If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve probably seen stories about the spread of the Zika virus in Central and South America. While the disease itself seems to be relatively mild, the ramifications for pregnant women are potentially more complicated, which has led to the Centers for Disease Control issuing a Level 2 travel alert to the region.
This type of travel alert suggests “enhanced precautions” and doesn’t necessarily dissuade people from traveling generally. For context, there are also Level 2 alerts for MERS in the Arabian Peninsula, and Polio in the Ukraine.
Regardless, I know many people will want to avoid traveling to the most severely impacted areas, so I thought it would be helpful to go over the rules and policies for changing or canceling your flights.
Zika virus travel waivers
As of this morning, United Airlines has issued a travel notification for all regions affected by the Zika outbreak, and is recommending travelers contact customer service.
According to USA Today, American has also begun to allow more leniency for pregnant travelers headed to:
- San Pedro Sula, Honduras
- Tegucigalpa, Honduras
- Panama City, Panama
- Guatemala City, Guatemala
This policy isn’t posted on the American website yet, and I would anticipate having to go through more of the usual medical cancelation process in the meantime (more on that below). That’s also a very small fraction of the American route network in the region, so if you’re ticketed for travel to another impacted area, you may still have some leeway.
If an airline issues a waiver for any reason, be it weather or a strike or anything else, it should be posted on their respective travel alert pages:
- Air Canada
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Delta Air Lines
- Jet Blue
- Virgin America
As with other situations, when a general waiver is issued you can typically rebook for later dates with no penalty. In many cases you can also have your tickets refunded completely, but that depends on the specific situation, and the parameters of the waiver.
Canceling for medical reasons in general
Even without a travel waiver, you still have options for canceling a trip due to medical reasons.
Earlier in the week reader Sam H. posted the following question over on Ask Lucky:
I have paid tickets booked on United to Mexico in February – unfortunately, the Zika virus is now there and my (newly) pregnant wife and I are unwilling to chance it. I called United to see if they would waive the cancellation fees and they said no waiver has been issued yet.
Any thoughts on how to proceed? We would like to either cancel or reschedule to go somewhere else.
At the time, specific waivers hadn’t been issued, so the best advice from the group was to treat this like any other medical concern. This is the same approach you’ll need to use if your airline hasn’t issued a waiver for the Zika virus:
- Consult with a doctor, and determine if it’s safe to travel
- If travel isn’t advised, work with the airline to cancel under their medical policy
- This generally involves supplemental paperwork, and a reimbursement of the change/cancelation fees after the fact
United, for example, has the following policy if you need to cancel flights for medical reasons:
Change fee refunds require a letter (on letterhead) from a licensed physician confirming that travel was not recommended due to the customer’s illness.
Ticket refunds require a letter (on letterhead) from a licensed physician confirming that travel was not recommended within the validity of the ticket (one year of ticket’s issued date) due to illness.
If the request is due to the illness of an immediate family member, the request must contain the family member’s name and relationship to you.
You may also be able to have those change fees reimbursed by your travel insurance. Regardless, it’s important to note that the front-line reservation agent you speak with generally won’t be able to waive fees regardless of the reason. You have to submit the paperwork, and then will receive a refund later on.
People tend to get very frustrated at legacy carriers over medical cancelations, and then rave about how easy it was to cancel their Southwest tickets — it’s always easy to cancel Southwest tickets, and other carriers have more complex policies, they’re not being purposefully insensitive.
Canceling award tickets
One of the great things about using miles is that the rules are often more relaxed compared to revenue tickets.
Depending on the carrier you can sometimes change the date of travel for no fee at all, or return the miles to your account for a small charge. Check out this post for the full rules for the major mileage currencies:
Again, if there’s a general waiver you should be able to change your award tickets under those rules instead.
Obviously health is more important than anything, and you shouldn’t risk yours or your loved ones’ because an airline wants to charge a cancelation fee.
Even without a regional waiver, tickets can often be changed or canceled for a fee. If you have a compelling reason you can typically get those charges reimbursed or refunded after the fact — it just takes a bit more legwork.
Have you canceled a flight due to illness? What was the process like?