South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Travel outlook in time of coronaviru­s pandemic

- By Ed Perkins

Even though I looked at coronaviru­s problems just a week 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. Within that context, here’s my current take.

If you have already booked a trip

If you have already booked travel, 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 those planning to travel in 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

Departing travelers in Rome fill out a self-certificat­ion stating their motivation to violate the quarantine Tuesday.

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.

■ 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 airfarewat­ posts and regularly updates a complete airline-by-airline rundown 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 reaccommod­ate 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.

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 brick-andmortar or online — your refund must come through that agency.


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