Coronavirus panic is at full throttle. In the last week, we’ve received hundreds of requests for assistance from fearful travelers about coronavirus-related cancellations. Our advocacy team has been on call night and day, answering questions and providing help. But many reaching out to us have travel plans several weeks and even months in the future. These troubled travelers want to know if — and how — they should cancel their trips right now.
But for most of these travelers, the answer is simple. Do not cancel your future trip today. (Update/Reprint from March 23)
If your travel isn’t in the next two weeks, you should not let coronavirus panic propel you to cancel your trip. In fact, preemptively canceling your future travel plans can end up costing you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
This is why.
Do not cancel your cruise ahead of a coronavirus travel waiver
If you’re a fan of cruising, then you know that the coronavirus has brought the cruise industry to a halt. Earlier this month, one by one, the cruise lines announced 30-day suspensions of all sailings. By the end of the second week of March, the cruise lines had canceled virtually all sailings into April. Along with that stunning turn of events came temporary coronavirus cancellation waivers for most cruises through July.
But some cruise lines were slower than others to make the drastic move of mass cancellations. NCL was one of the latecomers to announce sweeping travel waivers and cruise cancellations.
In fact, NCL’s announcements came too late for Joan Kellert.
Kellert and her husband intended to cruise aboard NCL’s Spirit on April 4. But with the ever-increasing barrage of panic-inducing coronavirus reports, the elderly couple decided to consider canceling. On March 2, Kellert says she called her travel agent to ask about their options. Of course, the couple didn’t want to lose the $8,000 they paid to enjoy the Haven suite aboard the ship.
But that’s precisely what happened.
A coronavirus cruise cancellation and waiver issued days too late
A few days after Kellert’s initial call to her travel agent, NCL announced its flexible, temporary coronavirus cancellation waiver. The waiver, which allowed penalty-free cancellations for all cruises through July, sounded great to Kellert. Now the panic she felt about the coronavirus and their upcoming trip was alleviated. Kellert again called her travel agent, this time to cancel and collect her future cruise credit.
But she was in for a shock.
Through some misunderstanding or miscommunication, after her initial call on March 2 to inquire about their options, Kellert’s travel agent canceled their cruise — with a full 100 percent cancellation penalty.
She (the travel agent) said SHE CANCELED MY RESERVATION five days earlier. I NEVER authorized her to do so at any time. But NCL said because I didn’t have a cruise scheduled on March 10, they owe me nothing. (Joan Kellert)
The lesson in Kellert’s situation can’t be stressed strongly enough. Please do not cancel your upcoming cruises before a travel waiver is in place for your dates — unless you can do so without penalty.
No benefit from canceling your travel? Then do not cancel
In Kellert’s case, there was no benefit to the early cancellation. The couple instantly lost over $8,000 when the travel agent canceled their cruise.
If you’ll receive no benefit by canceling, such as a refund or future cruise credit, then do not do it. Your decision to cancel prematurely will only benefit the company. Playing the waiting game can have immense benefits.
Just four days after the cruise line announced the coronavirus travel waiver, it canceled all cruises for 30 days — including Kellert’s. If she had waited a few more days, an $8,000 refund would be coming her way right now.
*I’m currently mediating Kellert’s case with NCL and the travel agent. So stay tuned for the full story in the coming weeks. I hope to have good news to report. (May 10 update: Here’s the good news about Kellert’s accidental cruise cancellation)
Coronavirus panic has led to extremely long waits to reach customer service
The travel industry is being inundated with thousands and thousands of calls, emails and tweets. Rebooking and cancellation requests at this moment are in numbers we’ve never previously seen.
Just this week, Elliott Advocacy’s research director, John Galbraith, a British citizen, was set to visit the United States. When the President announced the latest coronavirus-related travel ban, it blocked John from taking his trip. He called Virgin Airlines and spent hours on hold, waiting to find out his options.
This is not an unusual experience in recent days. Airlines, cruise lines, online travel agents, consumer advocates and every other travel provider are being pounded with requests for help. If your travel plans are not in the next 72 hours, most travel providers are asking that you not contact them about your future trip right now.
So if panic over the coronavirus pandemic is pushing you to cancel your vacation, think of the endless wait you’ll endure trying to reach someone for assistance. That should deter your impulse.
Fact: If your airline cancels your flight it owes you a full refund — not a voucher
We’ve seen some pretty creative airline itinerary adjustments in the past weeks. This is a surprising development in the airline industry. Of course, regular readers of our site know that cruise lines can and do sometimes change itineraries. Every cruise contract indicates that itinerary changes are always a possibility, with no compensation owed to the passenger.
However, airline carriers do not enjoy the same flexibility — they aren’t permitted to change your itinerary to unscheduled destinations against your will. This week, though, more than a few consumers contacted us after they were surprised by flight changes that bore little resemblance to their original itinerary.
Lynne Kuhmerker intended to fly from Washington D.C. to Copenhagen this week. On Monday, she received an unusual update. Now her trip would depart from Newark, N.J., instead — 250 miles away. Curiously, the announcement did not mention any cancellation — even though her original flight no longer existed.
Of course, Kuhmerker didn’t want a flight that departed several states away from her home. She wanted a refund. But the email from SAS didn’t make it clear that she was under no obligation to accept the replacement flight. When she tried to contact SAS for clarification, she found it impossible to reach anyone.
To find out what to do, Kuhmerker reached out to our advocacy team. We love to help, but that should not have been necessary.
Airline tickets: Paying for transportation from point A to point B
Unlike cruise tickets, when you purchase an airline ticket, you are paying for transportation from point A to point B. If the airline can’t provide that specific transportation on the date of your travel, the Department of Transportation requires the airline to offer you two choices.
