If the onslaught of bad news and border closures due to COVID-19 were not enough, the State Department’s latest Category 4 travel warning seals the deal for deciding whether or not to venture (or stay) overseas. Its “do not travel” advisory asks U.S. citizens not to go abroad and for those abroad to return immediately. Otherwise, they risk remaining overseas indefinitely while we await brighter days. If you've found yourself stranded because of the novel coronavirus, here are some helpful suggestions to improve your odds of getting home in a pinch.
If you’re overseas, immediately enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which has updated information for each country offering resources like local services and embassy contact information. This is a wise move whenever you travel.
Book Flights Quickly
Don’t assume all flights are canceled. Airlines are continuing to operate overseas flights on several routes for now. Many announced drastic schedule reductions, but for now, these will be at their highest during April and May. If you are overseas now, you can still get home on commercial flights, although prices may be high (consider redeeming miles at any cost if that’s an option). Check prices online while waiting on hold, and be sure to search in premium economy, business, and first-class if available just in case your miles can get you on an earlier flight.
Consider alternative U.S. gateways if your preferred option is not available. If you cannot get through to your airline, book with another airline and sort it out with your original carrier when home. Both American and Delta have said if you’re unable to reach them in time to change or cancel a flight, they will issue a future travel credit once you reach out after the fact.
Call Local Offices—or Go to the Airport
Try using Skype or WhatsApp to call a regional reservations agent or foreign language support line. Airlines have phone agents that can assist in multiple languages, and many have their own direct lines. Waits can be shorter, and most will speak English anyway. Here’s American’s list of international and foreign language phone agents, for example.
As a last resort, go to the airport where most airlines have ground handlers or ticketing offices. They usually only open within a few hours of a flight’s departure so search your airline’s schedule for the day. Get there early to secure a spot at the front of the line.
One caveat: if you booked through a travel agent (including online options like Orbitz or Expedia), you may hit a roadblock. Typically, airlines are not able to change those reservations and will direct you to call the travel agency directly.
Contact Local Authorities
While other countries like the Netherlands and Spain have been running some repatriation flights to bring their citizens home from overseas before borders close, the U.S. government says not to rely on that option for getting back. The sheer number of Americans abroad might make that too difficult to manage.
Still, it is wise to stay in touch with the U.S. embassy or consulate in your country to ask for any available assistance, which may include knowledge of any additional transportation option. Typically, the U.S. embassy has things they can and cannot help you with when overseas. They can help you to wire additional monetary funds from home if you’re short on cash or connect you via phone or email with loved ones back home. Help may not be as swift though as many embassies are sending some staff and their families back to the U.S., too.
What to Do If You Still Can't Get Home
If all else fails, hotels in most countries are running low occupancy right now. Check rates online, but you run a good chance of getting a lower rate or at least extra perks like breakfast or Wi-Fi included if you go personally to a hotel and ask nicely. The global pandemic is no secret, and by now, you may be realizing that travel insurance has plenty of exclusions that can render it irrelevant in these unusual circumstances (unless you already have “cancel for any reason” (CFAR) insurance). If you have elite hotel status or lots of hotel points, now is the time to use your benefits for safe shelter.
If you are in the European Union and your flight was canceled, you are entitled to some EC261 assistance (monetary compensation does not apply in this “extraordinary” circumstance, but the European Union has ruled that other help does). Any airline departing an E.U. airport is required to get you home on its own flights or that of another airline. They can also provide a cash refund of the unused portion of the flight if they cannot get you home. If you must wait overseas until they can fly you back, airlines must assist with hotel accommodations and meal vouchers until they can. Keep in mind that if you voluntarily choose to cancel or change your flight, it does not apply, however.