Cancelling a trip during the coronavirus outbreak? Your travel insurance may not cover the cost

As the coronavirus spreads globally, Canadians may start rethinking their travel plans. However, pulling the plug could be costly, depending on what type of travel insurance you have. 

Here’s what you need to know before cancelling or booking a trip during the coronavirus outbreak.

Consider trip opt-out insurance

Mike Mitchell and his wife, Marlene, started getting cold feet about a month before their Feb. 27 Asian cruise. The coronavirus was already spreading outside China and their three-week cruise included stops in several nearby countries. 

The tipping point for the couple was when news broke in early February that passengers were stuck in quarantine for two weeks onboard the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Japan. 

The Mitchell’s cabin on their ship had no windows, so they didn’t want to risk the same fate. 

“If we were stuck in this inside cabin for two weeks, what would we do? We would go crazy,” said Mike Mitchell, who lives in Victora. “I thought, ‘There is no way I want to go on this cruise.'”

But there was a problem. Mitchell had bought travel insurance — even opted for a premium plan which included extra coverage. But it didn’t include a “Cancel For Any Reason” (CFAR) option, so he’d be on the hook for the entire $5,400 cruise if he and his wife cancelled due to coronavirus fears.

“There was nothing in the rules of the insurance that we could use as an excuse,” said Mitchell. “We would lose all that money.”

Passengers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were quarantined for 2 weeks while it was docked in Yokohama, near Tokyo. Many became ill while in quarantine. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

While regular trip cancellation insurance protects people if they say, get sick and can’t travel, it typically won’t cover customers who cancel a trip due to fears that something might go wrong — such as catching the coronavirus. 

Travel insurance expert Will McAleer said travellers who want extra protection right now should consider purchasing the CFAR option.

“It essentially allows people — just because they don’t have a good feeling — to make changes to their travel plans,” said McAleer, executive director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada.

To note, the CFAR option is an added cost and McAleer warns that it generally won’t cover the full amount of a cancelled trip. 

Check Canada’s travel advisories

For travellers who only have regular cancellation insurance, McAleer said they typically will only be covered for a coronavirus-related cancellation if they booked a trip before the Canadian government issues a travel advisory to not travel to, or to avoid essential travel to, their destination. 

The government has issued an advisory to avoid non-essential travel to China, Iran and parts of South Korea. But that wouldn’t have helped Mitchell, who had none of those destinations on his cruise itinerary. 

“You get to the point where you say, ‘OK, well, I guess we’re going to lose our money,'” said Mitchell. 

However, his luck changed about a week before the trip when his cruise company, Norwegian Cruise Line, sent him an email announcing that it had cancelled the cruise due to growing coronavirus concerns. As a result, Mitchell would get a full refund. 

“The weight was off our shoulders,” he said. 

Ask for mercy

For travellers who want to cancel their trip and have no travel insurance options, McAleer suggests asking their travel provider for mercy. 

“See whether there was anything they could do to change those dates, because what we’re seeing is, airlines and other travel suppliers are becoming much more flexible.”

Currently, Air Canada is waiving the change fee for travellers who want to rebook flights to or from China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Italy, which have widespread cases of coronavirus. 

However, that offer doesn’t help Air Canada passenger Vanessa Le, who was set to fly from Vancouver to Tokyo this past Friday to race in the Tokyo Marathon on Sunday. 

Marathon runner Vanessa Le of Langford, B.C. is out $2,400 in plane tickets after the Tokyo Marathon was cancelled for most participants due to coronavirus fears. (submitted by Vanessa Li )

On Feb. 17, marathon organizers restricted the race to a small number of elite runners after a case of COVID-19 — the illness caused by the coronavirus — was confirmed in Tokyo. 

Le, who lives in Langford, B.C., decided to cancel her trip, which cost $2,400 in airfare for herself and her husband. 

She said she called Air Canada repeatedly, but that the airline wouldn’t offer a refund or any other options, because Le had bought a discounted, basic economy ticket — which means no refunds or flight changes are allowed.

“It sucks. It’s a lot of money to lose,” said Le. “We shouldn’t be penalized by Air Canada for taking safety into our hands.”

Air Canada didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for the publication of this story. 

A happy ending

Sometimes, persistence does pay off. Saidi Chan of Toronto wasn’t covered by travel insurance when she decided to cancel her two-week Asia cruise with Norwegian, leaving on Feb. 6.

Chan was concerned about the spreading coronavirus and feared her flight home from the cruise’s final destination — Hong Kong — would be cancelled as COVID-19 cases mounted in the region

At the time, Norwegian declined to offer a refund or travel credit. However, Chan said she persisted by continually calling and emailing the cruise line to make her case.

“I didn’t give up,” said Chan, whose cruise included four family members and totalled $14,000. “I felt like it was very unfair.”

On Feb. 23, Chan got good news. Although the cruise hadn’t been cancelled, Norwegian informed her by email that she would receive a full refund for the trip.

“I was very extremely relieved and very happy,” said Chan.

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