You’ve spent weeks or months planning the first best spring break vacation. Flights or train tickets are bought, hotels reserved, you have tickets to your tours and shows, reservations at great restaurants. Then you hear the news. A little virus in China. Then Thailand, Singapore, no Europe and the US. It happened so fast. What was a little virus that was shutting down places halfway across the world is now in our doorstep and out of control. It’s officially a pandemic. Suddenly, you and your whole family are home, kid’s school closed for a couple of weeks, spring break has been canceled or moved, and you are all asked to practice “social distancing”. But you have these great plans! Now what?
Look, I can imagine how upsetting and devastating this is. And each family has to make their own decision on whether or not to move forward or cancel their trip. And I’m not making recommendations in this article on what your should do. But I know that if you are canceling, it can all be overwhelming. So I wanted to put together some thoughts and tips on what to do, and how to go about canceling.
Decision: Postpone or Cancel?
Before you start calling, you need to make a personal decision, are you going to postpone or cancel? Postponing will likely allow you to get the most of your investment back. However, not everyone can postpone. This might be their only pre approved vacation time, or they are flying for a special event such as a wedding or concert. If you are planning to postpone, try and think about what dates you want to move your trip to. My suggestion is to make sure it’s at least 3-4 months out, as you want to make sure it’s out enough to avoid having to go through this again. Once you have the dates in mind, it’s easier to start with the calls and plans.
Right now, US domestic airlines are waiving change fees and dropping flight prices in an effort to encourage people to continue flying with them. This works in your favor because it means you don’t have to go through trip insurance (we’ll discuss that later).
Be sure to check your airlines policy. Especially if you booked a low cost “saver” or “basic economy” fare. Often for the other fare classes, the airline is allowing you to change the reservation and save the fee. With the lower priced ticket, they are simply offering a credit that can be used within one year. Today.com has a great comprehensive list of all the domestic airlines policies.
Many airlines have updated their websites to allow you to make the changes to your reservation online. Call volumes are tremendously high at the moment, so if you can self service online, please do. If you find you have to call, make sure to do it at a time where you can sit on hold for a long time. Get a cup of tea and some good reading while you wait. Once they come on, remember they are human too. They have been talking to many many people. A few kind words will get you much better service.
Remember, if you booked through a third party website (expedia, booking.com, etc), you will need to go through them to get your refund. Their call volumes are extremely high as well, so if you are not leaving in the next few days, it may be worthwhile to wait a few days. Same advice applies, have a little patience. These people have been doing nothing but canceling things all day and they are as stressed as you are.
This one gets trickier. It depends on where you booked the hotel. As with airlines, if you booked through a third party website, you will need to go through the site to request a refund. It is also important to understand if you booked at a rate that allows you to cancel. Often rooms will be discounted with a “Pre-Paid” rate. If you booked a room that allows you to cancel before a certain time, you can almost always do it online. If you booked a room with a penalty or that does not allow cancellations, then you will likely need to get on the phone if you want to get some sort of refund. Remember, in this case you are asking for a special exception. They don’t have to give it to you. Here is where it’s important to know if you are postponing or cancelling. If you ask to move out the date, or ask for the money in credit, you are much more likely to get a positive response. If you are asking for a full refund, know that they don’t have to give it to you. And of course, asking nicely may get you something back in return.
Generally, car rentals are refundable if you cancel 48 hours before your trip. Even if you do the pre-paid rate, you can usually get your money back minus a cancelation fee. Go through the site you booked to make your cancelation, and have patience if you are on the phone.
Cruises that have been canceled will be fully refunded. If you are looking to proactively cancel a cruise, make sure to reach out to the cruise operator and understand their policies. To keep customers they are generally being lenient with rescheduling and providing credit for a future cruise. Consider those options to maintain as much of your investment as possible.
This one is tricker. Often pre-booked tours are hard to get refunds. If the tour is cancelled, then you will get your full refund. But if it continues, it’s often difficult to get your money returned. Also, remember these are often run by small businesses where tourism is their livelihood. Asking for your full refund could end up crushing their business. Consider asking to reschedule, or if not, a credit that you could potentially gift to someone else that will visit that area.
Tickets to Performances
Here these tickets are generally non-refundable. If the performance is rescheduled, you can either use it or sell it on a resell site. If the performance is cancelled, they will usually credit back the original buyer. If you bought it through a third party, you will have to approach them for the refund. And for anything not canceled, you can try to resell it to recoup some of the losses.
I’ve saved the topic of travel insurance for last. This one is trickier. Travel insurance is a great idea when traveling and you want to be covered should an emergency occur. But, unless you buy the more expensive “Cancel for any reason” insurance, it will not cover you canceling the trip because of coronavirus. In fact, now that it’s been considered a pandemic, generally travel insurance will not cover cancellations. Alliance Travel is making some exceptions for those who get sick with COVID-19 before or during their trip, but it is under very specific instances. Make sure to understand your policy to see if you are covered. In general since most big ticket expense (flights, hotels, etc) are being lenient on their policies, I would recommend going through them to secure refunds before going through travel insurance. Once you have exhausted this options, file a claim for the rest of the expenses, and see what you can get from your travel insurance policy.
We are living in unsettling times and everyone is adjusting as best they can. Understanding will take you a long way. If you decide to make changes, please remember that you are doing this for your family, and for those that are choosing to keep traveling please take precautions. Use disinfecting wipes, wear a mask if you are sick (but leave them if you are not sick. It will not protect you). And remember to keep yourself away from those who are vulnerable. The last thing you want is to infect someone else.
As for my family, we have a difficult decision to make. We have a trip planned to Washington DC and then to Richmond, VA for a wedding. We have already decided that we will cancel the Washington DC portion as it appears the Smithsonian will be closed. Thankfully, we didn’t book any tour tickets or the rental car, and our hotel cancelation was easy. However, we have yet to decide about the wedding, but so far it’s not looking good. I hate to cancel, but I also hate to be the cause of someone else getting sick. I’ll likely give it a few more days before finalizing our decision. We have other trips planned later in the year, so if we cancel, we will use the credit to fly to New Jersey in the summer.
It’s never easy to give up on the idea of a trip after spending so much time and energy planning. And it’s especially hard when you might be facing a significant financial loss. But know that this too shall pass, and hopefully you will be able to take that trip in the future. Until then, enjoy the home life and time bonding as a family.
UPDATE: As of late March, the wedding we planned to attend was canceled due to the Coronavirus. We were able to cancel our flights and use the airline credit for tickets to New Jersey for the summer, and are praying that trip will occur. The hotel was canceled with no issue.