Published on March 20, 2020 / Updated on December 25, 2020
Unbelievable… I wrote this blog on March 19, 2020 a historic day, not in a good way, a day when US Department of State has issued a Global Level 4 Health Advisory urging Americans not to travel, urging people to come back home to US if they are abroad or to be prepared to remain outside US for an indefinite amount of time.
This was and still is unprecedented in my lifetime and I hope this day goes down in history as the worst day in the world travel and it never happens again.
I hope you are all feeling ok physically and mentally during this crisis. I know I am feeling cabin fever! For someone who’s living and breathing travel 24/7 being literally grounded is very hard. Of course, I am not traveling all the time, but when I am not traveling I am working on planning trips for clients and living vicariously through their adventures. However, now the travel industry is canceled for the foreseeable future and for my brain it is a “DOES NOT COMPUTE” scenario.
I know lots of people have gone through an agonizing decision-making process, earlier in the year, of what to do with their booked trips, to cancel, to reschedule, to file an insurance claim, how to recoup the money they paid. Now, that we are months into the pandemic and some destinations are reopening, people still want to have a vacation, they want something exciting to look forward to even if the trips won’t happen until later next year. So, I want to share some tips and insight into what you can do if you are itching to travel and how to make the most out of your travel plans for 2021.
If an airline canceled your flight you are due a refund, have patience, it may take a few billing cycles for the money to appear back in your account. Not only the travel suppliers are overwhelmed with the refund requests and processing time is taking longer, but credit card companies and banks are also feeling the pain.
If you are deciding to cancel on your own, most likely you will not get your money back but a credit with the airline that you will have to use by a certain date, which most likely will be one year from the time your original ticket was booked. This is what I have seen in several cases of canceling my clients’ tickets, but because things are changing so fast each day, don’t assume anything, check with your airline first.
The good news is that a lot of airlines have waived their change fees for domestic and even international flights, which is giving travelers much-needed flexibility and reassurance to book future travel. Here is the latest fee waiver from Delta airlines.
Over the last few months, hotels have gone above and beyond to offer the most flexible cancelation policies possible with many of them offering free cancelation up until hours before the check-in. If you are thinking of booking new hotel stays, this is the time to do it!
However, if you have booked trips that you need to cancel, read the fine print on the recent notices that have been offered by hotels or check with your travel agent if you booked with one. Just because you booked a non-refundable hotel it may not necessarily mean that you can’t cancel it. You maybe pleasantly surprised!
If you are traveling 4 weeks or more from now
If your travel dates are 4 weeks or more from now, I would urge you to wait. I know it is hard, and patience is running low but playing the waiting game may be your best bet.
If there is no travel advisory for your destination and your travel dates now, canceling or trying to change your travel plans now will mean that you will have to pay out of pocket for the change or cancellation fees. I would urge you to wait and see if the airline cancels your flight first, and you may get your money back. Also, with the recent announcement of the vaccine, maybe your destination will reopen and it will be safe to travel. Don’t make rash decisions!
Trying to get through to a travel provider or travel insurance if your travel dates are not within the immediate 14 days from now will mean that you will spend hours on hold just to get turned away. Call centers and customer service email queues are overwhelmed and they are prioritizing requests based on the travel dates. Unfortunately, this has been true from the beginning of the pandemic. It is a bit better now, in December 2020, but you may still have to be on hold for a while on the phone.
If you have decided to change your travel dates please stick to your original itinerary especially if you have worked with a travel agency or travel advisor to build this trip. For example, if you have a trip booked to Italy, not only did a travel advisor put in countless hours (I usually spend 35+ hours on a custom made trip to Italy and that is with all the resources and connections at my fingertips) but also those travel providers in Italy are counting on that revenue. If you change your Italy trip to a Hawaii trip, that means that the travel advisor has to start from scratch by creating a brand new trip for you (the original 35+ hrs are now wasted, and we are not getting paid for them plus the time we need to cancel all the services) and the suppliers in Italy are not getting the revenue they counted on (if you got a refund). If you can’t travel to Italy now, for holidays, for example, try to go a little later next year, in September or October for example, which is a beautiful shoulder season. Do the right thing, don’t cancel the destination, it is counting on you!
If you have a travel credit for next year
If you have a travel credit for future travel that you would like to use next year now is a good time to start thinking of when and how you will use it. You know that you are not the only one holding on to that future travel voucher, which means that most of the people whose travel plans got canceled this year will try to reschedule for next year. So what does it look like – 2 years of pent up demand from 2020 and 2021 for hotels, airline tickets, and experiences will try to get into the availability and space of one year. I expect that prices will be going up and availability will be scarce especially once the borders will reopen. So, get ahead of the game, start rescheduling and re-planning your trip now so you will get your first pick of the tours, accommodations, and flights. Don’t forget to protect your travel plans with travel insurance. More on that in the next paragraph.
Travel Insurance: When It Can and Can’t Help
Now let’s talk about travel insurance! My clients who have purchased travel insurance have coverage through TravelGuard. I am going to cover a few general questions raised by clients but keep in mind that even the same travel insurance policy may have different benefits depending on the state where you live. So before making any decisions, check the fine print of your policy.
Of course, no one likes to talk or think about any kind of insurance until we are in a situation where we need one. And just because you have travel insurance doesn’t mean you can cancel your trip and get money back because you are afraid to travel because of Coronavirus. Most people opt out of “cancel for any reason” for an insurance upgrade because it is very expensive and it still only covers 50-75% of the trip cost. It is not part of your standard insurance policy! I would recommend that you take another look at the “cancel for any reason insurance” add-on when planning a trip for new dates (usually you will have only a limited amount of time from the date of booking the trip when you can add this to your insurance policy. It may be able to save the day in case of a necessary cancelation.
