Need to Change Your Travel Plans Due to Coronavirus? These Are Your Options
The global COVID-19 pandemic has canceled many travelers’ upcoming trips. In light of the crisis, numerous airlines, hotels, and tour providers have rolled out more lenient change and cancellation policies—with some now extending those policies into the fall and beyond.
This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
For travelers who are having to cancel upcoming trips due to the global coronavirus pandemic (and given the unprecedented scope of this international health crisis, we know there are a lot of you), airlines, hotels, and tour operators are offering cancellation and rebooking options that are (rightfully) more generous than what you would expect during non-pandemic times.
Numerous travel companies have considerably relaxed their change and cancellation policies through the summer and into the fall. Many appear to be keen on doing right by travelers who were unknowingly affected by this situation before anyone fully understood its scope and scale, even as they suffer some pretty unfathomable financial losses themselves.
However, if it’s a full refund you’re hoping for, unless the airline, tour operator, or cruise line canceled your trip (and even then it’s not a guarantee), you’re not necessarily going to get one. The U.S. Department of Transportation did recently remind U.S. airlines that they remain obligated to provide refunds to passengers for flights that were canceled by the airlines.
Travelers with existing reservations for trips that are due to take place several months from now may be in limbo for a little while longer as some travel companies wait to decide on what to do about change and cancellation options further out. While those travelers are likely anxious to make a decision one way or another, to just go ahead and cancel or reschedule, there could be some benefits in waiting a bit to see whether some of these policies do in fact end up getting extended (again).
As for what’s on the table right now, here is a roundup of coronavirus-related change and cancellation policies.
Will airlines refund tickets due to coronavirus?
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, airlines have had to cancel thousands of flights due to travel restrictions that have been put in place by various governments (including by the United States) and due to a drastic drop in demand as large swaths of the population are sheltering in place and practicing social distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Given the avalanche of cancellations, airlines have been steering customers toward the option of obtaining a future flight credit—versus a refund—if their flight has been canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But in early April, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a notice to U.S. and foreign airlines reminding them that they remain obligated to provide “a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.” (Lawmakers in Europe followed suit days later, with Europen Union Transport Commissioner Adina Valean rejecting calls from airlines to relax refund rules.)
The DOT stated that it had been receiving a growing number of complaints and inquiries from ticketed passengers who said they have been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed.
For flights that passengers choose to cancel, the airlines are offering future flight credits, allowing travelers to cancel their ticket and basically set aside that money to be used on a flight at a later date—and thankfully, you don’t have to book that flight now (which is good because it’s impossible to know how this pandemic is going to play out). American and Delta are currently offering that flexibility for flights that were scheduled to depart all the way through the end of September, and United’s flight change waiver now extends to the end of the year.
American Airlines: Any flights booked on American up until May 31, 2020, for travel through September 30, 2020, can be rebooked without change fees for travel that takes place by December 31, 2021; flights booked between March and May 31, 2020, for all future travel can also be canceled and changed without a change fee (while the fees will be waived, you will be charged a fare difference).
The airline is encouraging those who don’t plan to travel anytime soon to simply cancel their flight online and then rebook at a later date. When you’re ready to rebook, call the reservations department and be prepared to give them your 13-digit ticket number and 6-character confirmation number.
If a flight was canceled by American Airlines (either due to travel restrictions or capacity reductions), American said it will send affected passengers an email, and they can either rebook the trip or request a refund for the remaining ticket value and any optional fees.
United Airlines: For a flight booked with United between March 3 and April 30, 2020, you can change it for free—one time—for travel that takes place within the next year. Any flights booked prior to March 3 (regardless of whether they are domestic or international) with original travel dates through May 31, 2020, can be canceled and rebooked for a flight that takes place within 24 months with no change fees. Flights booked prior to March 3 with original travel between June 1 and December 31, 2020, can be canceled and rebooked within 24 months with no change fees but the change or cancellation must be done by April 30, 2020.
With regards to requests for refunds for canceled flights, United now has an online form that customers can fill out to see if they qualify for a refund. The airline said it could take up to 21 business days to process each request.
