As coronavirus continues to spread, many are asking: is it safe to travel? We have created a ten-point travel advice checklist, including advice on coronavirus travel insurance and how to check Foreign Office coronavirus warnings.
On Friday I’m due to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a two-week holiday. Will I be cancelling due to the global coronavirus crisis? Absolutely not. Or at least, not unless the Foreign Office warns otherwise.
With Boris Johnson saying the coronavirus outbreak in the UK will “become more significant” in the coming days, and cases in Europe now topping 4,000, there are growing concerns of how the virus could impact our everyday lives. Our health, our daily routines, and indeed – our upcoming overseas holiday plans.
These holiday concerns are understandable. We’ve heard many stories of tourists affected by coronavirus in the last month – a locked-down hotel in Tenerife, a quarantined cruise ship in Japan. This week, British Airways announced it was cancelling more than 200 flights and regional carrier Flybe collapsed.The whole of Italy has been put on lockdown. What if you found yourself in one of these situations? Is it worth the risk, for the sake of a holiday?
The extreme position would be to cancel everything. I know some people who are seriously considering taking this nuclear approach. But cancelling a holiday is a big decision, which on a practical level could mean losing significant sums of money, and on an emotional level would mean a fair dose of disappointment.
Over the last month, I have had countless conversations with friends and colleagues as to whether they should crack on with holiday plans, or cancel. To help come to a decision, with the help of Telegraph Travel‘s consumer expert, Nick Trend, we have devised ten key questions that need answering before you make a choice.
1. What does the Foreign Office say about my destination?
The Foreign Office (FCO) issues safety advice to UK travellers to every country in the world. This falls into three main categories, advising UK citizens as follows: against all travel (red zone); against all but essential travel (orange); and a green zone, covering most places in the world, which it considers safe (though there may be some caveats).
In most cases this advice is focused on security risks, but the coronavirus outbreak is having a significant impact, which may affect both your rights and your insurance cover (see below). As it stands the FCO advises against all travel to two parts of the world because of coronavirus: Hubei Province in China and the city of Daegu in South Korea. The FCO advises against all but essential travel to the rest of China, the city of Cheongdo in South Korea, and whole of Italy (as of March 10)
South Korea is not considered high enough risk to be included in the orange zone and everywhere else – from Japan to Brazil – is green lit for British nationals, when it comes to coronavirus. Obviously, things change so check before you go (fco.gov.uk).
2. What personal precautions should I take?
You can mitigate the risks but taking sensible precautions. Travel health expert, Dr Richard Dawood, has written advice on how to stay safe and avoid catching coronavirus while travelling.
3. What if I want to cancel?
If you have booked with a tour operator, the status of the current Foreign Office advice is critical. You will only be automatically entitled to a refund if it is advising against all travel or all but essential travel to the destination. Even then, if you are not due to travel for a few weeks yet, you will probably have to wait before a cancellation is confirmed. Some operators – Wendy Wu, for example – are currently only allowing cancellations of holidays booked to China if you were due to travel before the end of March. But much depends on the country you have booked your trip to and on the operator concerned.
So the key thing is to talk to the operator if you are worried. If you cancel unilaterally, you will normally face a hefty charge. But you may find that you can negotiate to postpone travel or change destinations.
If you have booked your flight and hotel separately and independently you have no automatic right to a refund even to a “do not travel” zone. However, some airlines, including BA, have said that they may allow you to postpone your flight, and some travel insurance policies – though certainly not all – will cover any losses you incur if you have to cancel because government advice forces you to cancel your trip. Travel insurance will definitely not cover cancellation costs if you are simply nervous about travelling and there is no Foreign Office advice against visiting the destination you have booked (see also below).
4. What if I do get quarantined?
Or, indeed, find yourself stuck overseas because of an outbreak – your return flight is cancelled, for example. For many of us, this is one of the biggest concerns, particularly after seeing the H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Adeje, Tenerife, closing its doors after an outbreak of coronavirus, putting more than 700 guests in quarantine and leaving 168 Britons unable to return to the UK last week.
If you are travelling independently, the best way to prepare yourself for this eventuality is to purchase the right travel insurance (see below) which will at least cover any extra costs you incur in the ground and getting home. If you are travelling with a tour operator, it has a legal duty of care and should look after you and arrange a new return flight, for example. Some airlines have also offered to rebook holidaymakers who miss a flight because of coronavirus.
Even if you are sanguine about the potential risks to your health, you might also want to take into account the personal considerations of getting stranded overseas. Do you have an event you simply cannot miss (a wedding, perhaps), shortly after returning? Do you have young children with you, or waiting at home? Do you have work or business commitments you cannot afford to miss? These questions might well tip the balance when deciding whether to hit “cancel” on your holiday – particularly if cancelling wouldn’t mean losing out on astronomical sums of money.
