Travel During Coronavirus
Nisreene Atassi: In today’s episode of Out Travel The System, we’re taking an in depth look at how the coronavirus is impacting the travel industry right now. Because when it comes to traveling, we believe that being prepared is a key component to having a good trip. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and let’s get right into it. There’s a ton of information circulating right now about coronavirus. If you already have a trip booked or if you’re thinking of booking one, it might feel really overwhelming to navigate through all of the information that’s currently out there in the news. That’s what we’re here for. We’re going to take a closer look at some of the current airline and hotel policies related to coronavirus, as well as what your options as a traveler are. To help me with this, I’m turning to Haytham Akremi. Haytham is a Senior Customer Experience Analyst with Expedia. Welcome to Out Travel The System. Hi Haytham.
Haytham Akremi: Hi there.
Nisreene Atassi: At the end of January, the US government and several other countries put a temporary travel advisory to mainland China. What’s going on with the airlines and hotels because of that?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, since the travel advisories were posted, we’ve seen several international airlines cancel any inbound and outbound flights to mainland China. As a result, airlines are instituting flex policies to help customers either reschedule, refund or adjust travel plans for eligible travelers. Some hotels are also offering various flex policies if you booked through Expedia. We have our own flex policy in place. For all hotel bookings in China, we’ll take care of any fees upfront and make it as painless as possible to make some adjustments to your trip.
Nisreene Atassi: So even if it was a non-refundable hotel or ticket, there are still flex policies in place?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, exactly. We understand you’re probably not going to want to go and we’ll make it better for you.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Is everybody eligible for this? Or how do you know if as a traveler, you’re eligible for some of these flex policies?
Haytham Akremi: Well it really varies from partner to partner, but many of them are covering travel to mainland China through the end of March and so are we. The dates do change frequently as more of us learn about the situation though, so it’s important for travelers to check in with their airline or hotel partner if they have an upcoming trip.
Nisreene Atassi: So even if you booked with Expedia, should they still check with the airline partner or hotel partner?
Haytham Akremi: That’s generally the easiest way to get the most up to date information. Yeah.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Because the Expedia policies are essentially the partner policies.
Haytham Akremi: Correct.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. So, where’s the best place for travelers to get this information? Because it feels like there’s just so much content out there and it’s kind of hard to really navigate through it all. Is there an easy place where they can go?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. Probably the easiest place is, we actually have on our customer service page, we have a dedicated help article where you can identify what your airline is and it’ll take you directly to their policies. Many airlines are updating their websites regularly, so visiting them online is probably the quickest way to get the information. And we kind of hand you off to the right place.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Do you have any tips for travelers if they’re wondering basically what to do?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. Call volumes to customer service centers are seeing unusually high volumes, which means it’s tough to get through, whether it’s through Expedia or our partners, or really anyone else. You can save yourself some time by going directly to the airlines’ policy pages, like I said, where all of the information is posted on the status of any booked travel. For example, if the policies are only covering travel through February 28 and you have a flight on March 1, there’s really no point in calling in because there won’t be anything an agent can do yet. But these dates are shifting daily, so keep checking them online regularly to understand your eligibility. In many instances, you can also self-service online to change your booking and save yourself that phone call. But if you absolutely can’t, then that’s when you should call in.
Nisreene Atassi: What about social media pages and things like that?
Haytham Akremi: Pretty much the same thing. Agents are doing the best they can to help customers, but there’s a long line, so do your best to find any information you can online before you go through the effort of waiting your turn to talk to somebody.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s a really good starting point, I think. What else can travelers do, you think?
