Travel insurance: Can you cancel your travel plans amid coronavirus crisis?

Helen Coffey
A woman wearing a face mask passes a Public Health England sign at London Heathrow Airport, the busiest airport in Europe, on 28 January 2020: Daniel Leal-OlivasAFP via Getty Images

As concern about the spread of Covid-19, or coronavirus, continues to grow, many holidaymakers are wondering where they stand.

Should they cancel their trip to Milan? Should they back out of that two-week package to Tenerife? What about Singapore? Here’s everything you need to know about your rights.

Can I cancel my holiday to China?

Yes – the UK government has advised against all travel to Hubei Province and all but essential travel to mainland China (this does not include Macau or Hong Kong). This means you can cancel your holiday and claim it on your travel insurance; alternatively, your airline, travel agent or tour operator may well offer the chance to rebook for a later date. On the flip side, if you do decide to travel, your travel insurance will be invalidated.

Can I cancel my upcoming holiday to Italy, the Canary Islands or Singapore?

If you’re worried about travelling to a country that’s being impacted by an increasing number of coronavirus cases, you are of course free to cancel your holiday. But it is extremely unlikely that you’ll get your money back, either from your holiday company or your insurer. That’s because, at the time of writing, the Foreign Office is advising against travel to very few places: mainland China; 10 quarantined Italian villages in Lombardy and one in Veneto; and two “special care zones” in South Korea. Until the FCO advice states that you shouldn’t travel somewhere, it’s fair game – flights and holiday packages will continue as normal.

However, it is worth getting in touch with your tour operator or travel agent if you used one, as some are allowing people to rebook for a later date as a gesture of goodwill. The Independent has seen at least one hotel group in Italy, Room Mate Hotels, offering to move holidaymakers’ bookings too.

Some insurers, such as LV, have also said they will consider claims on a “case-by-case” basis, so it could be worth getting in touch with your travel insurance provider if your travel company won’t budge.

On top of that, you may also be able to rearrange flights to northern Italy. Regional airline Flybe is allowing passengers booked to Milan Malpensa to postpone their journey or choose a credit to the value of their ticket to be used in the next year: “Flybe recognises that some of its customers booked to travel on flights between Birmingham and Milan Malpensa may wish to change their travel plans in light of the current coronavirus situation affecting parts of Northern Italy.

“You can rebook your flight on the same route for any future date, providing that seats are still available at the same price as that originally paid. If you would like to choose an alternate flight, please note that we will waive any change fee for your booking, however you will have to pay any change in fare (if higher than your original fare).

“Alternatively, if you are unsure of your future travel dates we will offer you a voucher to the full value of your booking valid for 12 months from the date of issue.”

British Airways has cancelled 22 return flights between London Heathrow and Milan’s Linate airport over the next two weeks due to reduced demand.

A BA spokesperson said: “We will be contacting customers on cancelled flights so we can discuss their travel options including alternative British Airways flights within two hours of their original departure time, full refunds or booking for a later date of travel.”

Wizz Air has also cancelled flights on specific routes to Northern Italy between 11 March and 2 April 2020. During this period around 60 per cent of total Italian capacity has been cut.

The airline has said affected passengers will be “accommodated on an alternative route at the earliest possible date, but at least 14 days prior to the original date of the flight” – customers can opt for the rebooking, a full refund or an 120 per cent refund of the original fare in airline credit.

Are there any circumstances under which I could claim on my travel insurance?

Potentially yes. If you have travel insurance that covers you for an existing medical condition that would make you a more high-risk patient if you contracted Covid-19 – for example, a weak immune system – or takes into account your age, plus you have a doctor’s note advising you not to travel, you may be able to make a claim.

If you’ve booked a package that revolves around something specific – for example, a sporting event or a museum tour – which can no longer go ahead, you may also be able to get refund under the Package Travel Regulations, based on the fact your holiday would be “significantly different” to what was advertised when you booked.