Delta Air Lines: Any Delta ticket for domestic or international travel through the end of September can be canceled and rebooked without a fee for travel that takes place up until September 30, 2022. Flights purchased between March 1 and May 31, 2020, can be changed without a fee for travel up to a year from the date of purchase. For flights canceled by Delta, the airline said that passengers will either be issued a future flight credit for the value of the ticket or they can request a refund.
JetBlue: Customers who were due to travel with JetBlue through January 4, 2021, on any flight that is booked by May 31, 2020, can cancel and bank the funds to use for travel up to 24 months from the date the flight credit was issued.
Southwest Airlines: Southwest’s standard refund policies hold, with a few coronavirus-related adjustments. The carrier has tier fares that include refunds (Business Select and Anytime) and a tier fare (Wanna Get Away) that doesn’t include refunds. Those remain the same. But regardless of the type of ticket purchased, it can be canceled sans fee for a future travel credit for up to a year from the original date of purchase. However, if you had travel funds that were set to expire between March 1 and June 30, 2020, those will now expire on June 30, 2021; travel credits from flights canceled for travel that was originally scheduled to take place between March 1 and June 30, 2020, will expire on June 30, 2021.
Alaska Airlines: Alaska flights purchased on or before February 26, 2020, for travel that was originally scheduled to take place March 9 through December 31, 2020, can be canceled, the money set aside in an Alaska account, and the flight rescheduled for anytime up to one year from the original travel date. Any tickets purchased between February 27 and May 31, 2020, for travel anytime through April 30, 2021, can also be changed with no fee for travel up to one year from the original travel date.
British Airways: The U.K. carrier is allowing customers who have booked or who book new flights between March 3 and May 31, 2020, to change those flights for free—and any existing bookings for departures through May 31, 2020, can be changed without a fee as well. Those who would prefer a refund have been asked to call the airline.
Air France: The French airline is offering a travel voucher for flights that were scheduled to depart through July 2, 2020, which will be valid for one year on any Air France, KLM, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic flights.
How are Expedia, Priceline, and other online agencies handling coronavirus refunds?
Online travel agencies such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Priceline serve as “middlemen” between travelers and travel suppliers. They have different working relationships with all the suppliers on their sites, which can complicate things a bit.
For instance, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity can help change or cancel reservations for some of the air carriers they sell tickets for, but not all of them. For the ones with which they lack that ability, customers will have to work directly with the airline. But the bottom line is: The airline’s policy will be the policy that customers of Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity will have to work with.
Priceline advises its customers that “if your airline does not allow you to cancel or change your flight, we are not able to help you at this time.” The travel booking site offers a very comprehensive contact list, including websites and phone numbers, for all its partner airlines.
On the hotels front, Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz are allowing customers to cancel with no penalty all hotel stays through May 31, 2020, that were booked prior to March 19, 2020. For hotel stays after May 31, 2020, Expedia advises customers to check back with the site closer to the departure date.
Coronavirus refunds for hotels and vacation rentals
Hotels have always been pretty flexible when it comes to changing and canceling reservations, but in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, they are being even more so.
Marriott International: Marriott is allowing all guests at all of its more than 7,300 properties around the world with existing reservations, for any upcoming stay regardless of the date and regardless of whether the original rate had some restrictions, to change or cancel without a charge up to 24 hours prior to arrival—here’s the key thing to note—as long as the change or cancellation is made by June 30, 2020. For those who make new reservations now through June 30, 2020, they will be allowed to change or cancel at no charge up to 24 hours before arrival, regardless of the date of stay.
Hilton: For guests who have booked stays that were scheduled to begin on or before June 30, 2020, at any of Hilton’s more than 6,100 global properties, the change fee is being waived and the company is offering full refunds for all cancellations (including on reservations described as “non-cancellable”) up to 24 hours before arrival. New reservations booked between now and June 30, 2020, for any future arrival date, can be changed or canceled at no charge up to 24 hours before arrival.
Accor: The 5,000-hotel Accor hasn’t offered much detail on its coronavirus-related change and cancellation policies other than to say that it has advised all of its hotels to adopt flexible change and cancellation conditions for travelers with new or existing bookings through April 30, 2020.
Intercontinental Hotel Group: IHG has waived cancellation fees for existing bookings that were made by April 6, 2020, at all of its hotels the world over for stays through June 30, 2020. It is handling groups and meeting bookings on a case-by-case basis. The company has also developed some new rates and booking options for future travel such as its “book now, pay later” rate, which doesn’t require a deposit and can be canceled up to 24 hours before your stay for bookings made up to September 3, 2020, for travel until December 30, 2020.