Health and other issues
5. Will I have to self-isolate when I get home?
For some, the joy of going away would be cancelled out by the considerable inconvenience of having to enter a state of self-isolation for 14 days as soon as you get back. The truth is, however, unless you have symptoms, you will only need to self-isolate if you have visited Italy, the two South Korean cities, Hubei Province in China, or Iran.
Otherwise, Public Health England advice is to self-isolate if you develop symptoms after visiting Mainland China, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Macau, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (if you travelled in the last 14 days). For everywhere else in the world, there is currently no advice to self-isolate after a holiday.
6. What are the risks if I do catch coronavirus?
One of the biggest considerations is a personal one – what it would mean if you were unlucky enough to catch coronavirus, or to start to suffer symptoms, while abroad. In particular, you will want to check your risk profile. According to the World Health Organization, those with pre-existing heart conditions, respiratory problems or hypertension are at a higher risk of dying from coronavirus.
Age is also a big consideration. If you are aged 10–40 years old, the mortality rate is 0.2 per cent. Above the age of 80, 14.8 per cent of people who contract coronavirus have died – though these risks may be lower in countries where medical care is more advanced. For some holidaymakers in this deomographic, the idea of deliberately going to a space full of potentially contagious people (an airport, for example) is simply not worth the risk even if the ultimate destination is considered safe.
Similarly, do you suffer from anxiety? If so, there’s a chance that travelling right now simply won’t be worth the worry it’ll put you through.
7. Will I even have a good time, with all this worry?
Another issue to consider is if you do decide to travel in the near future, will you still be able to have fun? Travel to Milan and you will find a closed Duomo. Chinatowns around the world are reportedly “ghost towns” after the outbreak. It is worth doing some research to see how coronavirus has affected life on the ground, wherever you’re going.
On the positive side of course, some of the world’s most wonderful sights, which are usually over-run by tourists, are now very quiet.
Protecting your money
8. I already have insurance – how will it help me?
Travel insurance policies nearly always include medical cover which will pay for your treatment and hospital costs if you fall ill while abroad. They will also normally cover cancellation costs if you, or a travelling companion is too ill to travel. The additional costs of remaining in self-isolation or quarantine while you are abroad are, however, still a grey area. Axa, Aviva and LV have told the Telegraph that they will cover your costs to get home should you miss your return flight because of coronavirus.
Do check the latest FCO advice for your destination just before you travel, however. This is crucial, not least because if you go to a city or country that the FCO advises against “all” or “all but essential travel”, then your travel insurance will almost certainly be invalid. Get stuck in an orange or red zone, which was orange or red before you travelled, and you will not receive any support from your insurer.
9. I have already made a booking, but I haven’t bought any insurance yet. What is the best policy to buy?
The first thing to do is to buy as soon as possible. Insurers obviously won’t cover cancellations to official no-go Covid-19 areas if you bought the policy after the FCO advises against travel. The second key piece of advice is to go through the policy carefully to double check the cover. Our guide to buying travel insurance will help with this, but in particular look for a policy which includes “travel disruption cover”. This will pay out to compensate you for money you have paid in advance to, for example, a hotel if your flight has been cancelled or you are unable to travel. Not all policies offer this. Look out also for a provision covering the failure of scheduled airlines.
Note that an EHIC card will cover you for medical treatment until December 31 this year – possibly longer if it is included in the final departure arrangements with the EU. But you would be wise to buy a good quality travel insurance policy as well – it will give you much more comprehensive cover.
10. Are travel companies at risk of collapse?
Tour operators and airlines are used to coping with major disruption caused by events of all kinds – in the last couple of decades we’ve seen the industry hit by volcanic ash, the Sars outbreak, major strikes, massive computer failures, dozens of terror attacks, wars and a global economic crisis. This week, Flybe was the first airline to collapse as a result of coronavirus; whether we see more will depend how serious the coronavirus outbreak becomes and how long it endures.
To protect yourself against the failure of a tour operator, make sure it is covered by an Atol (caa.co.uk/atol-protection) or other bonding arrangement. For scheduled flights, book with a credit card or buy travel insurance which covers airline failure.
For now, the best we can do is consider all of the above factors and come to a decision based on the professional advice we are receiving.
For me, I emerge from this gauntlet of considerations with a positive result, and will be travelling to Rio on Friday so long as there are no major changes between now and then. Many will do the same and crack on. Plenty, I’m sure, will decide to cancel their trip and play it safe.
Do you have a holiday booked? Will you be going ahead, or cancelling? Comment below to join the conversation.