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Update: How to Cancel Your Trip During COVID-19 and Get (Some) Money Back

Updated March 27 with latest cancellation policies 

With so much uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, many people are choosing to cancel their travel plans.
Many businesses have implemented travel restrictions for employees, including limiting non-essential trips. People who have planned vacations are running into issues, especially if they involve layovers or destinations in affected countries. 
I recently found myself in this situation when I canceled a business trip to Austin, Texas, and more recently as I deal with changing an international trip to South Africa. Though most airlines and travel-related businesses have relaxed their cancellation policies, I found it extremely difficult to get a full refund. Here's what I learned:

AIRLINES

I was planning on flying American Airlines to my destination, and heard they waived change fees through March 16. However, because I booked through our company-provided travel agent Travel Leaders Corporate, I had to go through them to cancel my flight.
I called the hotline and was put in touch with a representative in less than a minute. She confirmed I would be allowed to cancel my reservation, and American was allowing free cancellations for corporate clients through the end of the year. I would be issued a flight credit, and when I wanted to book my next flight on American, I could use the full value of my ticket with no fees. However, if my company wants to use my flight credit for a different employee they will need to pay a name change fee. 
For travelers booking flights on their  own, the policy is slightly different. American Airlines is waiving change fees, but only for people who bought tickets before March 1 for travel through May 31, 2020 or people who booked their trips between March 1 and April 15 for any future travel. Also, if you are scheduled for travel before April 15, and can't get through to a reservations assistant via phone American Airlines will honor all changes and the value of your ticket if you don’t take your flight as planned.
It has also established a more liberal policy for travel to, through and from areas heavily affected. Check the website for specific date restrictions, but typically credit is valid for one year of when the ticket was issued. Flyers heading to South Korea, China and Hong Kong who bought their ticket can request refunds, again dependent on date criteria.  
My original domestic flight, which was booked on February 13, would now qualify. However, several people said if you don't fall under the rules it would still be worth calling the airline to ask, as they may be open to waiving cancellation fees on a case-by-case basis. In the worst case scenario, I would have had to take a $200 penalty if I decided to use my credit at a different time. 
Of course, policies vary between airlines. As of March 5, here is where American carriers stand. Many air carriers are requesting you don't call their reservation line until you are within 72 hours of your original flight date. They are also offering ways you can change or cancel your tickets online without having to pick up the phone. In general, you will have to pay the fare difference if your flight is more expensive, unless noted otherwise: 
Alaska Airlines is offering free changes and cancellations for new ticket purchases before February 26 for travel through March 31 and all tickets purchased between February 27 and April 30. 
Delta will waive change fees for all domestic and international travel departing in March, April or May. All travel must be completed by December 31. All tickets purchased between March 1 and April 15 will also have change fees waved, and your flight credit will be valid for one year from purchase dates. You can even change your destination when you rebook, but will pay the difference for more expensive flights. 
Frontier Airlines customers who purchased tickets before March 10 for flights between March 10 and April 30 and people who have tickets issued from March 10 through March 31 can make a one-time change to their itinerary with no fees. Those who purchased tickets before March 10 but are traveling through May 1 and May 31 can only have their change or cancellation fees waved if they make changes by March 31.
In addition, Frontier customers who booked flights between March 26 and June 17 who cancel their flights by March 27 will get a $50 voucher on top of the cost of their flight in credits. 
Hawaiian Airlines is cancelling many routes due to Hawaii governor Ige requiring a 14-day quarantine requirement for all arrivals to the state starting March 26. There will be only be one daily flight between Honolulu  and Los Angeles, one daily flight between Honolulu and San Francisco and one weekly Honolulu to American Samoa flight as of April 1. They have also reduced their inter-island flight schedule as well, as many planes are now being used for cargo and medical supplies. 
The airline will waive change fees for any flight purchased between March and May, and credit will be valid for one year. Tickets purchased before March 1 with travel dates between March and May 2020 will not have change fees either, but you must travel on or before December 31. There are also flexible policies for people who were traveling to Australia, China or to Hawaii for the Merrie Monarch Festival during April 11 through April 17, with some fare differences waved if you travel before certain dates. 
JetBlue customers who booked tickets between February 27 and March 31 for travel until September 8 can cancel or rebook at no charge but must use their travel credit within one year of the original travel date. 
Southwest never charges flight rescheduling or cancellation fees, so you can change your travel as needed.
Spirit Airlines will give you full credit if you decide to cancel or postpone your flight, but you must use it within six months. They will also credit you if your date of travel recently passed and you weren't able to contact them in time if you submit a request. In addition to online methods, you can also reach them by texting 48763 or use 801-401-2222 on WhatsApp.
United said all bookings made between on or before March 2 for travel from March 9 through May 31 will have free change or cancellation wavers. Credit must be used by December 31 or 12 months from original ticket date, whichever is earlier. It is also allowing free changes and full refunds for flights to China and Hong Kong purchased before select dates, as well as free changes for flights to Seoul and certain cities in Italy for certain dates. 
A couple extra things to note: 
- If your flight is cancelled, you should be entitled to a refund according to the Department of Transportation. There might not be a way to do this online, so you may have to call the airlines. 
- If you booked through a travel agent or third-party like Expedia or Hotwire, you will need to call them to change or cancel your flight. They will honor the same policies as the airlines, but they will be your intermediary.
- Some international carriers have similar waver policies in place, but you may not be entitled to a refund as with American carriers. After a 1.5-hour hold time with South African Airways, I discovered it would cost me $400 to change my flight because the country at the time was not affected by the coronavirus. However, the agent advised me to wait as policies were changing. Sure enough, SAA has since changed its policy to cover free flight cancellation for tickets purchased prior to March 15, but I must rebook before May 31 and complete my full trip by February 28, 2021.

