Comprehensive guide to travel refunds during the coronavirus outbreak

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I had a trip planned to Ireland this month. I was supposed to be leaving today.

As late as this past Wednesday morning, we were still debating if we should go or not. We didn’t want to be too overreactive, yet at the same time, we wanted to take proper precautions. We were also very aware of being a responsible traveler, and following recommended protocol for containment. In the end, we decided that between the iffiness of flights getting canceled or possible quarantines that would strand us, along with the recent US ban on return travel from Europe — as well as the conviction that unnecessary pleasure travel was irresponsible in terms of potentially contributing to the spread (even unintentionally) — there were just too many variables. So we canceled.

Obviously, in the last three days since making that decision, we have been wondering what would happen to our airline tickets (which were on Norwegian and RyanAir). We kept checking the airlines’ websites, and on March 12 finally got emails from both of them stating that our travel could be rebooked for a later date, with no change fees.

This is generally the case now with most airlines, and many hotel chains or booking sites are following suit in light of the global coronavirus. Companies like Airbnb and VRBO have issued travel statements. There are also talks in the political world about offering new tax breaks for Americans who keep their travel within the boundaries of the United States. This would all be an effort to boost tourism. Whether this will happen or not is tough to say since it is just being deliberated at this point in time.

With that in mind, we’ve found some resources that can help you navigate changed and canceled travel plans, and give you the information you need during the COVID-19 outbreak.


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At the moment, the only way to get a full refund from the airlines is if the airline itself outright cancels your flight.

Well-known travel expert Christopher Elliott, author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic) and the Monday Travel Troubleshooter column in the Seattle Times, wrote a recent article at that newspaper with a lot of great information.

Christopher says, “Unless your air carrier cancels your flight, you may have to pay a change fee and fare differential if you have a non-refundable ticket. But during the coronavirus crisis, airlines are relaxing some of their rules.”

As mentioned, we found that to be the case with our flights – the airlines offering a one-time, no-fee change. It seems in the past few days that most major airlines are doing the same. Look on their website for this information, or in emails you’ve received about your flight. If you don’t see a policy or this subject addressed, send them an email or Tweet their customer service account.

Conde Nast Traveler has an excellent, complete guide to the various airlines’ refund policies.

Car Rentals

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Most car rentals are fully refundable unless you’ve booked one of those prepaid rentals to get better rates, generally through sites like Priceline or Hotwire. In that case, you would have to negotiate to get your money back. I personally think it’s worth reaching out to them. Many companies are making exceptions and relaxing the rules due to this global pandemic.

Cruise Lines

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Refund rules can vary. For a cruise two months or more from now, you may lose your deposit. If you’re closer to your sailing date, Elliott says you may lose 75% or more of your fare. If the cruise line cancels, you get a full refund.

“The amount of your refund depends on the type of ticket and how much time you have until you cast off,” Elliott wrote. “Although cancellation policies are generally similar, they are not identical.”

However, like airlines (and many other travel companies), many cruise lines are making exceptions and offering no-cost changes. And, of course, if the cruise line itself cancels your journey, you get a full refund.


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Hotel refund policies vary widely. If you booked a refundable rate, you can get your money back. If you saved money by booking a fully prepaid discount rate, you may not get your money back unless the hotel closes or cancels your reservation.

“Most hotels refund your entire stay if you cancel 48 hours or more before your arrival, but resort stays and all-inclusives can have more restrictive terms,” Elliott says. “You have to read cancellation policy terms carefully. There’s no one-size-fits-all policy — it varies by hotel and hotel chain.”

With hotels, you get what you negotiate. Hotels and resorts aren’t as strict about refunds because generally, it’s a far more competitive industry than airlines.

As always, make sure you get everything in writing when you negotiate a waiver. Hotels, like other travel companies, sometimes forget what they promise. So if you’re wondering if you can get your money back if you cancel your vacation, there’s a chance your hotel will have to look up the answer or pass your inquiry to a supervisor for consideration.

Vacation rentals

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Policies vary widely. If you’ve booked directly with an individual owner, reach out to them and see if you can come to an agreement for rebooking at a later date or a full or partial refund.

If you’ve booked through a platform like Airbnb or VRBO, things may be a little different. These platforms are also creating and updating new policies in relation to the coronavirus.

Check out VRBO’s refund policies here. Review your reservation to get the details. They also have an area with specific information regarding COVID-19.

Airbnb has a variety of refund policies, including viral outbreaks. These cases require a “special review” by Airbnb, meaning that you may or may not be able to get your money back. Review Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances policy for the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Generally, hosts in a city that’s under quarantine at the time of your stay will not force you to follow through with your visit. If they do, you can always appeal to your booking platform.


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They can be complicated since there are various components — each with its own refund rules. Generally, if your tour operator cancels, everything gets refunded. If that’s not the case, check their website for an updated policy, or reach out and ask.

Travel insurance

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Travel insurance isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get reimbursed. There are very specific conditions and requirements for coverage, so check your policy thoroughly. You must cancel for a covered reason listed in the plan document. If you have a “cancel for any reason” policy, you may very well be covered.

Some of the major travel insurance carriers are instituting special policies for this case. Allianz Travel, for example, has said that if your travel supplier cancels your trip because of coronavirus or if you’re traveling to China — and no claim has been filed under the plan — you can get a refund or shift your coverage to a different date.

Just Ask! And Get it in Writing!

If you aren’t sure about your booked travel, or the policy is stating no refunds, my advice is to simply reach out to the provider and just ask. Obviously, right off the bat mention “due to the global pandemic and recent travel bans…”

I think that many operators, particularly larger ones, are falling in line to make exceptions. This is a truly unique time, both with travel and the world in general. If you ask, you just may very well get either a refund or a no-fee change or voucher for future travel.

Of course, some small operators will have great difficulty doing this, and it’s understandable. This current, almost ground-to-a-halt travel industry has had disastrous impacts on very small inns, private Airbnb or vacation rental owners, individual and small tour operators, and guides, etc. It could put them out of business, so unless you’re going to be out a huge sum of money, maybe think twice about asking for a refund. Try to at the very least just ask to rebook for a later date. If you have paid a large sum of money, maybe ask for a partial refund. I know it never feels good to lose money, but small operators are really hurting too — and in the end, huge fallout in the travel industry will hurt us all.

Lastly, email is the preferred way to inquire and receive such exceptions, because it is in writing. There is a huge amount of communication and confusion going on right now, and with potential lay-offs, certain employees may not even be there later. Always get it in writing and save the communication. If you must speak to someone on the phone (i.e. if you haven’t received a response to your email on time), record the conversation just to be safe.

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