The bottom line is – don’t assume anything until you go through the insurance policy in detail. I recommend printing it out and highlighting parts important to you. Also, it is a good idea to call an insurance company and ask specific questions about the policy when you are buying it, which is typically before a major disaster hits, so you can avoid being on hold for hours when everyone else is calling too.
TIP: If you get credit for future travel for your original trip cancellation, the insurance policy typically won’t pay you anything on top of credit.
If you purchased insurance and your trip is canceled or the dates changed, see if you can cancel or modify your insurance policy. There are certain criteria that may allow you to get money back for the insurance policy for the trip that didn’t take place if you haven’t filed a claim.
If you are stuck in a destination that is quarantined or announced closing its borders and you need to change your travel plans, reach out to TravelGuard. They have a 24/7 world assistance line staffed with specialists that have resources at their fingertips to help you get out of “a tough situation” that you may be in.
If your trip is later next year and you didn’t get travel insurance – you can still get a policy. It won’t cover if you are afraid to travel but if you get sick or have any other medical issue or your trip gets interrupted while you are already at the destination, having insurance will help you recoup the money you have paid to date.
But insurance is a must not only in light of Coronavirus.
So is the extra cost of travel insurance justified?
As a rule of thumb, every trip into which you’ve invested significant amounts is best insured.
What happens when someone gets sick unexpectedly and you have to move your trip forward by a few days? Or, you have a death in the family and cannot make it anymore? A no-show could easily become a loss, but if you have travel insurance, it will soften the hit on your pocket. Have you ever visited a new country only to react badly to the climate and need medical treatment? The quality of medical care in some countries can be questionable and expensive in cases of forced medical evacuation. Travel insurance helps to pay for those unexpected medical costs
You should review health-related coverage that’s offered and included ahead of time, which means before you buy a policy, not after.
In another scenario, your vacation might have to be cut short due to an aging parent needing emergency medical attention back home.
Are you an adventure sports lover? If you’ve decided to go hiking, sky-diving, operating an aircraft, or you are hoping to take part in a professional or athletic event, travel insurance can provide claims in cases of injury – be sure to confirm that this is included in your coverage and TravelGuard offers additional coverage for Extreme Sports but you need to make sure to ask to include it in your coverage.
Also, in case of hurricanes, which happen a lot during the late summer and fall seasons affecting many Caribbean vacations, if you want to purchase insurance after the hurricane has been named, your insurance won’t cover you for hurricane-related cancellations or interruptions.
New TravelGuard Preferred and Deluxe plan now offer the TripExchange option (it is not available in NY state), but it is available in NJ and many other states, so check if it is available in your state. TripExchange option means that you can transfer your trip to another destination and may be reimbursed up to 50% of your trip cost for any charges incurred due to the change, such as air ticket change fees, increases in fare costs and transportation and hotel costs. This benefit comes with lots of fine print but it doesn’t cost anything extra if you are buying Preferred and Deluxe plans with TravelGuard so it is worth looking into.
Now, I know talking about travel insurance probably raised a lot more questions. I can talk in general terms about policies but I can’t tell you based on your specific scenario if you will be able to cancel or get any money back, not because I don’t want to, but because insurance companies review each claim individually and because by law as a travel agent and not a licensed insurance agent I can’t go into details of coverage even when you are my client. So please, don’t think I am brushing you off when I tell you to contact TravelGuard with specific questions, I have to abide by the law.
To DIY Your Next Trip vs Booking With A Travel Advisor
One of the advantages of booking with a travel advisor has always been the human connection that you as a traveler have access to, whether it’s during the booking process or during the trip itself. While the Coronavirus is unprecedented, it’s highlighting what has always been true about using a travel advisor – we truly provide travelers with immeasurable value.
In this case of having to make last-minute travel changes, I, as your travel advisor would be the one rebooking your trips and securing refunds, leaving you the client at ease knowing someone is working on your behalf dealing with the technicalities of different company policies. It saves you from confusion, panic, and worry if you had to go through this process yourself. I am sure one of my clients can vouch for that personally when he was stuck in a remote part of Argentina early in March and I have worked tirelessly for over 2 weeks, hand in hand with the American Embassy until we got him home safe and sound, back on American soil. I don’t think he would have wanted to be dealing with the situation of closed borders and several canceled flights and closed airports on his own.
On the other hand, please understand that if you booked your own tickets/trip reaching out to a travel advisor now to get help changing your itinerary won’t help you. It is not that we don’t want to help, but if we are not the agency on record for that booking so we do not have the authority to make changes, no matter how much we want to help.
If you are stuck in a destination without insurance and need to book a new plane ticket or a new hotel reservation you, of course, can get a travel advisor to help you with that.
I hope these tips will help you to make the right decision about your travel plans. If you are feeling the withdrawal symptoms of not being able to travel, take advantage of the extra free time that you have to start planning your next trip – and I don’t mean you need to book anything but you can start doing research and brainstorming your new destination. I have several sample itineraries and blog posts where you can draw lots of inspiration.
Thanks for reading, now go wash your hands!
***DISCLAIMER. This information is based on my personal experience of working on changing dozens of trips in the last 8 months. Things change quickly and travel providers are changing policies in response every day. Check the fine print of your booking and contact your travel agent or travel supplier before making any changes. Olegana Travel Boutique does not bear any responsibility for the changes to your travel plans made by you based on the above information.