Do You Have Questions About Traveling During the Coronavirus Crisis?

From getting a cash refund for that canceled airline ticket to picking the safest post-coronavirus vacation destinations, NEA Member Benefits has the answers.

Do You Have Questions About Traveling During the Coronavirus Crisis - Couple and Young Child in the Back of a Car With a Picnic Basket

by NEA Member Benefits

Editor's Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel. And, while now isn’t the time for unnecessary trips, we’re here to help you plan future vacations with helpful travel guides and tips. That way, when the novel coronavirus is under control, you’ll have everything you need to get back on track and plan memorable trips for your family.

One day, everything is right with the world and the next day a novel coronavirus makes its presence known and everyone on the planet must drastically change how daily life unfolds in order to thwart the disease. It’s been a stressful few months for everyone as we learn to cope with new directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and federal, state and local governments.

When it comes to travel, now and in the future, there are a lot of questions. Residents of at least 42 U.S. states are under “shelter in place” rules and the CDC has issued guidance to avoid nonessential travel. So, what does it all mean in terms of that summer vacation or next year’s spring break? Let’s try to answer those questions.

Can I travel right now?

Current CDC guidance asks Americans to avoid all nonessential travel—that means nixing a trip to attend a wedding out of state, canceling a hotel stay at a beach and forgoing any overseas travel that’s part of a leisure trip.

When will I be able to travel and to where?

This is the million-dollar question and the answer depends greatly on America’s success in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) by adhering to social-distancing protocols. When it’s safe to travel will depend on the conditions at home and at the region you plan to visit.

It’s likely that some parts of the country will “open” sooner than other areas. July and August travel may be possible, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It will depend on the trajectory of the virus in each state, county and town and how well residents of those areas follow social distancing and other directives.

Each state reports its COVID-19 cases to the CDC so you can check this map to gauge the severity of the outbreaks in different parts of the country. Just keep in mind that not all states are doing adequate testing so the data as provided to the CDC may not present an accurate picture of conditions on the ground.

Also note that some destinations may require a 14-day self-quarantine upon arrival. That’s the case for anyone—resident or visitor—arriving on any of the Hawaiian Islands. Also in Hawaii, more than 100 hotels have temporarily closed for business so even if you wanted to go there, your lodging options would be limited.

If you do plan to travel, make sure there are no quarantine directives that can trip you up but also realize that new self-quarantine orders can be made at any time. Carefully consider if it’s worth planning a getaway with the possibility of a 14-day quarantine looming.

When travel does become possible again, are there types of vacations that may be safer than others?

Yes. Your ability to observe social distance could be key for your first post-coronavirus vacation. That may mean that trips focused on outdoor activities are a better bet than traveling where crowds usually congregate, such as theme parks or music festivals. (Note that all Disney theme parks are closed with no opening date on the books just yet. Universal says its parks are temporarily closed through at least May 31.)

For this summer and fall, some travelers are thinking about renting RVs, camping, booking cabins or home rentals in the mountains or near a beach, or finding other out-of-the way destinations where they can enjoy recreational pastimes without the crowds.

What’s going on with the cruise industry?

The CDC recommends that all travelers avoid cruise ship travel worldwide. And, in fact, the agency issued a “no sail” order for cruise ships operating out of U.S. ports. This order is in effect through most of July. Some cruise lines have proactively canceled additional sailings. For example, Carnival Cruise Line canceled all sailings out of New York City and San Francisco for the rest of 2020.

The “no sail” order doesn’t apply to ships that carry less than 250 people so certain cruise lines—such as UnCruise Adventures or Lindblad Expeditions—could offer cruises before the moratorium ends if safe conditions present themselves.

Many industry analysts believe the cruise industry will be negatively impacted by coronavirus at least until late fall or early 2021. If you plan to book a cruise for a future date, carefully check the cancellation and refund policies in case you need to change your travel plans at the last minute due to further COVID-19 outbreaks.

Should I wear a face mask or take other precautions when I travel?

The CDC’s guidance on face masks has evolved since the dawn of this crisis. While you don’t have to wear medical-grade N95 masks, a fabric mask is advised if you’re out in public right now. Citizens of many Asian countries used protective masks even before the novel coronavirus. If you’re flying or out in public right now, use a mask. Check out the guidelines in the state you will travel in as a few, such as Maryland and New York, have implemented mandatory masks in public. Also carry disinfectant wipes to clean any surfaces of airplane, bus or train seating areas and arm yourself with hand sanitizer and use it liberally. Avoid touching your face and wash your hands with soap and water as often as you can while in transit.

Will travel insurance protect me if I want to cancel a trip because of coronavirus fears?

Unfortunately, many travelers found out the hard way that most travel insurance policies don’t cover pandemics and epidemics. (Always read the fine print before buying an insurance policy to find out about exclusions like this.) So, even if you had insurance for an upcoming trip, it likely won’t cover you unless you purchased a “cancel for any reason” add-on. CFAR, as it’s known in the industry, adds about 40% to the cost of a traditional trip insurance policy but it allows you to cancel your trip for any reason—including fear of getting COVID-19. CFAR isn’t perfect though. The coverage usually only reimburses you for 50% to 75% of your trip costs. But, that’s still a good deal if you’re planning an expensive trip-of-a-lifetime and can’t afford to lose your money should something like this happen again.

