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How to plan your travels in the era of coronavirus

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 3/11/2020 Christopher Muther
a group of toy people: Thin crowds at Logan Airport Terminal C. © Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff Thin crowds at Logan Airport Terminal C.

These are challenging days for travelers. As countries enter into coronavirus lockdowns worthy of a Margaret Atwood novel, airline policies are ever-shifting. Meanwhile cruise companies are rapidly changing cancellation policies to better accommodate skittish travelers.

To help clear up the confusion, we’ve gathered a partial list of refund and rebooking changes. Before you jump on the phone and demand a refund, or book a new flight or cruise, read the company’s policy very clearly. Depending on when you booked your trip, getting a refund or credit for a flight simply because you’re afraid to travel is not a given. If you buy travel insurance, make sure you purchase a “cancel for any reason” policy. Standard policies do not cover coronavirus-related cancellations.

If you are elderly, or have a compromised immune system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you don’t travel, particularly on cruise ships. Also, if you plan to travel, you should build an additional two weeks into your schedule in the event you are quarantined or need to self-quarantine. Before you leave for your trip, make sure your home is stocked in the event a quarantine is necessary.

Coronavirus Updates
See the latest coronavirus travel guidance from the CDC

Can I get a refund?

For destinations the CDC has raised to Level 1, 2, or 3 warnings (China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan), many airlines are offering full refunds, refunds in the form of future travel credit, or waived change fees. While you probably won’t pay a change fee, you will still pay the fare difference if your new date costs more. Most airlines have clearly laid out their policies on their websites. Here are a few:

American Airlines: American is offering free changes or cancellations, depending on destination, for flights to or from South Korea, Hong Kong, China, and select cities in Italy. In cases where flights have been canceled entirely, you’ll get a refund. In other cases, you can reschedule your trip to a later date. Whether you qualify depends on when you bought your ticket. For example, if you’re flying to South Korea, you’ll need to have booked your ticket by Feb. 24, 2020.

British Airways: Travelers booked to fly from London to Milan, Turin, Bologna, Venice, Bergamo, or Verona through March 15 can rebook with no change fee for travel up to April 3, 2020.

Delta Air Lines: Travelers flying to any international or domestic destination through April 30, who have purchased their flight before March 30, can change their flight with no fees. Change fees also are waived through May 31 for travelers booked to fly to Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and all locations in Italy. The airline has suspended flights to Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and some flights to Japan and Italy and will offer refunds or waived change fees for passengers booked on those flights.

Qatar Airways: Travelers who have booked flights for travel up to June 30 can change their dates with no change fee, or exchange their ticket for a travel voucher valid for one year so long as they make the request at least 72 hours prior to departure.

United Airlines: United is waiving change fees and allowing refunds for travel to or from select cities, which include Wuhan, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Seoul, and many cities in northern Italy. For northern Italy, flights must be rescheduled by June 30, 2020, to avoid paying a fare difference. If you reschedule for a date after that, you’ll need to pay the difference in fare.

Should I book future air travel?

As the number of travelers purchasing airline tickets and cruise ship passage declines, travel deals are beginning to emerge, and experts who track bargains say this is the best time to travel. Search around on Google Flights and you’ll see that you can grab a round-trip flight on Delta from Boston to Honolulu for under $400 in April. JetBlue has fares as low as $42 one way from Boston to Orlando in March and April. There many, many other deals.

If you’re thinking of jumping on the bargain bandwagon, my advice is to do this sooner rather than later. As the number of passengers drops, airlines will begin trimming flights. It makes more financial sense for airlines to leave planes parked than flying them half-empty. Delta announced on Tuesday that it will begin cutting back routes. Other airlines will soon follow.

Another option is to seek out a travel adviser (that’s the fancy new way of saying travel agent) to work with you on planning a trip. Most good advisers can shuffle around plans for you.