I booked a holiday to a hotel near the quarantined H10 resort in Tenerife. What are my rights?

Both Tui and Jet2 Holidays, which run holidays there, have been very clear that holidays and flights to all other hotels are running as normal and anyone booked to stay at the H10 Hotel will be put up in alternative accommodation.

A spokesperson for Jet2 Holidays said: “We are aware of reports that a non-Jet2 holidays customer staying at the H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife has tested positive for coronavirus. Under the advice of the regional and the Spanish authorities, the hotel has been placed under quarantine.

“We have stopped all sales to the hotel, and customers who are due to travel to the hotel will be transferred to other accommodation.

“In line with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, our flying programme remains unchanged.

“The health and safety of our customers is our absolute priority, and we will continue to release more information as it becomes available.”

A spokesperson for Tui, Britain’s biggest holiday company, said: “Our holiday programme to Tenerife continue to operate as planned for all other hotels.

“We will provide a further update as soon as we have more information.”

I’m flying via China. Can I cancel?

It’s worth checking with the airline first, as many are allowing passengers to claim a full refund. For example, an Independent journalist has cancelled a flight to Japan via Beijing with Air China, which made the following statement: “All tickets with a ticket number beginning with “999” (including mileage award tickets) purchased before 0:00 AM on January 28, 2020 for Air China operated flights or CA-coded codeshare flights that have a travel date later than January 1, 2020 (inclusive). The tickets are valid for one year from the date of issuance. Any applicable tickets as defined above can be refunded free of charge within the validity period of one year as long as the refund is requested before the departure of the flight. We kindly ask the passengers to apply for refunds outside of peak periods.”

Alternatively, this is something you can potentially claim through travel insurance, as even a brief stopover constitutes going against FCO advice.

I’m travelling to South Korea – could I cancel?

Unless you’re travelling to the special cares zones – Daegu and Cheongdo – which is unlikely, again, you can’t claim on travel insurance. However, for those who’ve booked British Airways flights, there might be the opportunity to get a refund: the airline is halving its flights from London to Seoul because of a slump in demand. BA says it is “merging” departures from Heathrow between 13 and 28 March, by cancelling flights on alternate days.

“We will be contacting customers on cancelled flights so we can discuss their travel options, including rebooking onto other carriers where possible, full refunds or booking with BA for a later date of travel,” said the airline.

I’m still worried…

If you’re very anxious because you’re high-risk (because you’re elderly, have had previous respiratory problems or a weak immune system), consult your GP before travelling. Other than that, practising good hygiene is the best way to protect yourself. Public Health England advice is to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, use hand sanitiser that’s at least 60 per cent alcohol when you’re on the move, avoid people who are ill, avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes with your hands, and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in the home and work environment.

However, the organisation doesn’t advise wearing a face mask: “If you are fit and well, with no symptoms, there is no evidence that wearing face masks as a general prevention measure is helpful. Public Health England advises against using masks outside clinical settings. If you decide to use a mask, remember to you should still follow all the recommended precautions above to minimise risk of transmission.”

Is there anything I can do to protect myself when booking future holidays?

First things first, take out comprehensive travel insurance. This means if the situation does change and you end up stranded somewhere, or needing medical attention yourself, you’ll be covered.

“As the situation is developing, we would advise anyone due to travel in the upcoming weeks to ensure they take out travel insurance if they haven’t already in case any further advice is issued against travel to other countries,” said Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel.

“If you are concerned about travel to a country where FCO advice has not been issued, speak to your travel agent or airline as some are offering the chance to rebook for a later date. Your insurer may also allow you to cancel depending on specific circumstances, such as if you have a pre-existing medical condition.”

On top of that, if you feel worried about losing out if the FCO advice changes before your trip, booking a package holiday can offer peace of mind: it means that, if the trip can’t go ahead, for whatever reason, you’ll be entitled to a full refund, unlike if you’ve book parts of the trip individually.

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