Haytham Akremi: You can also check with your local airport to see if they have any specific travel advice for anybody that’s leaving from there. Obviously give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and get through security and all of that. Check your travel insurance policy, if you have that, to see if changes and cancellations due to unforeseen events like this are covered. Maybe look at some potential dates for re -booking your travel according to airlines’ policy coverage. I mean again, policies can change or be added at any time, so check for updates before re-booking. But if the airline has not issued a policy and you do need to make a change, obviously still let us know and we’ll do what we can to assist you.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, so I think the important thing is really just being prepared. So if you are going to call in, make sure you already know the dates that you want to change your flight to or reschedule to, so you’re not just adding the amount of time that it’s going to take for you to get this all processed. I also think that the tip about the airports is really good because especially if you are flying to somewhere in Asia, some of the airports have a little bit more security checkpoints. They’re checking people for fevers and things like that. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go, but just know that it might take a little bit extra time, so just make sure that you give yourself ample time to get through everything.
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, absolutely.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay Haytham, so what about low cost airlines? Because I know that those might have some slightly different scenarios with them in terms of flex policies and things like that. What can you tell travelers about that?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. If you have a flight that’s booked on a low cost airline, like here in the US, some popular ones are Spirit and Frontier. In China, there’s Beijing Capital Airlines and Spring Airlines. Only the airline directly can make any changes or cancellations to your booking, so definitely call them first. If you have a package that includes a low cost airline flight, we recommend calling the airline first, taking care of your flight, seeing what your options are there, and then call us and we’ll take care of the rest of your package.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Talk me through a few other hypothetical situations, because I think obviously best case scenario, everything is super cut and dry and it’s very easy to make these changes, but as we know in the travel space, nothing is ever easy and nothing is ever cut and dry. What if you have a layover in China, let’s say, already planned. It wasn’t your final destination, but you’re on your way to Bali or something like that?
Haytham Akremi: That scenario’s actually pretty easy. There’s really nothing as a traveler that you need to worry about. The airlines will go ahead and automatically reroute you so you don’t have to worry about making that change directly.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, so if the airline has stopped flights to that destination, they’re automatically just going to sort that our for you and there’s nothing that you need to worry about.
Haytham Akremi: Yes. A lot of airlines haven’t been specifically told that they can’t have ongoing flights to and from China, but a lot of them are choosing not to. And so in the same way, they don’t really want to expose their customers to undue risk, so they’re going to reroute you through different airports or different stop overs if they need to.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. What about general travel that’s not specific to China? Are airlines offering flex policies for that? So if someone’s just saying, ” I don’t want to travel anymore” or something along those lines, or they’re going somewhere else in Asia and they’ve decided not to travel, what sort of scenario are they faced with at that point?
Haytham Akremi: It’s really hard to say because it’s really going to be based on the destination. It’s unlikely that unless there’s a travel advise for a specific country, that airlines are going to roll out any flexibility policies. So if you, for example, have had a trip booked to Thailand, I would recommend keeping an eye on your travel partner’s website so you can stay up to date on the latest news.
Nisreene Atassi: I think it’s also important to check with the CDC and the World Health Organization websites, because those actually will have the latest information in terms of where coronavirus is having the largest propensity of outbreaks. China is a very large country, so in a lot of instances, traveling to some of these places is still going to be absolutely acceptable.
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. And you can stay up to date on all of the US travel advisories by going to travel. state. gov.
Nisreene Atassi: Do you have a sense of whether people overall are concerned about traveling right now?
Haytham Akremi: Traveler perceptions change by the day, based on what’s going on in the news. But when we surveyed Americans, we found that overall, the majority of travelers seem to be more concerned about international travel versus domestic. But even then, few were concerned enough to actually cancel or change their existing plans.
Nisreene Atassi: Where does this concern really center around? Is it flying specifically?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. Based on the survey results, Americans seemed much more concerned about how it would affect their flight versus staying in a hotel or even renting a car.
Nisreene Atassi: I wonder if that’s really any different than how Americans feel about flying in general, because I know when people talk about just flying in the winter time, they’re concerned as is about catching a cold or something like that. So, I wonder how much of that is just overall perception about flying versus as a result of what’s happening now with coronavirus.
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, absolutely. For the most part, it’s business as usual. People are still traveling every day, just like they always have.