To help travelers feel a bit more secure about booking now for future trips, some airlines are waiving change fees for new bookings made in the next few weeks. If you end up changing your flight under these policies, there are no change fees, but you’ll need to pay the fare differences if your new flight is more expensive. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and of course, always verify rules and requirements directly with the airline.

Air Canada: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 31, as long as you travel within 12 months of the date of your original ticket.

Alaska Airlines: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 12, 2020, for travel through June 1, 2020, so long as you rebook for travel by Dec. 31, 2020.

American Airlines: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 16, 2020.

British Airways: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 16, 2020, so long as you rebook to a date in the next 12 months.

Delta Air Lines: There’s no change fee for new international or domestic tickets booked through April 30, 2020.

Icelandair: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 16, so long as you travel by June 1, 2020.

JetBlue: There’s no change fee or cancellation fee for new tickets booked through March 11, 2020, so long as travel is completed by June 1, 2020.

Qatar Airways: There’s no change fee for tickets booked for travel up to June 30, 2020, so long as you make the request at least three days prior to departure. Qatar is also offering the option to cancel and get a travel credit with no fee.

Southwest Airlines: Southwest never charges a fee to change or cancel a flight, so long as you do it at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure.

United: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 31 for travel during the next 12 months.

Virgin Atlantic: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 30, 2020, so long as you rebook for travel by Sept. 30, 2020.

Should I book a cruise? 

On Sunday, the State Department said US citizens, specifically those with underlying health issues, should not go on cruises. Of all the travel sectors getting slammed by Covid-19, the $45 billion a year cruise industry could be the hardest hit of them all. Particularly with images of quarantined ships being denied entry into ports.

Travel advisers, who make a large percentage of their living from booking cruises, are bracing for the fallout.

“There are 365 cruise ships sailing today with nearly 700,000 passengers aboard,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors. “Only two ships have a coronavirus problem. A targeted focus on cruising is a distraction from the real issue of community spread. Telling the traveling public to avoid cruising and painting the entire industry with a broad high-risk brush stroke is irresponsible.”

To lure cruisers back to the seas, cruise lines are responding with previously unheard of booking policies and onboard incentives and discounts. Here are a few offerings:

Carnival: For passengers who booked before March 6, 2020, Carnival will allow those booked on cruises between now and May 31, 2020, to move their booking to a new date and receive a future cruise credit in the amount of the nonrefundable cancellation fee.

Celebrity Cruises: Celebrity’s new “Cruise With Confidence” policy allows cruisers to cancel up to 48 hours before sailing. Those who cancel will receive a full credit for their fare, usable on any future sailing of their choice in 2020 or 2021. The policy applies to both new and existing cruise bookings for cruises with a sailing date on or before July 31, 2020.

Norwegian Cruise Line: Norwegian is offering a short-term “Peace of Mind” policy, which gives anyone who books a Norwegian Cruise Line sailing through Sept. 30, 2020, the ability to cancel up to 48 hours prior to the departure date and receive a 100 percent future cruise credit for use on any sailings through Dec. 31, 2022. This new policy also applies to existing bookings for any voyages beginning March 10, 2020, or later.

Princess Cruises: Princess temporarily revised its cancellation policy for cruises and cruise tours departing up to May 31, 2020. The line is implementing a revised policy to assist guests making decisions regarding their cruise. The details vary by departure date. For cruises April 3 or earlier, cancel up to 72 hours before sailing to receive a future cruise credit for 100 percent of the cancellation fee. For cruises April 4 to May 31, cancel by March 31, 2020, and receive a credit for 100 percent of the cancellation fees.

Viking: Viking’s new temporary cancellation policy allows passengers to postpone their ocean or river cruise at any time, up to 24 hours prior to departure, without incurring any cancellation fees. Passengers will be issued a voucher good for future Viking travel that is valid for 24 months and can be transferred to any Viking cruise, either river or ocean. This temporary exemption applies to all guests with existing bookings made prior to March 2, 2020, and those with new reservations made departing through April 30, 2020.

WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak causes airlines to pivot, cut back on flights (provided by USA Today)

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