Coronavirus Travel Guide: Choose Your Own (Re)Booking Adventure

Sam KemmisMarch 6, 2020

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

You pick up the phone, dial the customer service number and ask to speak to a representative. You get put on hold for two hours.

Welcome to the world of coronavirus travel. The now-global outbreak has upended the travel industry (airlines are already projected to lose $63 billion to $113 billion in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association), and left many travelers unsure how to make, manage or cancel their plans.

Here we’ve created a step-by-step guide to help make sense of travel options in light of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Follow along to find the solution that best applies to you, keeping in mind that every travel booking situation is different.

We have focused on air travel for the first iteration of this guide, but will add more information about hotels, car rentals, cruises and other travel plans.

Note: Travel companies are changing their policies daily as the situation unfolds. We’ll do our best to keep this article up to date, but it’s always a good idea to check company websites and social media accounts for the latest updates.

NerdWallet Guide to COVID-19

Get answers about stimulus checks, debt relief, changing travel policies and managing your finances.

Booking new travel or changing existing travel?

» If you are booking new travel, go here.

» If you are changing existing travel, go here.

Booking new travel

In some ways, this is a good position to be in. Airlines are getting hammered as new reservations plummet, so they are eager to make concessions in the form of flexible fares.

Several airlines are offering waived change and cancellation fees for flights booked in the next few weeks. That means you could book a ticket now without worrying about changes to your future plans, since you could cancel the ticket without incurring any fees.

Each airline has its own (evolving) policy, so check the article below for the most up-to-date info.

Once you are ready to book, check the airline's flexible travel policy to make sure it matches your needs. It might be worth paying a bit more to book with an airline that’s offering a more flexible policy.

Changing existing travel

Here’s where it gets interesting, and more challenging. Many travelers believe that the airlines’ “flexible travel policies” apply to bookings made months ago, but they do not. Others hope that travel insurance will cover the coronavirus situation, but most policies will not provide support unless you get sick with COVID-19 yourself.

Let’s start here:

» If you have a flight booked to mainland China, Italy or another country with a high-risk travel advisory, go here.

» If you have another international flight booked, go here.

» If you have a domestic flight booked, go here.

Travel to high-risk countries

At this point, most major airlines have suspended flights to mainland China for at least a month. You should get an email from your airline if your flight is canceled, and you should receive a full refund.

» If your flight is within the next few weeks but has not been canceled, you can call to cancel.

» If your flight is later in the year and has not yet been affected, we recommend waiting.

International travel

The international situation has been evolving day by day, with the list of affected destinations changing constantly.

That said, if your air travel goes through Asia or Italy, there’s a good chance your itinerary will be disrupted.

» If your flight is within the next few weeks but has not been canceled, you can call to cancel.

» If your flight is later in the year, we recommend waiting it out or calling to cancel.

Domestic travel

Currently there’s not much you can do to avoid fees on changed or canceled domestic travel. Some airlines have introduced flexible booking policies for new tickets, but these don’t apply to ones purchased before the outbreak.

That said, some airlines have begun cutting back on domestic routes, with more cuts likely in the near future. That means your itinerary could eventually be affected, giving you more leverage to receive a full refund.

» If your flight is within the next few weeks, you can try calling to cancel, but don’t hold your breath for a full refund or change fee waiver.

» If your flight is later in the year, we recommend waiting it out.

Wait it out

It can be nerve-racking to have travel uncertainty hanging over your head, but the best strategy in many cases involves waiting to see what happens. If you try to be proactive about canceling or changing your trip, airlines will try their best to impose a fee. But if you wait for them to make the next move, you might avoid these fees altogether. They might cancel your flight outright and issue a refund, or change your itinerary based on canceled legs.

Important: If the airline or booking service cancels or modifies your itinerary and asks you to accept the changes, do not confirm them. It’s much easier to get your booking canceled for free if the airline made a change. Call your airline or booking service and say you cannot accept the changes and would like a full refund.

Call to cancel or change

Unless you purchased a fully refundable ticket or are otherwise able to cancel for free through a website or app, you’ll probably have to get on the phone with a real person. We have collected a list of airline, hotel and booking agency contact information here.

Of course, since so many travelers are currently trying to modify their bookings, wait times can range from long to ludicrous. Here are some strategies to help you get through it:

  • Set aside plenty of time. If you’re interrupted by another task, you’ll have to start over.

  • Keep it simple. Spare them the backstory of why you need to cancel and keep it as short and clear as possible, e.g., “I need to cancel this reservation,” “I cannot change my flight to a later date.”

  • Have a sense of humor. Getting frustrated or short with a phone agent certainly won’t encourage them to help you more, and it will spoil your own mood.

  • Try, try again. You might call one time and get a hard “no” to your request, then call right back and get exactly what you need. Don’t abuse this tactic (for the sake of everyone else trying to get through), but don’t feel discouraged if you don’t get what you want on the first call.

Note: If you booked through an online travel agency like Orbitz or the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, keep this in mind:

  • You may have to deal with both the airlines’ cancellation policy as well as the online travel agency’s.

  • The online travel agency may need to call the airline, which can add another layer of wait time.

» If all this fails and you can’t get the change or cancellation fee waived, you can either waiting it out or (sigh) eat the fees.

Eat the fees

You might be surprised to learn how low (or high) the cancellation fee is for your ticket. For example, Southwest Airlines has no change or cancellation for any of its tickets. And many airlines’ award bookings (made using miles) have relatively generous change fee policies.

Most programs let you cancel your ticket online, so you don’t have to mess with customer service, and you should be able to see how much you’ll get refunded if you cancel your ticket before you hit “confirm.”

We want to hear from you and encourage a lively discussion among our users. Please help us keep our site clean and safe by following our posting guidelines, and avoid disclosing personal or sensitive information such as bank account or phone numbers. Any comments posted under NerdWallet’s official account are not reviewed or endorsed by representatives of financial institutions affiliated with the reviewed products, unless explicitly stated otherwise.