Coronavirus and Your Money: Special Coverage

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By Brad Tuttle
Updated: March 13, 2020 9:11 AM ET | Originally published: March 11, 2020
An Alaska Airlines airplane passes by the skyline of lower Manhattan in New York City as it heads to a gate at Newark Liberty Airport.
Gary Hershorn—Corbis via Getty Images

We love cheap travel deals as much as anyone. And it’s hard not to notice that the coronavirus, or COVID-19, is causing a steep drop in flight prices worldwide. But is booking a trip because prices are crazy cheap right now a smart move or, well, just plain crazy?

On the one hand, traveling anywhere lately might seem unwise, irresponsible, and even dangerous, and the situation seems to change minute by minute. On Wednesday night, President Donald Trump announced a 30-day suspension of travel from nearly everywhere in Europe except the UK to the U.S., though the ban only applies to foreign nationals (not legal residents of the U.S.). To try to contain the coronavirus, all of Italy has enacted drastic restrictions, including a ban on sporting events and all public gatherings. In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day parades are being cancelled, colleges are sending students home for the rest of the semester, the NBA basketball season has been suspended indefinitely, and major companies like Google and Apple are telling employees to work from home.

While the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. remains fairly small, testing has been limited and infections could spread quickly. Because of so much uncertainty, and how quickly things are changing, it is probably not a good idea to travel unless you can handle a fair amount of flexibility. Many people also argue that even if you are young and healthy and not worried about getting sick, if you decide to travel you could very well spread the coronavirus to others who are in heightened risk groups.

On the other hand, as of Wednesday groups like the U.S. Travel Association were quick to point out that “public health officials have repeated frequently that it is safe for healthy people to travel in the U.S.,” and that “there are no restrictions on travel within the United States.” Pro-travel organizations have also been stressing the importance that travel has on the U.S. economy as a whole, and that hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, and all of their employees are obviously hit hard if people decide not to travel.

Then there is the temptation of a phenomenally low-cost vacation — think: $99 flights to Oahu, $39 flights to Orlando, 30% or more off hotel rates — to add into the mix. Hayley Berg, an economist at the travel research and booking site Hopper.com, told Money.com that as of March 9, average airfare prices in the U.S. were down 20% compared to the same time a year ago, while international airfare is down 15%.

But saving money is just one of the many factors you should consider when deciding if travel is wise anytime soon.

Coronavirus Travel Warnings

Depending on who you are and where you want to go, traveling could be a bad idea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially recommends that you avoid nonessential travel to countries where the coronavirus has wreaked the most havoc, including China and Italy. Anyone returning to the U.S. from China lately is subject to being quarantined, or is possibly being asked to monitor their health and “practice social distancing.”

Even though President Trump has banned travel from Europe to America for foreign nationals starting on Friday, March 13, at midnight, travel to Europe from the U.S. is still allowed. U.S. citizens and legal residents, as well as direct relatives of U.S. citizens, will be allowed entry back into the U.S. from Europe, but these people can expect to receive medical screenings and perhaps be asked to self-quarantine after arriving in the States. Among the many unknowns is how this ban would affect transatlantic airlines — and how many flights will be cancelled because so few tickets are likely to be sold.

What about cruises? At least three cruise lines (Viking, Princess, Disney) have suspended cruises for the next several weeks. Even before cruise companies shut down operations, the CDC had recommended that people defer all cruise ship travel, to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Yet a coronavirus task force created by the White House had softened that stance. “If you’re a healthy, young person, there’s no reason, if you want to go on a cruise ship, not to go on a cruise ship,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a task force press conference on Monday. On the other hand, Fauci said, “an individual who has an underlying condition, particularly an elderly person that has underlying conditions, I would recommend strongly that they do not go on a cruise ship.”

Of that point, the CDC is in full agreement, issuing a statement that older travelers and people in poor health should be “avoiding crowded places, avoiding non-essential travel such as long plane trips, and especially avoiding embarking on cruise ships.” At the same time, the CDC’s FAQ page says “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes,” and “the risk of infection on an airplane is low.”

While there are currently no restrictions on air travel within the U.S., it’s smart to keep tabs on where the coronavirus is popping up — and perhaps avoid areas with outbreaks. As of Thursday, March 12, the CDC reports a total of 1,215 confirmed coronavirus cases in 42 states and Washington, D.C., though some scientists say the official tally is drastically underestimated because testing in the U.S. has been so limited.

If you are traveling anytime soon within the U.S., the best practices are largely the same as those recommended everywhere: Wash your hands often, avoid crowded places if possible, and stay indoors and away from other people if you are feeling ill. If you find out you’ve been near someone affected with the coronavirus, take extra precautions by monitoring your health closely.

If you begin to show symptoms of the coronavirus after exposure, contact your doctor right away. Even if you don’t wind up having the coronavirus, you may be asked to self-quarantine after traveling to a spot affected by the virus.

Super Cheap Flight Deals

Airlines have seen a sharp decline in travelers buying flights because of coronavirus fears, and as a result they have been compelled to keep lowering flight prices in an attempt to fill plane seats.

While there are flight deals to almost anywhere you’d want to go, prices are particularly cheap to international destinations. As of Wednesday, nonstop round-trip flights from New York to London in June were available for $335, with all fees and taxes included. According to Kayak.com, the average round-trip economy price on this route is $660 for travel in June, which is the most expensive month for flights to London.