Nisreene Atassi: So, what advice do you have for travelers who still want to get away? I mean, it’s a real prime time, honestly, for traveling. We’ve got mid-Winter break going on. Spring break is just around the corner. What do you think people should do or what are some of their options if they still want to get away?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. Well I mean, of course your safety is the most important thing, so ultimately it’s up to you to determine what’s best for you and your family. So definitely don’t do anything that would make you feel uncomfortable. If you plan to maybe take an international trip but you aren’t super comfortable with the idea anymore, consider switching to something domestically here in the US. One of the nice things about traveling throughout the US is that at any time, you can get your beach fix, take a ski trip, check out a new big city, without ever having to cross any borders. Staycations are a great option if you don’t want to stray too far from home. A couple of nights in a hotel can be super rejuvenating. You could take a road trip. Find out what national parks, monuments, major cities that you haven’t been to yet, are within a five, ten hour drive that you’d like to visit and take a few days and do that.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I mean, I think the most important thing is for people to do their research and to really make their decisions based on facts versus speculation or fear. Would you agree?
Haytham Akremi: Absolutely.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, okay. So those all sound like actually pretty great options to me, to be honest. And I know Florida’s a real hot spot for Spring break. Luckily, that’s right here in the good old United States. Do you have any last tips or words of advice for the Expedia community?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, I would say, especially given all the uncertainty that’s out there right now, if you are going to book a trip, look at your options for protecting it, whether it’s through one of our insurance products for flights, or if you book a package, which I usually recommend, we do have our vacation waiver that we service as Expedia, where we’ll actually let you make a change or cancel for any reason at once, if you need to.
Nisreene Atassi: Let’s dive into the difference between travel insurance and the Expedia waiver a little bit, because I think people might get confused on whether they’re both insurance policies, or how do they really differ?
Haytham Akremi: The big difference is that insurance policies are administered by a third party, an insurance company. And they’re basically for severe events. They’re for emergency events or if you’re struck by illness while traveling or before traveling or something like that. And just for reasons outside of your control that are serious, then, they might cover any kind of change or cancel fees, get your money back, things like that. What makes our Expedia vacation waiver product different for packages, is that there aren’t any sort of requirements. If you’ve booked a package with us, if you’ve bought our vacation waiver and anything comes up, whether it’s a change of heart, change of plans, you want to change locations, whatever, we’ll just, no questions asked, waive any penalties that you would normally have to pay to do that.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, which actually sounds like a better option in this instance, because stories about the coronavirus and news and facts about what’s going on, really are sort of changing by the day and by the week. As you noted, some of those flex policies may not cover the destinations that you’re going. So if you want to have the flexibility, it sounds like the waiver is the way to go, I think overall. I mean, I guess just with any sort of travel, this waiver sounds like a good sort of fail safe.
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, absolutely. And people are still traveling all the time. People are still traveling all over the country. You should absolutely feel comfortable to do so. But having something like this can give you a little bit of extra peace of mind.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, any other tips for travelers during this time?
Haytham Akremi: Just stay informed. Kind of like we said. Keep checking. If you have travel coming up or you want to take some travel soon, keep checking and see what kind of advise is out there. There’s still plenty of great trips you can take. And if you do need to change or cancel any plans, just know that customers service agents are taking a lot of calls, taking a lot of incoming requests at this time, so it could take awhile. But if you do need to call, don’t hesitate.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s the important thing, is just to really be patient and-
Haytham Akremi: Yeah.
Nisreene Atassi: Not to panic or anything like that. I know our social media channels are getting inundated with questions and requests. So, in addition to long call wait times, the queue, I guess, for social media requests, it’s also pretty long. Just a note to everyone to be patient and we’ll do our best to get back to you as soon as we can. All right, well thank you, Haytham, for coming on the show. I think it’s really important for everyone to have all of this information so that they are prepared to make whatever travel choices that they want to make. So really appreciate you coming on and sharing this. Haytham Akremi is a Senior Customer Experience Analyst with Expedia. And thank you for listening to this latest episode of Out Travel The System, brought to you by Expedia.