Airbnb: Vacation rental powerhouse Airbnb recently issued an updated global change and cancellation policy. Reservations for stays and experiences made on or before March 14, 2020, with a check-in date between March 14, 2020, and May 31, 2020, can be canceled for a full refund by guests, and hosts can cancel without a charge or impact to their Superhost status (and Airbnb will refund all service fees). Reservations made on or before March 14 with a check-in date after May 31, 2020, as well as any reservations made after March 14, 2020, will not be covered unless the guest or host has contracted COVID-19. Otherwise, the host’s standard cancellation policy will apply.
What are tour operators’ policies for coronavirus changes and refunds?
Given the global health crisis that the coronavirus pandemic presents, most reputable tour operators have gone ahead and proactively canceled a good portion of their upcoming itineraries (similar to what the cruise lines did—see below). Here are some examples.
Tauck: Long-time tour provider Tauck has canceled its scheduled tours and cruises through June 30, 2020—and for those tours it will refund the affected guests. For tours that were scheduled to take place between July 1 and July 31, 2020, guests can cancel and receive a future travel credit for any tour in 2020 or 2021 (but airline change fees will not be covered). Standard change policies remain in place for tours scheduled to take place August 1, 2020, and beyond.
Abercrombie & Kent: Luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has temporarily suspended ground operations globally from March 17 to May 31, 2020. A&K is offering guests on those journeys a future tour credit (that will include a 10 percent discount) for any trip for travel that takes place up to December 31, 2021.
Intrepid Travel: Global tour company Intrepid Travel has also suspended its tours through September 30, 2020. For those tours, travelers will receive a 110 percent future tour credit that they can apply toward any itinerary up until September 30, 2022. For tours departing October 1, 2020, and beyond, Intrepid said they are continuing as planned at this point, but that if customers choose to cancel, they can do so and receive a credit for whatever they had paid to be used for travel that takes place by September 30, 2022.
Collette: Family-owned tour operator Collette has canceled all its tours through June 30, 2020, and all affected guests are being offered either a future travel credit or the generous option to receive a refund.
What about cruises?
On March 14, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a 30-day “No Sail Order” for all cruise ships to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As of April 15, 2020, the CDC extended that order, and cruise ship operations (in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction) have been suspended until July 24, 2020, or until the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services declares that coronavirus no longer constitutes a public health emergency, or until and unless the CDC Director rescinds or modifies the order.
Affected customers are being offered anywhere between a 100 percent and 200 percent future cruise credit by the cruise lines.
How travel advisors can help
During a complicated and overwhelming global crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, a travel advisor can serve as a great ally. While travel advisors can’t force travel suppliers to refund their clients, they typically have stronger relationships with suppliers and thus more sway. They will be better able to help you navigate through the options for changing your trip plans. And as travel professionals (who likely have dealt with numerous crises in the past), they can offer their advice based on their myriad of contacts in the industry and from their own personal experience.
They will also have greater insights into the kinds of trustworthy and reliable travel companies you will want to book your future travel with as we navigate this ever-changing pandemic landscape.
Can travel insurance help you get a refund?
With regard to the current coronavirus crisis, travel insurance providers consider it to be a known event as of January 21, 2020 (or thereabouts, the date can change slightly depending on the provider, but usually falls sometime between January 21 and January 27, 2020). Travel insurance purchased before that date will cover disruptions resulting from the outbreak, but any travel insurance purchased after that date will not.
An exception to that is Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) coverage, an optional upgrade to a travel insurance policy that covers cancellations for reasons not otherwise covered by a standard travel insurance “such as fear of traveling due to coronavirus or simply not wanting to travel to a country that may be affected,” according to Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer for travel insurance search and review site Squaremouth.
There are some limitations, however. The CFAR upgrade has to be purchased within 14 to 21 days of making the initial trip deposit and it will reimburse travelers for up to 75 percent of their trip cost—for a price. Cancel for Any Reason coverage typically costs between 5 and 10 percent of the total trip cost.
This story originally appeared on February 24, 2020, and has been updated to reflect current information.