From tips on getting through to customer service to when to cancel upcoming flights, experts explain how to navigate refunds or rebookings on flights, cruises, hotels, theme parks, resorts, events, and more amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

By Alesandra Dubin
Updated April 06, 2020
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Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Parents.com's COVID-19 Guide for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

Whatever your plans for your family's vacation, we're pretty sure you never imagined you'd be staring down a global pandemic. While the worldwide coronavirus crisis plays out, would-be spring travelers are canceling and postponing their plans—and hoping to secure refunds on the costs of their vacations or penalty-free rebookings for the future.

Here's our expert-sourced primer on what to expect from refunds or rebookings on flights, cruises, hotels, theme parks, resorts, events, and more.

Canceled Airline Tickets, Cruise Bookings, and Hotel Reservations

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced that those on cancelled flights must receive refunds instead of vouchers. In summary, "U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier," according to the DOT. The refund should include the "ticket price and any optional fee charged for services."

Other cancellation policies are still at the discretion of travel providers, such as hotels and cruise lines. Many are now offering flexible cancellation and change fees—but don't automatically assume that your bookings are covered. Your ability to cancel or change without fee may be related to your destination and your travel dates.

Jeff Klee, CEO of the travel booking platform Qtrip, notes that, "The vast majority of hotels allow you to make changes or cancel in the range of up to 48 to 72 hours prior to your stay." But if you made a nonrefundable booking, you should reach out to that individual property or booking agency. "Many major hoteliers are also waiving cancellation fees," Klee says. "The hospitality industry understands this unprecedented public health crisis and, in general, is allowing credit to be used for different dates."

Given that the U.S. State Department has warned against cruise ship travel, some cruise lines automatically canceled voyages for the next few months; these include Carnival Princess and Viking. Royal Caribbean canceled all sailings across its fleet for several weeks and Norwegian announced suspension until April 11 worldwide.

"They are offering refunds or exchanges to affected customers and in many cases adding bonus credits to incentivize customers for future travel," Klee says.

Currently, Royal Caribbean is offering a Cruise With Confidence policy to give guests more flexibility; it lets guests cancel any booking within 48 hours of sailing for a future cruise credit to use by the end of 2021. Passengers on the canceled trips can choose between a full refund or a future cruise credit in the amount of 125 percent of the fare paid for the canceled trip. Carnival Cruise Line's policy offers guests scheduled for some 2020 bookings credit for rebooked sailings. If you're booked on an upcoming cruise, contact your cruise line for more information.

Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (2)

Canceled Events and Closed Theme Parks

As of March 15, the CDC recommends cancellation of all gatherings over 50 people for eight weeks. That recommendation came after most previously scheduled major events—festivals including Coachella and Stagecoach, and sporting events like the NCAA's March Madness and the NBA's regular season games—had already canceled or postponed. Major theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios had already announced their closures as well.

"If you purchased tickets for a major sporting event, concert, festival, or Broadway show, contact the place of purchase. Refunds are being offered for canceled events," reassures Klee. "If the event was postponed, your tickets will be honored for the new date. Most events offer a refund as an option if the new date does not work for your family. The situation is very fluid and change and refund rules are still being worked out, but most companies are being flexible."

Klee also notes that theme parks "that have enacted temporary closures are offering refunds for those that are staying at a theme park resort. If you pre-purchased your theme park tickets, call the parks directly and they should be able to give you a refund or exchange."

How to Connect With Customer Service

Given that all travel providers are slammed with customer service calls right now, try checking for information online before you call customer support—which might both reduce your own frustration and time on hold, as well as ease the stress on a heavily burdened industry and its labor force. Hold off on calling if your travel isn't scheduled to begin within the next seven days to ensure other travelers' more urgent needs are met, the online booking engines Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and CheapTickets collectively urged in a set of tips distributed for consumers. Explore self-serve or online chat options before picking up that phone.

And try to exercise patience and kindness for these stretched-thin customer service folks: Unkind treatment won't get your cancellation completed faster, and it will only contribute to a bad situation.

"A word on patience and kindness in these times," Klee notes. "The travel industry and customer support agents understand your concerns and are doing their best to assist every family who finds itself in this situation. Keep in mind that the numbers of people who need to be accommodated are unprecedented. Travel companies are working as quickly and efficiently as they can to help you rebook your vacation plans and minimize your family's stress."

That said, Scott's Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes says, "If you have a good reason for not traveling, plead your case over the phone. If the airline agent isn't sympathetic, be polite, hang up, and call again. There's always a decent chance you can convince the next person. And remember: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar."

In other cases, you might be able to execute your whole cancellation without a single phone call: Travelers with more than seven days notice can use online refund forms from Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and CheapTickets for help canceling travel booked through their sites. Doing so will automatically cancel your trip and trigger a response from an agent.

What If You Have Travel Insurance?

If you purchased travel insurance (or have a policy through your credit card benefits), check your policy to see whether changes or cancellations due to unforeseen events are covered.

Skyscanner PR manager Kylie Banks notes that standard cancellation reasons do not generally cover a virus outbreak. "The spread of COVID-19 has now become a 'known event' and travel insurance is designed to cover unforeseen events. However, there are some benefits available to the policyholder if he/she contracts the virus."

These include the possibility of eligibility for reimbursement if the illness happens prior to departure and prevents the traveler from going on a trip. Additionally, your policy's emergency medical insurance benefit may cover the costs you incur if you contract the virus while traveling.

"If you have not already purchased overseas travel insurance, you might run into providers excluding the coronavirus because of its significant increase in prevalence. Any time that becomes the case, travel insurance providers are able to restrict coverage," Banks further notes. "It's possible that you can purchase an upgraded policy to cover the coronavirus, so be sure to look into whether that's an option with your preferred provider."

When Should You Cancel Your Trip?

If you're not eligible for a refund, consider waiting to cancel until the last possible moment. "Even if your airline isn't yet offering to waive change fees, I would wait to cancel rather than pay a fee now," suggests Keyes. "This is a fast-moving situation and airlines' policies are changing rapidly. There's no harm in waiting until the last day or two before a trip to cancel, and in the meantime, there's always a possibility the airline will relax its rules and allow you to cancel without a fee."

Brian Freeman, who owns the tour company Skip the Bus, adds, "There's no need to cancel if the trip is still months away. Best case scenario, it's back to normal soon."

When Should You Rebook Your Vacation?

For this spring break, consider a staycation—like a road trip or camping—as an alternative. And use this forced downtime to consider making future travel plans. When this crisis resolves (and it will), you'll need that vacation, and an array of humbled industries will depend on your business.

For future bookings, know that many airlines are offering flexible tickets and waiving change fees. These include American, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and United Airlines. The same goes for many major hotel brands. Online booking engines like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and CheapTickets all have added a "free cancellation" filter making such options easier to find—and making such a booking provides priceless peace of mind for future travel.

"If you're thinking of booking a trip, I would only consider doing so on an airline that is waiving change/cancellation fees like Southwest, Delta, American, United, and other airlines are doing," recommends Keyes. "Given the uncertainty of the situation, having peace of mind that you won't be locked into a fare is paramount."

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