Can I get my money back for a trip I scheduled before the novel coronavirus became a problem?

Many of us have had to cancel travel plans due to the coronavirus. Whether we can get our money back or need to accept a travel credit/voucher for future travel depends on the policies of the travel suppliers we booked with.

NEA Vacations—which offers savings of up to 50% on hotels and resorts, cruises and guided vacations—has been proactively contacting members with planned travel (watch your email for its Peace of Mind Travel Update). If you had a reservation for travel between now and June 30, 2020, which has been canceled, NEA Vacations will work with the travel provider to issue your refund. Some vendors, such as cruise lines, are offering future travel incentives and credits and that information will be communicated as it’s available. If you’d like to cancel your travel plans booked with NEA Vacations, representatives are ready to help. Check out this helpful trip cancellation FAQ with more details.

If you booked travel plans on your own, here are some tips that may help you navigate the cancellation/rebooking process.

Airline tickets: Most people buy nonrefundable airline tickets for one reason: They are much less expensive than the most flexible, refundable fares. Normally, you can’t get a cash refund if you don’t use a nonrefundable airline ticket—though many airlines will give you a partial credit for future travel.

Right now, though, it is possible to get a refund for a flight as long as the airline canceled it—and they are canceling a lot of flights right now. According to the Department of Transportation, an airline (for a domestic flight or an international one departing or arriving in the U.S.) is required to refund your entire fare to your original form of payment if they cancel the flight for any reason.

If you have an airline ticket booked for a flight in the next few weeks or months, wait to see if the airline cancels the flight. If it does, you are legally entitled to a full refund. The airline may offer you a credit for future travel. Do not take it and reference the DOT requirement that the airline refund your money.

Just remember that if you proactively call the airline and cancel your reservation before the airline cancels the flight, you aren’t entitled to a cash refund. It’s then up to the airline’s current policy to determine if you’ll get any sort of refund or future travel credit. Airlines are adjusting their cancellation and rebooking policies to be more consumer-friendly right now but you’ll need to read the fine print to understand your rights.

Hotel stays: It’s easy to cancel most hotel stays. Some reservation policies allow you to cancel right up to the day before or even day of travel. Others have a one-night deposit penalty if you cancel a stay.

Sometimes though, you can save money on a hotel by booking a prepaid nonrefundable stay. As COVID-19 has become more of a problem throughout the world, many hotel chains have adjusted their policies to accommodate customers with these prepaid nonrefundable reservations. Hyatt, for example, is refunding formerly nonrefundable reservations for stays between March 14 and April 20, 2020, as long as you cancel at least 24 hours before your scheduled arrival. For existing nonrefundable reservations made directly with Hyatt on or before March 8 for travel through June 30, the company is offering 10,000 World of Hyatt points as compensation instead of a refund.

If you’ve paid upfront for accommodations—often for in-demand events such as the Summer Olympics in Tokyo or for smaller boutique properties—you’ll need to reach out to the property manager to negotiate a solution. In the case of the Olympics postponement, many hotels are allowing guests to move their reservations to the rescheduled dates.

Cruises: With the current moratorium on cruises, many months of cruise itineraries have been canceled. If you booked directly with the cruise line, contact them to find out your options. If you booked with a travel agent, he or she will be your point of contact. Many lines are offering a cash refund for canceled cruises or 100% to 150% cruise credit to rebook a future voyage.

Packaged tours: Each tour packager is handling cancellations differently, so you’ll need to reach out to the supplier you picked for your trip. Trafalgar, for instance, that offers NEA members a 10% discount off tours, has canceled all trips through June 30, 2020. The company is offering a travel credit for the full value of the land portion of the trip to use before Dec. 31, 2022. The travel credit can be applied to a Trafalgar tour or to any other TTC brand, such as Insight Vacations, Luxury Gold, Brendan Vacations, Costsaver, Uniworld or U by Uniworld. This gives the traveler many more options when it comes to rebooking their vacation. For tours departing July 1 and beyond, the traveler can change the destination or date, free of charge, up to 30 days before departure.

Are travel companies taking steps to protect travelers from coronavirus, or helping with the effort to stamp out the disease?

It’s heartening to see so many individuals and companies stepping up to help in whatever way they can during this pandemic. In an effort to inform customers about new procedures, Hertz—which offers up to a 25% discount to NEA members—announced enhanced cleaning methods of its rental cars, rental counters and shuttle buses. The company has also installed more hand sanitizers throughout its rental locations.

Hertz has also strengthened its policies to help customers. In the U.S. and Canada, the company has temporarily waived young renter fees and lowered the renter age from 20 to 18 to help college students and young drivers needing transportation. For prepaid reservations, Hertz is waiving cancellation and change fees for travel to restricted areas, and all prepaid reservations booked before March 13 can now be extended toward reservations used within 24 months.

Additionally, Hertz provided free rental cars for healthcare workers in New York City through April 30 and supplied the Mount Sinai Health System with complimentary cargo van rentals for the transportation of ventilators and other medical supplies. The company also assisted with food supplies for at-risk populations in New York City and New Rochelle.

Hoteliers across the world—such as Red Roof (that offers a 20% discount to NEA members), Four Seasons, Marriott and Hilton—are offering free accommodations for frontline healthcare workers and first responders.

And, airlines, such as JetBlue and Delta, are providing free flights to medical workers relocating to work in heavily affected locations.

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