HOTELS

I had booked a house on Airbnb in Austin with a strict cancellation policy. I was only entitled to a free cancellation within 48 hours, otherwise, it would be a 50 percent cancellation fee (minus booking fees) up to 7 days prior, and I'd only get cleaning fees back with cancellation less than a week before check-in.
I contacted Airbnb customer service through the automated system, which promised that someone would get back to me within 24 hours. More than two days later the company still has not responded. Meanwhile, I contacted Airbnb through an industry contact, and finally got the details of their COVID-19 policy
They have since updated their policy to offer free cancellations and refunds for anyone who booked on or before March 14th with a check in date of April 14th or earlier. If you fall outside this policy, you'll be refunded according to your host policy and Airbnb will give you your service fee as a credit. 
Of course, I also contacted the host directly to see if they would issue a refund. Due to the proximity to the travel date and their fears they could not get another renter for those dates, they were unwilling to provide a full refund. However, Airbnb refunded me the full amount because I fell under the updated policy.
In the case of South Africa, which began its three-week lockdown on March 27, two hotels and one Airbnb promptly offered a refund. But one hotel and one Airbnb host in South Africa refused a refund. Agoda was unable to help me get my money back despite the hotel not being open during our original dates, and I have been waiting for over a week hear back from Airbnb about a cancellation waver.  
Many hotels allow for cancellations up to 24 hours before your check-in time without penalty. It's always worth giving a call to the establishment to see if they are willing to accommodate your request even if it falls outside of the normal cancellation policy. For travelers who booked through a third-party travel site like Agoda, most of these companies are recommending you try dealing with the hotel directly and if there is no resolution, call them and they will try to help you.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

Your final line of defense is using travel insurance to recoup some of your losses. I have a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, which comes with a standard insurance policy. I called to see if I could get the rest of my money back through their insurance provider. 
I was on hold for three minutes before I got through to a customer service representative who was extremely knowledgeable. Unfortunately, she emphasized that travel insurance is not meant to be "preventative," meaning epidemics and pandemics are not usually covered. It also doesn't cover "changes in plans, financial circumstances, and any business or contractual obligations," meaning my canceled work trip would not be covered. 
However, if I got COVID-19 and could provide a physician's note I would be covered under the policy. 
I looked at a variety of other policies including options offered by Allianz and AIG Travel Guard. While even sudden divorce or legal separation within 14 days of a trip was covered under some basic policies,  trip cancellations and interruptions due to epidemics or fear of travel were not covered. 
If you're hoping to see some of your cashback, a CFAR (short for "cancel for any reason") travel insurance might be the way to go, although these policies tend to be much more expensive than regular travel insurance. For example, Travelex would have charged me $153 standard insurance for a $5,000 domestic trip, while it would be $252 for a CFAR policy. However, with CFAR insurance, I would be eligible to receive 75 percent of my costs back. I tried to call AIG Travel Guard to buy a CFAR policy and gave up after waiting on hold for over one hour. 
Although CFAR sounds like it is all-encompassing, there are some restrictions. Travelex did not cover trips to Cuba, the Crimea region of Ukraine, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria nor any travel on South African Airways. The trip insurance had to be purchased within 15 days of when I made my first trip-related booking (a common stipulation when purchasing CFAR policies). Also, my trip had to be canceled more than 48 hours before the departure date. 
Moral of the story: Pick up the phone, be nice and ask for your refunds — but don't expect much. 
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