Flights from Boston to Paris in June were available starting at $370, round-trip, when we looked. That route normally sells at an average of $732 for June departures.

There are also plenty of flight deals for travelers who don’t want to venture overseas. According to data from Hopper, domestic airfare prices fell an average of 14% from March 4 to March 7, and flight prices to major destinations like Miami, New York, and Las Vegas dropped upwards of 29%.

Indeed, we’re seeing incredibly low prices to popular leisure destinations like Hawaii and Florida right now. Alaska Airlines recently extended a flight sale for bookings made by March 16, with one-way airfare deals like:

• Los Angeles to San Jose: $25

• Seattle to Oakland: $49

• Newark to Los Angeles: $89

• Los Angeles to Baltimore: $99

• Oakland to Honolulu: $99

Yes, that means a round-trip from the San Francisco Bay area to Hawaii for travel this spring can be had for around $200. Normally, if you paid double that for this route, it would be considered a pretty good deal. Hawaiian Airlines is also promoting flight deals to Hawaii, with prices from $278 round-trip from the West Coast to several different islands, and from $598 round-trip from New York City to Honolulu.

JetBlue and Southwest are among the airlines with nationwide airfare sales right now. At JetBlue, you’ll find one-way flight deals like New York (JFK) to San Francisco for $99 and Fort Lauderdale to Cleveland for $49. Flights to and from Orlando are super cheap lately, apparently because interest in hitting the area’s theme parks has plunged. JetBlue is advertising flights like Boston or New York (JFK) to Orlando for only $39, and Orlando to Austin for the same $39 price.

Mind you, these flight prices are just a small sample of what’s available right now. In many cases, airlines are not advertising airfare sales, per se, but they are likely to be matching other airline deals or simply offering super low prices on a wide range of routes to entice travelers to book. The only way to find out how much it would cost on a given route on dates that work for you is to plug the info into a search engine like Google Flights, Hopper, or Kayak, or at your preferred airline website.

Airline Coronavirus Cancellation and Change Policies

In addition to cheap flight prices, airlines have introduced special coronavirus change and cancellation policies as a way to ease travelers’ concerns. Basically, because of the coronavirus, domestic airlines are waiving their usual change fees — which can normally cost as much as $200.

Each airline’s coronavirus policy is a little different, and you should read the fine print before booking a flight anytime soon. But Delta’s policy allowing free flight changes due to the coronavirus is fairly typical. Delta says that passengers who have purchased tickets anytime from March 1 to 31 will be allowed to make one itinerary change without paying any fees. Customers have a choice of either changing to a new flight right away, or just cancelling the original flight and getting a credit that can be used no later than February 28, 2021. Delta is also allowing one free flight change on any international and domestic flight scheduled for departure in March or April, regardless of when the purchase was made. In this case, the new flight must take place no later than December 31, 2020.

Take note that most airlines are allowing only one free flight change due to the coronavirus. (Southwest Airlines is the exception; it always lets customers change tickets for free, and yes, you can change itineraries more than once.) Also, as is customary, even if you are not paying a change fee, you will have to pay the difference in the price of your original ticket compared to the price of your new itinerary.

Many international airlines are waiving change fees due to the coronavirus too. Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian Air, as examples, have specifically spelled out policies allowing passengers on tickets purchased in the near future to change flights for free. The exact rules and date requirements vary by airline, though, and you should look over the details closely before purchasing any flights.

Oh, and what about airlines giving flight refunds because of the coronavirus fears? Don’t get your hopes up. For the time being, airlines are not offering refunds on nonrefundable flight purchases. There are some exceptions — if your flight is cancelled, for instance, you’re entitled to a refund — but right now the airlines are not giving customers the option to get a refund because they don’t want to travel.

Coronavirus and Travel Insurance

If you want to book a flight and be able to decide later to cancel and get a refund, there is basically one option: buying travel insurance that includes a Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) upgrade.

As Money.com has previously reported, standard travel insurance policies have four main coverage areas: “trip cancellation, trip interruption, medical evacuation, and emergency medical costs.” If your trip has to be cancelled or cut short because of a situation named specifically in the policy, you will be compensated for the nonrefundable costs you’ve paid and haven’t experienced.

However, travel insurance will not cover you if you simply decide to cancel a trip — unless you’ve paid extra for the policy to include the CFAR option. Adding “Cancel For Any Reason” coverage might add 30% to 60% onto the base price of a travel insurance policy. It’s also important to note that CFAR coverage does not pay off at 100%; instead, you can expect to get back 50% to 75% of your original nonrefundable outlay.

Whether it makes sense to book a trip and pay extra for travel insurance with CFAR depends on a whole range of factors, including how cheap flights are, what portions of your travels are totally nonrefundable, and how much travel insurance costs. Remember: If you’re purchasing a flight anytime soon, most airlines will allow you to change tickets once for free down the line.

We’ll leave the decisions about buying travel insurance — and the many other things to consider about travel in the era of coronavirus — up to you.

More from Money.com:

Coronavirus Scams Are on the Rise

Every Major Airline’s Coronavirus Change and Cancellation Policy

The Fed Just Cut Interest Rates on Coronavirus Fears. Here’s What That Means for You and Your Money

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