June 12, 2020
Part of our COVID-19 Consumer Protection Guide series.
Shelter-in-place orders have restricted “travel” in all senses of the word: flying somewhere to visit family, booking a hotel or house for vacation, renting a car, or even just leaving the house to go do an errand. In this guide, we explore what kind of “travel” is technically allowed, travel restrictions locally and statewide, and what recourse you might have if you need to – or want to – change your plans.
FAQs on Travel During COVID-19
Q. Can I travel while shelter-in-place is in effect?
A. Short answer: Technically no (though enforcement varies), except for essential activities.
Restrictions on travel have been implemented across the U.S and the world. “Travel” under the shelter-in-place orders seems to mean going anywhere outside the home. However, the specifics vary widely. And enforcement seems to vary widely by city. Back in April, a handful of people got tickets for traveling from Fremont to Santa Cruz. Another woman got a ticket for taking a photo at the beach. However, overall, it seems those tickets are the exception, not the rule.
California statewide travel restrictions
Californians are still ordered to stay home or at their place of residence, except for permitted work, local shopping or other permitted errands, or for other “essential activities.” For more, check out the state’s Stay at home Q&A and the California travel advisories.
Local travel restrictions
Bay Area shelter-in-place orders are extended indefinitely. These prohibit all “travel” including, but not limited to, on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit, except to engage in outdoor activity.
Q. What if my flight is cancelled? Can I get a refund?
A. Yes, if your flight is cancelled by the flight carrier, then you get a refund.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines must offer refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged, for cancelled or (sometimes) significantly delayed flights, even when flight disruptions are outside the airlines’ control. If your airline isn’t doing that, you can report it to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Q. What if I no longer want to take my trip? Can I change my plans, or get a refund?
A. Most likely you can change your travel dates for free; and in some cases you can get a refund.
Below, we’ve broken it down by flights, lodging, and car rentals. Congress is considering legislation governing when consumers initiate the cancellation of flight tickets, but the government has not stepped in yet. We’ve compiled the policies of some of the major travel companies, but you can also check here for a more comprehensive list of cancellation policies. (See more below on the actions taken against companies for their COVID-19 policies and actions.)
Most airlines are offering a special COVID-19 cancellation policy that allows you to cancel your trip if the travel date is within a specific time range, or booked before a specific date — check the individual airline for the dates. The airlines will offer you a voucher for the funds from this flight to purchase a future flight without charging a cancellation fee; you are required to pay any price difference. The vouchers have expiration dates, so check the specific airline you booked with — some airlines are extending their expiration dates. Beware: if you initiate the cancellation, there are no refunds unless you bought a premium refundable ticket.
- Booking platforms: Most booking platforms — like Expedia, Kayak, Tripadvisor, and Booking.com — allow a full refund or, in some cases, a voucher allowing you to rebook the original property at later dates. The eligible dates vary across websites, so check the specific policy of the platform you used.
- Hotel chains: Most hotel chains now allow guests to cancel at any time at no cost, as long as cancellation occurs at least 24 hours before arrival, and the reservation is cancelled on or before June 30, 2020. Ordinarily, there would be cancellation fees. However, cancellation policies vary for bookings made after June 30, so it’s important to check with your hotel for its specific cancellation policy.
- Airbnb: Airbnb claims to allow cancellation for a full refund or travel credit for reservations made before March 14, 2020, with a check-in date before July 15, 2020. However, you may need to attest to the facts of and/or provide supporting documentation proving your extenuating circumstance. For reservations made after March 14, regular cancellation policies apply.
For prepaid bookings, car rental companies generally allow full refunds for cancellation made in advance, though the timeframe for cancellation varies by company.
Q. Do companies actually honor their refund policies?
A. Most of the time, although there have been reports otherwise.
While the Department of Transportation requires refunds when the airline cancels the flight, there have been multiple reports of airlines refusing to give refunds and requiring customers to explain why they want a refund and not future credit. There are class action lawsuits against several airlines, including American, Delta, United, Southwest, Hawaiian, and Spirit, for their refusal to provide refunds.
Additionally, airlines may contact you and try to convince you to cancel the flight instead of waiting for the airline to cancel, because then they do not have to give you a refund but travel credit instead. Sometimes, airlines will tell you that a flight has been “rescheduled” when in reality it has been canceled, and will not notify you about the option of asking for a refund. Finally, note that booking your ticket or hotel through a third party might impose some difficulties when asking for a refund.
If you have a complaint against an airline, you can file it with the Department of Transportation. For complaints about other travel businesses including hotels and car rental companies, you can report complaints to the FTC and its Consumer Sentinel system. The California Attorney General’s Office also accepts consumer complaints about businesses.
Q. What will my travel insurance cover? Does it cover cancellation fees, and does it cover medical costs if I get sick with COVID-19 on the trip?
A. Short answer: Not much. Travel insurance will not cover you if you decide to cancel, and it may or may not cover COVID-19 related medical costs.
Most standard travel insurance packages cover emergency health care along with trip cancellations and delays for reasons beyond your control. Since the cancellation of flights by the airlines is already covered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and most hotels and other forms of lodging have special COVID-19 cancellation policies, there is almost nothing in addition that the travel insurance can cover you for. Standard travel insurance does not provide coverage if you choose not to travel because of COVID-19 fears or concerns.
Your policy may include “Cancel for Any Reason” (CFAR) protection, which is distinct from travel insurance but may be offered in conjunction with, or as an alternative to, a travel insurance policy. Unlike trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance, a CFAR benefit is not designed to only cover unforeseeable events. As the name implies, a CFAR benefit generally applies to cancellation of a trip for any reason, although certain contracts may contain specific exclusions, such as pandemics or COVID-19.
A travel insurance policy may include medical coverage for emergencies and evacuations. However, many travel insurance policies have exclusions for epidemics and pandemics. You will need to check your travel insurance policy to see if these coverages are provided for COVID-19. As with trip cancellation/trip interruption coverage, there may be a requirement that you did not undertake a foreseeable risk.
You can file a complaint about your insurance here.
Q. Will the experience of flight travel be more restrictive?
A. Yes, since many airlines and airports have implemented more rules for passengers, like mandatory face coverings and temperature checks.
Airlines have implemented safe-travel policies to protect the health of their passengers and crew members. For example, some airlines will check all passengers’ temperatures, and not allow people to board who have a temperature of 99.5 degrees or above. Many airlines mandate that passengers and flight crews wear masks at all times. The CDC also provided new guidance for airlines on cleaning between flights.
This guide is intended for informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice.