With the swine flu alert level at level five, the anxiety level for many travelers has been cranked up to 11. And while the World Health Organization hasn't officially called for a restriction on regular travel, worry about exposure to the deadly influenza bug is spurring many people to cancel or postpone their scheduled trips to Mexico.
Now, those with travel insurance are wondering: Will those policies cover the costs associated with making those changes?
In a nutshell, the answer is: if you’ve got swine flu, yes; if you’re just worried about it getting the bug, then maybe not.
Unless, that is, you’ve purchased an upgrade commonly known as “cancel for any reason” insurance. But even those policies come with restrictions: Usually a trip must be canceled 48 hours before departure and the policy must be purchased 14 days from the date of an initial trip deposit. And even then, there can be exclusions.
Read the fine print
According to U.S. Travel Insurance Association, the most important thing to remember is, “travel coverage varies widely by company.” So before assuming that a policy will or will not cover a situation, the organization is urging everyone to “check with their individual travel insurance company and carefully review their policy to see what is covered.”
For example, CSA Travel Protection says most of their plans cover travelers who contract the swine flu before traveling and while on a trip, as well as travelers quarantined prior to or while on a trip, but, “coverage does not include fear of traveling to a specific region, and generally there is no coverage for cancellation due to government regulations or advisories to specific regions.”
Keep in mind though, that the swine flu outbreak hasn’t been officially declared an epidemic or pandemic. Even if it is, many policies specifically “exclude any loss due to pandemic or epidemic,” and do not consider epidemics and pandemics natural disasters.
That’s where “cancel for any reason” coverage comes in. Travelers who have purchased policies with this coverage are usually eligible to cancel their trip due to personal choice or concern due to government advisories.
No insurance? You still have options
Most airlines, hotels and travel agencies, including Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and CheapOair, are being flexible in relaxing reservation policies and waiving fees for cancellations and refunds.
But anyone hoping to change their plans will need to pay attention and be ready to make decisions. While many companies are allowing travel changes, there are deadlines and restrictions and cut-off dates that vary from company to company. Some airlines, for example, still have a May 6 deadline for making changes to a reservation, while others have extended that deadline through the end of the month.
And while many individual hotels and resorts are waiving change fees for all travelers wishing to alter their arrival dates, some travel suppliers will still levy a fee if you don’t take advantage of that offer by a certain date.
Sandi Sharpe of Travelcats Travel, for example, is finding that while most airlines are waiving change fees, many resorts appear to be sticking to their usual cancellation policies and penalties. “One of my vendors is not allowing us to cancel a May 12 departure date without penalty because they do not feel the Cabo area is affected. Other suppliers are allowing free changes for all trips scheduled for travel prior to May 15.”
In general most people are finding that companies are doing what they can to help out. Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Forrester Research, says it’s not just because these companies have promised to act in the best interest of their customers, but because they’re trying to keep one eye on their future bottom line. “If they don’t, they’ll wonder why their sales, load factors or occupancy rates are so low when the situation improves.”
What about your bottom line right now? If you’ve got a trip planned and are considering making changes, sit down and start charting your options, deadlines and alternatives. Many airlines, resorts and hotels will let you make changes online, but if you need to call a supplier, set aside some time and patience: there are plenty of people in your situation, so you may be on hold for a long time.
Don’t give up or panic — but don’t wait
Some travel planners, such as Howard Green of MoonRings, a San Diego-based travel planner for honeymoons and anniversaries, suggest that travelers with June plans hold off on canceling “because these things have a way of working themselves out.” But the advice from travelers who have tried making changes for trips within the next few weeks is “don’t wait.”
Jessica Murdoff was scheduled to travel to Mexico for an anniversary trip. “We are now going to Jamaica. Our travel agent kept advising us to wait it out and we pushed to rebook ASAP. It was not easy to change our plans, but doable. There must be thousands of people in our situation.”
Jennifer McCarty was in that situation and needed the help of a village to make changes in her travel plans. She was scheduled to get married in the Rivera Maya on May 9th, with a few dozen friends and family members in attendance. Worried about her guests getting sick or bringing the flu bug home, and not wanting to have to find face masks to match her wedding colors (orange), she’s decided to move the wedding to September. With the help of her travel agent and the flexibility of airlines, resorts and a bevy of time-share companies, the bride and groom and just about every one of their 38 guests has been able to change their trips at no cost additional cost.
So don’t give up, don’t panic, but if you think you want to make changes, don’t wait. And if you go ahead and take that scheduled trip to Mexico, don’t be surprised if some folks are a bit stand-offish when you come back rested, tanned and healthy after a week on the beach.
Martin Focazio says “A co-worker went on vacation to Mexico this past Saturday. Now nobody wants him to come back to the office next week.”
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.