Swine flu spawns unusual travel refund policies

Consumer Reports News: April 28, 2009 05:56 PM

Travelers booked for Mexico, the epicenter of the current swine flu outbreak, are getting some unusually lenient treatment from several airlines and tour operators: reduced or waived penalties for changes in travel plans. That seems to signal the seriousness of the epidemic in Mexico, as well as the poor health of the travel industry, which can ill afford to anger consumers as the recession wears on and traffic slumps.  

American, JetBlue, United and other big U.S. airlines will let travelers going to, from, or through Mexico change their destinations or travel dates without penalty or increased fares for the same type of discount ticket. At least two big tour package operators—MLP, which operates tours for Continental, Delta, and Northwest, and Apple Vacations—are allowing their customers do the same. Contact your airline or travel agent for specific limitations.

In general, that preserves the value of the travel that was purchased, but you won’t get a cash refund. Nevertheless, this is a big departure from standard cancellation policies. “The only other time I’ve seen blanket change policies like this has been during hurricane warnings,” says JoAnne Kochneff, a 20-year travel agent at Travel by Gagnon in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Most consumers buy non-refundable airline tickets. When you change or cancel those, you get a travel voucher for future travel on the same carrier, minus itinerary change penalties of $150 for domestic travel and $250 for international, plus you pay any higher fare on the new flight. With tour packages, you typically pay at least 30 days in advance and get zero refund if you cancel or want to change plans.

So far, cruise lines have not announced similar give. Travelers usually pay in full for a cruise 60 to 75 days in advance, and get no refund if they cancel or change plans. Today, however, when three Carnival Cruise ships failed to call on their scheduled Mexican ports, the cruise line gave passengers a mere $20 credit. A Carnival spokeswoman told us the company is working on a cancellation/change policy related to the recent Centers for Disease Control Travel Health Warning, which recommends the postponement of non-essential travel to Mexico. The Cruise Line International Association has not returned a call for comment.

Extraordinary circumstances aside, in most cases, your contract, not law or regulation, governs trip cancellations and changes, and there are few consumer protections, says Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco travel law attorney and author of Traveler’s Rights ($21.95, Morris Publishing). “A health warning from the government is only a warning and does not negate any contractual obligation you have,” says Anolik. Only a government action preventing you from travel to your destination provides sufficient force majeure to allow you to break your contractual obligation without penalty.

What can you do if that never happens and your travel provider doesn’t volunteer a more flexible cancellation/change policy for travel to Mexico or elsewhere in the future? Here are some strategies:

• Try to negotiate a break. If you’re a frequent traveler or affinity club member, remind customer service about the value of your business, which can be taken elsewhere.
• Book through a travel agent. Because they regularly bring volume business to the same companies, they can use their added clout on your behalf and often have access to special customer service people who can bend the rules.
• Don’t be tempted by trip cancellation insurance. Standard policies don’t protect against the present circumstances. ‘Termination-at-will’ policies might cover this situation, but they’re very expensive and difficult to get.—Jeff Blyskal

For  more on the swine flu outbreak, see the CR Health Blog.

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