It’s been just over a month since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, and the entire world has come to a standstill. Not only cities, but whole countries have gone into lockdown, closing borders to non-residents, shuttering non-essential businesses, and instituting social distancing policies that prevent humans from having any sort of close contact with each other where the virus could be transmitted. While numerous businesses are suffering—it’s likely the world is heading for an economic recession—the travel industry has been particularly hard hit. Airlines, for instance, have temporarily paused thousands of routes due to a lack of demand, operating only a handful of mostly empty flights per day. Cruises were stranded at sea for weeks, with no ports willing to accept potentially ill passengers. Hotels have been turned into temporary housing for frontline workers in the healthcare industry. In short, leisure travel has all but ceased to exist.
If you’re one of the millions of travelers who have vacations booked throughout 2020, you’re likely wondering whether or not to cancel those plans entirely. The bottom line: the coronavirus situation is changing so fast that we simply don’t have any concrete answers. We have, however, spoken to industry experts about their thoughts on the future of travel to help guide your decision about the cancellation or postponement of your upcoming trips.
Should I Cancel My Trip Next Month?
Ultimately, you likely won't be able to travel internationally through May even if you wanted to, due to border closures around the world. "Countries in Africa where we operate are currently restricting travel through May," says Sherwin Banda, president of safari operator African Travel, Inc. "For clients scheduled to travel through June, we've been working to move trips. The majority are postponing to start travel from September and into 2021." Europe is also effectively closed to leisure travel through May. "The borders of all Schengen countries will be closed for all citizens of non-Schengen countries until at least May 14, so if you were, for example, coming from the U.S. to go to Finland, there would be no way in," says Inga Stumpf, co-owner of the Dynjandi guesthouse and glacier tour operator in Iceland.
On top of the border closures, most international and many domestic flight routes have also been paused, so logistically, you might not even be able to get to your destination, whether in your home country or abroad. And that’s not to mention the lockdowns happening all over the world, including in the U.S. Many states have extended their lockdowns through May 15, meaning non-essential businesses like tourist attractions, restaurants, and bars will remain closed. Large gatherings will also continue to be prohibited—not ideal vacation conditions.
Rather than canceling your trips yourself, wait to see if your airline, tour operator, or hotel cancels your reservation for you. If they do, you’re likely entitled to a complete refund. “According to U.S. law, airlines have to issue a refund if they cancel a flight because they are not delivering service they have promised to customers,” says Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer of passenger rights advocacy group AirHelp.
If you decide to postpone or cancel your trip preemptively, you may be at the mercy of a strict cancellation policy. However, the majority of airlines, hotels, tour operators, cruise, and vacation rentals have softened their policies due to the pandemic. You may still receive a full refund, or you might only be able to reschedule your trip to a future date. Contact your operators directly to find out more details.
Should I Cancel My Summer Vacation?
As the coronavirus situation changes daily, it’s hard to predict with any accuracy what the travel climate will look like come summer, and there will likely be a big difference between domestic travel and international travel.
“I have a few travel industry colleagues who are fully encouraging summer travel. I’m not promoting summer travel, but I’m also not disapproving of it either,” says Kristen Slizgi, founder of boutique travel agency The Luxury Travelist. “It really depends on the destination. I have a few clients heading on a National Parks trip this summer, which I feel super confident about, as the area is vast, and there is plenty of open space. However, taking any big European trip this summer is not advised—I’d still say postpone your trip to the fall or next year.”
Cancellation policies for your booking should also influence your decision about whether or not to cancel your summer vacation. "If you feel comfortable, I'd recommend waiting and assessing the travel situation closer to your travel date," says Annie Erling Gofus, founder of travel consultancy Wunderbird. "For some of my clients, their accommodations didn't have a flexible cancellation policy. For hotels or resorts that required 30-day notice, we canceled those trips."
If at all possible, consider postponing your trip over canceling it. "The tourism industry is quite fragile at the moment, and small operators and services providers like restaurateurs, local guides and drivers, and boutique hotels are the most vulnerable," says Ashley Blake, founder of tour operator Traverse Journeys. "To preserve the type of travel you love, look for travel credits, and transfers to postpone your travel rather than cancel it altogether, which will help keep these businesses alive for your next globetrotting adventures. Most operators will be happy to change your dates or provide a voucher for future experiences with them."
Should I Cancel My Fall or Winter Trip?
Given that the first case of COVID-19 happened just four months ago, it's incredibly difficult to predict where the world will be by the fall or winter. “I recommend waiting,” says Erling Gofus. “Frankly, I am not hopeful that international travel will be safe for the remainder of 2020. If you have an international trip booked for later this year, keep a close eye on your destination and our situation here at home. But I do feel confident that domestic travel will be safe and advisable later this summer.”
Should I Cancel My Cruise?
On April 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended its No-Sail Order for 100 days, essentially banning cruising through mid-July. But don't go canceling your booking just yet. "I'd suggest waiting to let the cruise line cancel the trip if it's coming up soon," says Tanner Callais, founder and editor of travel site Cruzely. "When cruise lines have canceled past sailings, they've typically offered a 125 percent cruise credit on what you paid, or your money back. If you plan to sail once the outbreak is over, letting the cruise line cancel can get you a better deal."
As for rebooking, there many unknowns about what the future holds. "I personally suggest waiting to sail until the fall. We are still in a mode with little overall testing and not enough data to make travel plans, as sad as it is financially for our industry," says Tom Baker, CEO of discount cruise site CruiseCenter. "This is devastating to us all, but a premature push to return will only take more lives and possibly kill travel altogether. We are really taking this just day-to-day."
On the plus side, if you choose to reschedule your cruise for the fall, you can take advantage of flexible cancellation policies, meaning you're not taking too much of a gamble on a booking. "Right now, all the major cruise lines have made their cancellation policies much more friendly in that you can often cancel your trip up until a couple of days before your sailing and get your money back," says Callais. Just hold tight on booking flights and hotels, unless you're able to take advantage of extremely flexible cancellation policies there, too.
Should I Cancel My Flights?
Travel restrictions aside, your decision should be based on two major factors: how soon your flight is, and whether you're looking for a full refund or willing to take flight credit. "If travelers have trips booked in the near future, they should consider seeing if the airline cancels their flight rather than doing it on their own, as that could improve their chances of a refund," says Nielsen. As mentioned before, U.S.airlines are legally required to provide full refunds if they cancel a flight on their own, and there's a similar policy for flights to or from the European Union, too. Some airlines are offering full refunds even if the passenger cancels the booking, while others are only offering a credit to be used towards future travel. If you're willing to take credit instead of demanding a refund, you can go ahead and cancel now—you're almost certainly likely to be able to get those credits applied to your account.
If your flights are further in the future, choosing whether or not to cancel is a bit of a gamble. "The pros to keeping your upcoming travel plans are: one, you can still go on your planned trip if the situation clears, and two, there is a chance the airline could cancel the flight later on, which could entitle you to a refund," says Nielsen. "Of course, the con is that the flight may still take place, and if you don't want to fly, you are not legally entitled to a refund, although some airlines are offering refunds and waiving change fees anyway due to the situation."
Be sure to do thorough research into your airline’s specific cancellation and change policies and consider what kind of monetary risk you’re willing to take before making your decision about your future flights.
Wall Street Journal. "A Guide to State Coronavirus Lockdowns." April 15, 2020
CNN. "Feds direct airlines to refund passengers for canceled flights." April 3, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "CDC Announces Modifications and Extension of No Sail Order for All Cruise Ships." April 9, 2020