News: Press Clippings

If you cancel a trip over Zika fears, can you get a refund?

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Publication date 2/18/16

Can you get your money back if you cancel a Caribbean vacation out of fear of the Zika virus?

That’s a timely question given the almost daily expansion of travel health warnings for pregnant women – warnings that now cover two dozen countries in South and Central America, along with most of the Caribbean.

The marketing firm Fluent reports 44 percent of the people it polled would cancel a trip to the affected region or avoid planning a trip there. And the more people know about the virus, the more likely they are to change their travel plans.

There is no standard approach in the travel industry for Zika – a virus that means little more than a nuisance illness for most of its victims but can have a devastating effect on the fetal development.

United Airlines, Newark Liberty International Airport’s largest carrier, will let customers who have been advised to avoid the affected regions change their destination or travel date without a change fee. Those customers may also choose to receive a refund instead if the changes are completed by February 29.

United will also waive change fees for their traveling companions as well, said Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman.

“Customers who have fears related to Zika should contact us. We’ll work with them,” he said.

Delta has a somewhat similar policy, also with a similar Feb. 29 deadline.

Several of the major cruise lines have responded to the health emergency by offering pregnant women and their traveling companion an option to switch cruise destinations or rebook their cruise for another time, reports the website, CruiseCritic.

The Zika virus is behaving in unanticipated ways that have health officials worldwide scrambling to understand it. In addition to the birth defects it is suspected of causing, it has also been linked to cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder of the immune system that can produce muscle weakness or even paralysis.

Complicating this already troublesome picture is the recent confirmation the live virus can linger in semen far longer than the week or so it persists in an infected person’s blood. That means the illness can be sexually transmitted during a window of unknown duration.

“Unfortunately, fear is never a covered reason.”

That broadens the pool of potential travelers who might factor Zika into their plans.

A separate consumer question is whether someone’s travel insurance policy covers Zika concerns. A federal Travel Advisory for pregnant women might not be enough to let nervous travelers qualify for a refund from their travel insurance, said Rachael Taft of Squaremouth, a site that compares travel insurance.

That’s because it’s only an advisory, not an outright travel ban, she said.

Some policies will pay for a canceled trip if the customer becomes pregnant after purchasing a policy. However, most don’t cover pregnancy-related illnesses as a reason to cancel a trip, because to some extent they are not completely unexpected, she said.

Lisa Ayotte, whose Califon-based company Caribbean Days handles rentals for privately owned homes in that region, said most of the trip insurers she has called will cover a canceled rental for someone who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

Since her rentals typically range from $2,500 to $10,000 a week, the cost of insurance – about 7 percent – makes sense, especially given the region’s penchant for hurricanes, she said.

For customers without trip insurance, refund would be on a case-by-case basis, depending on the flexibility of the individual homeowner, she said.

Men who are worried about Zika exposure because of a wish to start a family soon probably don’t have a good case for getting a refund. As Taft explained it, “Unfortunately, fear is never a covered reason.”

Travel insurance will typically cover the cost of any medical treatment if someone falls ill with a Zika infection during their trip, but as the illness is almost always mild, that’s not the main concern with the virus.

Customers who purchased a “Cancel for Any Reason” plan – typically more expensive – will of course find it covers Zika, she said.

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