Even though I looked at coronavirus problems just two weeks ago, the situation has already changed dramatically. Problems initially confined to Asia have expanded to Europe and beyond. Airlines are chopping not only their intercontinental flight schedules but also paring domestic flights as well, and travel within the U.S., overall, has tanked. Cruise lines have suspended operations. As of this week, the travel marketplace is in chaos, with no immediate improvement in sight. Within that context, here's my current take.
If You Have Already Booked a Trip
If you have already booked travel, the outlook -- and your options -- are limited. Airlines are offering to allow you to reschedule a nonrefundable flight without a change fee, but the limits are fairly tight: They apply to trips in the near future, and you have to reuse the value of your original ticket within a year or less. Most big hotel chains are offering no-fee cancellation and rebooking up to 48 hours before your scheduled arrival, but again, so far, only through the end of April.
The net result is that if you can live with the limitations, you can retain the value of prepaid nonrefundable flights and accommodations without paying change fees. But those limitations can be difficult: I can think of many instances where rescheduling a trip, either within a few months or a year ahead, is not practical for many travelers.
If You Haven't Yet Booked a Trip
For prospective travelers late spring through fall, the best alternative for most is to stash your credit cards in a secure place and sit on the sidelines to watch the fast-moving developments. Travel these days isn't fun, with airport jams and shutdowns of many prime visitor attractions. Staycations look really good about now.
But if you really need to travel, you can protect yourself a bit:
-- Unless you see a ridiculously low advance-purchase price, make all your advance accommodations bookings fully refundable. In most cases, the premium is small.
-- Refundable airfares, on the other hand, are almost always several times the cost of a typical leisure traveler fare. Your best bet here is to buy "cancel for any reason" travel insurance -- it costs more and covers less than regular policies, but you get to decide what to do, not an insurance company bean-counter.
-- Don't go anywhere you'd even remotely face quarantine.
In Either Case
If an airline cancels your flight or tries to book you on a substitute flight, you have a legal right to a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket and even if the airline offers you a replacement schedule that delays you more than two hours.
But despite these protections, any time you book nonrefundable and have to reschedule, the airline or hotel keeps your money. And even with no-fee changes, you don't get your money back. Instead, you get credit toward future flights or rooms with no change fees, within a year or so -- which you may or may not find useable. To keep track of your options, the website Airfarewatchdog.com posts and regularly updates a complete airline-by-airline run-down of current cancellation, rebooking, and refund policies for 42 major U.S. and foreign lines.
United Airlines is playing hardball on cancellations and changes. If it cancels your flight and can't re-accommodate you to arrive within six hours of your original schedule, it doesn't give you your money back right away. Instead, it gives you a future credit good for a year, and will give you an actual refund only if you don't use that credit within a year of issue. And when it says you can rebook a flight with no change fee, if the fare for your new flight is less than the original, United keeps the difference. I'm very cautious about booking with United.
Keep in mind that any refund you're due must come from the agency where you made your arrangements. If you booked an air ticket, hotel, or other service through a travel agency -- either bricks-and-mortar or online -- your refund must come through that agency. This is yet another reason to book directly with major suppliers.