The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has had major repercussions for the travel industry. Cruise lines are exercising flexibility for customers, prescreening passengers before they board, and revving up their already stringent cleaning measure. Airlines, too, are continuing to monitor the situation, shifting their cancellation and change policies in response to new information and State Department updates.
The hotel industry is also taking the virus and the threat it may pose to guests and staff seriously. With flights being rebooked and travel plans being bumped, hotels are doing what they can to minimize the impact on guests whose travel plans have changed. But depending on where you’ve booked, the hotel cancellation policy may not always be as flexible, since cancellation coverage often depends on whether you booked directly with the hotel or through a third-party agency. It is important to note that this situation is fluid and shifting circumstances continue to affect the policies in place.
What to know if you booked directly with a hotel
Hotels around the world, both big-brand and boutique, are showing flexibility in response to the virus. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts is waiving cancellation fees until March 31 for guests traveling to any Four Seasons property in the Asia Pacific region and Italy. Cancellation fees are also waived until March 31 for those traveling from Italy, South Korea, China (including the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau), and Taiwan to any Four Seasons property around the world. It’s also continuing to review the latest information from health experts and government authorities, and is passing along the most up-to-date and relevant information to its properties. “Across our global portfolio, we have implemented heightened precautions in food handling, sanitization, disinfection, and cleaning measures,” says a Four Seasons spokesperson. The hotels are placing hand sanitizer dispensers in restaurants and common areas, and reducing hours for certain facilities, including pools and spas. “Each individual property has also implemented specific precautions based on the guidance of local health authorities as well as the specific situation in their region and country,” the spokesperson added. Four Seasons is also providing masks and thermometers to guests upon request.
Hilton has enacted a similar response, issuing modification and cancellation waivers in especially affected area and demographics. Under the new rules, fees are waived for guests traveling to, through, or from China with stays from January 23 to March 31; those traveling to, through, or from Italy with stays from February 24 to March 31; to, through, or from South Korea with stays from February 24 to March 31; and those traveling to, through or from Saudi Arabia with stays from February 27 to March 31. Like Four Seasons, the brand is stressing its grasp on disseminating the newest information with its staff, crafting “Hilton-specific procedures” and talking points that staff can use during interactions with guests. “We are closely monitoring updates from the World Health Organization, and responding based on the best advice of medical professionals and public health authorities,” says a Hilton spokesperson. “If additional social isolation, enhanced cleaning, or other operational actions are required, we put those into action.”
Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, and IHG are also offering case-specific refunds to guests booked in areas considered to be high-risk zones. As of publication, no large-scale hotel brand has implemented a cancellation or change-fee waiver company-wide, as most major airlines have started doing.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but our guide will help you eliminate most of the most pressing questions.
What to know if your trip is booked with a third party
Virtuoso, a luxury global agency network with more than 20,000 advisors, and over 1,800 hotel, cruise line, and tour operator partnerships, is proactively taking measures. “As travel advisors, our current role is to listen to travelers’ concerns and provide the most up-to-date options so they can make informed decisions at a minimal cost,” says agency executive Mary Kleen. Virtuoso advisors are suggesting that clients take a “wait-and-see” approach where possible, because of the rapidly changing nature of the situation. If you’re traveling to Europe later this summer, for example, and you’ve booked somewhere with a 30-day hotel cancellation policy, you can wait until May to take any action.
Agents are also strongly urging clients to purchase insurance, and in particular, cancel-for-any-reason (CFAR) policies for any trips they’re booking now. Even if you’ve already booked your travel and are beyond the 21-day window after making your deposit to purchase CFAR insurance, you can still add travel insurance, and in particular, the kind that will cover medical expenses should it become necessary. Please note that standard travel insurance may not be the most helpful in navigating coronavirus restrictions.
Expedia is also proactively approaching the continually changing circumstances. “We are working closely with our partners to make sure travelers have as much flexibility as possible,” says global PR director Nisreene Atassi. “Expedia is working hard to enhance our user experience so that refundable hotels are more prominent when searching. Just look for our ‘Free Cancellation’ messaging throughout to help identify the flexible hotel offerings.” The company also recommends purchasing a Vacation Waiver (if you book a package through Expedia), which covers all change or cancel penalties for any reason, on a single occasion, so that you have options if circumstances change.
What to know about Airbnb and VRBO policies
Short-term rental companies are also softening cancellation policies in light of the shifting travel market, though it remains important to do your homework before booking if you might need to cancel. Airbnb has a six-tier cancellation policy already built into its operation, which are generally set by the host. However, the company has an Extenuating Circumstances policy, which will protect travelers from cancellation penalties due to unforeseen circumstances. This currently protects travelers going to or coming from areas deemed to be high-risk for the virus, but had not been implemented portfolio-wide to protect travelers who may wish to make a pre-emptive cancellation. And, critically, do not assume that because your plans have been forced to change due to the coronavirus, that you will be covered by the Extenuating Circumstances policy. VRBO has yet to amend their policies to support forced coronavirus cancellations, and their Book with Confidence Guarantee does not cover force majeure circumstances.
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