Spreading along with the coronavirus: Confusion

  • >>Tariro Mzezewa, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-05 16:29:44 BdST

As the coronavirus spreads across the world and airlines cancel flights to and from China, many travellers have been stuck in limbo. Some are trying to get refunds, while others are unsure of whether to rebook their trips for later dates or cancel them altogether.

With the State Department issuing a “do not travel” advisory and a declaration by the World Health Organisation of a global health emergency, the guidance to avoid mainland China is clear enough. Confusion reigns, however, for those with itineraries via China to other destinations.

InsureMyTrip, a travel insurance comparison site, has recently experienced “at least a 30% increase in call volume,” said Julie Loffredi, media relations manager. Most calls concern the coronavirus.

“There are more people searching coronavirus than the flu right now,” she said. “It’s clear travellers are trying hard to get some guidance around it and know their options.”

Maggie Yu, a software engineer at Capital One in Washington, DC, planned to depart on a trip to Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand this week, but after a stressful weekend of frantically calling airlines, trying to rebook plans, get refunds, and understand the bans being issued by various countries, she decided to cancel.

“The airlines were making changes fast, countries were changing their rules about which flights from what countries could come, and we spent so much time on the phone on hold, trying to get help,” she said. “I also didn’t want to end up stranded.”

Her group trip was to start in Ho Chi Minh City, flying on Air China from Washington with a stopover in Beijing. But when authorities in Singapore, their second stop on the trip, said the city-state would quarantine travellers who had been in China in the previous 14 days, the friends debated whether their two-hour layover in Beijing would qualify as a trip calling for quarantine. Not wanting to risk it, they scrambled to rebook.

A student wearing a protective face mask is seen in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb 5, 2020. REUTERS

A student wearing a protective face mask is seen in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb 5, 2020. REUTERS

Yu settled on a replacement flight to Vietnam on Cathay Pacific, with a stopover in Hong Kong. But when she woke up Saturday, Vietnamese authorities had said no flights from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan would be allowed in the country. She then gave up. Vietnamese authorities Sunday backtracked and lifted the ban on flights from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, but it was too late for Yu.

Christine Kim, one of Yu’s friends, said she understood her friend’s concerns but rebooked her own trip on Korean Air. She said she thinks some of the media coverage of the virus seems to be exaggerated.

“A lot of news stories are overblowing the danger of the virus, so it makes sense that people might not want to travel,” she said. “But as long as I’m not physically prevented from going, I’m not too worried. I’ve flown Korean Air and trust them.”

For other travellers, it’s been unclear who exactly is responsible for issuing refunds.

Laura Clews had a China Eastern Airlines flight to New Zealand from London, with a stopover in Shanghai. When the flight was cancelled last week, Clews spent several days trying to get in touch with the airline, ultimately learning that she would have to get a refund through the site she booked on, Travel Genio.

“I went to the Travel Genio site to see if they would be honouring what China Eastern said, but there wasn’t anything on the site, so I found a number for them and tried calling six times,” she said.

No luck. Clews has since reached out to Travel Genio by phone and email, as well as on Instagram, on Facebook and, with a newly created account, on Twitter. She hasn’t heard back.

Attempts to contact the company by phone and through social media for comment were unsuccessful.

Jayne and Ed O’Donnell had planned to visit their daughter and son-in-law in China, where they both teach science in Shanghai. Their monthlong trip was going to take them to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as well.

Like many travellers, the O’Donnells, both 63, booked the vacation through several operators. Flights on Delta, China Eastern Airlines and Vietnam Airlines; hotels on hotels.com; and the biggest expense, a tour booked with Friendly Planet, a company that offers group tours around the world.

Ed O’Donnell said that although Delta gave a refund swiftly, it has been “impossible” to get assistance from China Eastern and Vietnam Airlines. The latter notified the O’Donnells that their flight was cancelled but not if they would be receiving refunds. He said that Orbitz, the booking site, was reaching out to China Eastern on his behalf. At first, Friendly Planet told the couple that their tour was still scheduled so they could not be refunded.

But on Tuesday, a company representative told the O’Donnells that they would get their money back. “They worked hard to accommodate our unique situation and we will definitely travel with them in the future because of the way they handled things,” O’Donnell said.

A man wearing a protective face mask is seen in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb 5, 2020. REUTERS

A man wearing a protective face mask is seen in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb 5, 2020. REUTERS

Travellers can’t assume that travel insurance will cover the cost of a cancelled trip, warned Loffredi of InsureMyTrip. The various policies differ; it might depend on when the insurance policy was purchased.

“Folks who bought before this outbreak in the event they got sick and have to cancel, or who have been quarantined on a cruise ship, or have to come home early from China because they are sick are likely covered,” Loffredi said. “For everyone else, coverage may not be available.”

The best insurance option at this point is “cancel-for-any-reason” insurance, which tends to have a high upfront premium and still only picks up about half the cost of a trip.

Some people were frustrated about the lack of clarity around how long authorities expect coronavirus to be around.

“We have no idea if we should just cancel the trip, wait this out or what?” said Donna Roberts, whose son is scheduled to travel to China in June on a school trip. “There’s literally no timeline for the travel ban, so at this point we’re simply keeping our fingers crossed.”

Ed O’Donnell echoed this, saying that people are being asked to make decisions without the proper support from companies that should be helping.

“We are just one of thousands and thousands of people who are finding themselves in a situation where we have to make the decision on cancelling, because we can’t really depend on the other parties,” he said.

© 2019 New York Times News Service