- Put you on the next available flight to your destination on the airline’s own fleet. This flight could be hours or even days later. – OR-
- Provide you a full refund so that you can make alternative transportation arrangements.
At least that is what should happen.
But in this age of coronavirus panic, travelers are finding the wording in the airlines’ cancellation emails and on the websites, confusing. Would-be passengers are making inquiries to their travel providers at an overwhelming rate. These companies can’t keep up with all the requests. As a result, consumers who need immediate help can’t get through.
Renata Funk was one of those passengers who needed assistance in real time this week. She planned to fly to Brussels nonstop on United Airlines from Washington DC. United Airlines canceled the flight, unilaterally changing the date and schedule.
“I can’t reach anyone at Expedia for help confirming my cancellation.”
“Expedia informed me that United Airlines had replaced my nonstop trip with a stopover flight via Newark. This adds almost 6 hours to my journey. I want to cancel,” Funk explained to me. “But I don’t know what the monetary implications are for canceling. The only way to find out is by calling Expedia. But Expedia no longer answers phone calls. There is a convenient ‘technical difficulty’ … for the past three days already.”
Expedia and United Airlines should have sent clear instructions to Funk that she qualified for a full refund. United had canceled her original flight and offered her something she didn’t want. She spent hours over several days trying to reach anyone at either company who could help. The lines were all busy or announced extended waits, and no one responded to her emails.
Funk finally admitted that she was no match for Expedia or United. But she knew that if she didn’t officially cancel the flight before departure, the airline would consider her a no-show. Even with coronavirus waivers in place, the airline could keep her money. That’s when she sent her request for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.
Funk’s story has an ending I think you’ll like, but that full tale is for another day as well. (May 26 update: United Airlines canceled my flight, so how do I get a refund?)
The bottom line: If you don’t have travel plans in the next 72 hours, please stay off the phone. Save yourself the headache of long wait times and endless, futile loops. This will allow travelers who have immediate problems to get through to the companies more quickly.
Fact: If you let panic over coronavirus lead you to cancel your flight, your airline will happily keep your money
Remember, if the airline cancels your flight, it owes you a refund. In these difficult times, the airlines are doing everything possible to hold onto your money. If you cancel a flight weeks before the airline cancels it, you’re a dream come true for your carrier.
Instead of the full refund, you could have been owed by waiting, you’ll get a flight credit instead. And those credits will come with an expiration date.
Airline vouchers are quite restrictive. If you can avoid them, you should.
Worse, if you cancel late summer flights that aren’t currently covered by any waiver, regular change fees will apply. It’s too soon to know how this pandemic will play out. This bears repeating: your future flight might eventually be canceled. Canceling your trip too soon could be an expensive mistake you’ll regret later.
Before you decide to cancel your upcoming trip, carefully consider the pros and cons of early cancellation. Check your airline’s website for current travel waivers. Try not to let coronavirus panic guide you. If there are no benefits to canceling early, and you won’t receive a full refund, waiting it out is the best choice.
Things to keep in mind before you let coronavirus panic cause you to cancel a trip too soon
- Long wait times
Travelers are pounding the airlines, cruise lines, hotels, car rental agencies, and vacation rental companies like never before with requests for assistance. If you don’t have travel plans for the next two weeks, you can save yourself a giant waste of time by waiting to pursue your cancellation. In most cases, your travel provider will grant you no benefit from canceling now. But by canceling too early, you could save your travel provider from being forced to give you a refund later. Is that really something you want to do with your cash?
- Stay up to date with the current travel guidance from the U.S. State Department and the CDC
We’ve received emails from many travelers who are basing pleas for help on misinformation. (No, the President did not ground flights worldwide for 30 days). Keeping yourself well-informed can help reduce coronavirus panic and lessen your impulse to cancel your future vacation right now. If the pandemic is threatening your international travel plans, bookmark the U.S. State Department’s website. There, you can stay current on all the latest facts. The CDC also provides useful information for consumers concerned about the prevention of the coronavirus.
- Bookmark your travel providers’ websites
The state of the travel industry is changing by the moment. Each individual industry is announcing new, temporary travel waivers daily. If you have upcoming travel plans, it’s easy to check current waivers online through your carrier’s website.
- Bookmark Elliott Advocacy’s company contacts
Don’t forget, you don’t need to make phone calls to your travel providers — our research team has compiled a giant database of company contacts just for you.
- Resist the urge to prematurely cancel your trip right now!
Unfortunately, a trend is developing with the cases coming into the Elliott Advocacy helpline. Each new announcement of coronavirus waivers results in a wave of requests by disgruntled travelers. These travelers canceled their trips just before the particular provider announced the waiver — and the consumers want a goodwill gesture. With the current state of the travel industry, goodwill gestures are going to be more difficult than ever to snag. Remember, if no coronavirus cancellation waiver exists on the day you cancel, you won’t be eligible for future waivers. If one is announced the day after your cancellation, you won’t qualify for that benefit. You can avoid this fate by resisting the urge to cancel your future travel plans right now. Unless you’re scheduled for travel in the next week and you’re entitled to a travel waiver, please stand by.
- You could miss a great trip
Finally, no one knows the course of this pandemic. No one. If we all follow the prevention guidance, we can limit the impact and the spread of the coronavirus. By late summer, the threat of this illness might be alleviated. In most cases, waiting to cancel doesn’t cost you a thing. But the end result of waiting could be you enjoying that great vacation you hoped to take!
Let’s all hope for the best. Remember the Elliott Advocacy team is always here to help. But please help us help you. Check your travel provider’s waiver policy and don’t let your own coronavirus panic lead you to preemptively cancel your plans.
Stay safe everyone! (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)