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Coronavirus: Your rights as a traveller

BusinessCoronavirus: Your rights as a traveller

Passenger undergoing body temperature scanImage copyright

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Thermal scans intended to detect the coronavirus are becoming widespread at airports

With new cases of the coronavirus being diagnosed in more and more locations, it’s hard to predict where it will pop up next.

But one thing is for certain: the disease has already become a nightmare for travellers and the tourism industry alike.

China, Italy, South Korea and Iran have reported significant numbers of cases and are doing their best to contain the threat.

So how do I stay safe without losing out financially?

If you have a trip booked to one of those destinations, your rights can depend on your choice of airline and the small print of your insurance policy.

But in practice, insurers and airlines generally take their cue from UK government travel advice.

If your intended destination is or was China, the situation is very clear-cut.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is advising against all but essential travel to mainland China and all travel to Hubei Province.

So if you travel against that advice and do manage to get there, you risk invalidating your insurance policy, though you may be able to argue that the trip is essential.

If you are there already, travel cover may not be valid in Hubei, but should continue elsewhere in China – again, if your stay is essential.

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The colourful Venice Carnival was cut short due to coronavirus fears

Actually, I was intending to go to Milan this weekend. Can I change my mind?

This is where it gets tricky. The mayor of Milan has temporarily closed all schools and universities as a precautionary measure.

But, at the moment, the official UK government travel advice for Italy does not warn against visiting Milan, although it does advise against all but essential travel to 10 nearby towns.

And major events in northern Italy have been cancelled, cut short or rescheduled, including the Venice carnival and the Bologna book fair.

Therefore, if you do land at Milan’s Malpensa airport, prepare to undergo a thermal scan to make sure you don’t have fever.

But, for the time being at least, airlines will still sell you a ticket to go there, since flights from the UK are operating normally. However, a number of airlines have said they will rebook passengers who want to change flights to parts of Italy free of charge.

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Does my insurance cover me if my trip doesn’t go ahead?

If the FCO hasn’t issued a warning, that means you can’t expect compensation if you get cold feet and decide to call the journey off.

Su Crown, a spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers, said: “In general, cancellation or travel disruption cover will activate when the FCO advises against all travel or all but essential travel to an area.

“Travel insurance is not designed to cover ‘disinclination to travel’ where the FCO advice has not changed to advise against travel.”

AXA UK, one of the leading travel insurers, agrees with that view.

“Our stance is consistent with the travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” says Nel Mooy, its head of travel proposition.

“When the FCO advises against travel to a country or a region, people who are booked to travel there should call their airline or travel provider to cancel or postpone and arrange a refund,” Axa said.

“Then they should contact their insurer to register a claim.”

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Will I get a refund?

While insurers may not cover cancellations, some airlines are now letting passengers rebook flights.

British Airways has said that passengers with bookings to some airports in the north of Italy – including Milan, Turin, Bologna, Venice, Bergamo and Verona – will now be able to rebook their flights for a later date.

Delta and Air Canada have announced similar policies.

Many hotels in areas under lockdown are offering refunds or the option to rebook. But if the hotel and its location are open, and the booking is non-refundable, travellers may lose out.

So where does that leave me?

If you’re on a flight to northern Italy in the near future, it looks set to operate normally.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs takes a slightly different line from the UK government. It says: “Citizens are advised not to travel to affected areas.”

However, it places the onus on travellers to find out whether the area to which they are travelling is affected, advising them to “consult with your transport and accommodation providers”.

Will my insurance cover me if I miss my flight home because of quarantine?

According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), it very much depends on the type of holiday you booked.

If your holiday is booked with a firm that is protected by the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing scheme (Atol), then you should be covered for the cost of the return flights.

That usually applies to package holidays only. “For flight-only arrangements, that will depend on the cover you’ve got with your travel insurance,” said an ABI spokesman.

How is the travel industry coping?

Well, it’s braced for a financial shock. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says airlines stand to lose $29.3bn (£23.7bn) of revenue this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Airlines in China and other parts of the Asia Pacific region are expected to absorb most of the impact, but no-one really knows how big the ultimate impact could be.

And obviously, if you and other tourists don’t visit a place on holiday, then hotel rooms are unoccupied, restaurant meals go uneaten, shops sell fewer goods and so on. Some of those businesses could go under as a result, leaving a lasting impression on the tourism industry of the future.

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