has been large events, professional conferences, and meetings, with new cancellations almost daily.
On March 6, the city of Austin, TX, canceled its 10-day South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, music and film festival, and gaming expo due to start on March 13. The city, using advice from medical experts, banned events of 2,500 or more people, “unless organizers are able to assure Austin Public Health that mitigation plans for infectious diseases are in place,” according to a statement. The 2019 SXSW conference and festivals drew more than 300,000 people.
Major sporting events are also being threatened. The Summer Olympics, planned for Tokyo in July and August, may be delayed or canceled, or the Games could be played without live spectators. In the United States, the National Basketball Association has urged players not to high-five fans, and Major League Baseball is encouraging players not to sign autographs during spring training.
The NCAA men’s and women’s national basketball championship tournaments are set to begin this month. The men’s schedule has games in 14 cities, ending with the Final Four in Atlanta. The women are set to play in eight cities, ending in New Orleans. Both will draw tens of thousands of fans to each game. But NCAA officials are considering options to stave off a coronavirus problem, including screenings at entrances or playing without fans in the arenas.
Just 36 hours before it was due to start on March 2, the American Physical Society canceled its popular March meeting in Denver. With more than 10,000 people registered, organizers were concerned about the large number of international attendees and the spread of COVID-19, according to a statement.
DiScala says two large travel conferences scheduled for March in Europe were also canceled recently. One was to take place in Berlin, which had 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of March 5, and the other in Sicily, which had 18 confirmed cases as of March 4.
Businesses that rely on international travel have also been hit hard. Irina Mitchell and her husband, Randy, of Rockville, MD, co-own Private Capital Development, a professional services company that sets up onsite meetings between fund managers and potential investors in different countries.
The Mitchells had several programs planned overseas in March and April, which they canceled due to the coronavirus epidemic.
“We canceled the Japan meeting after the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning [on Feb. 22] following community spread of the infection. We canceled the Australian meeting after at least one participant said they didn’t want to travel through Asia to get there due to the threat of the coronavirus,” says Mitchell.
The Mitchells also canceled a group program next month in Switzerland after a local partner “advised us to not continue because the Swiss government was advising against holding public meetings,” she says. Switzerland now has more than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
To avoid the need to travel, the Mitchells plan to hold virtual meetings instead, using platforms that still let participants see each other live.
“It’s not ideal, but people are skittish about traveling and going to public places right now. As soon as the situation resolves itself, we will return to meeting in person,” says Mitchell.