Coronavirus spreads to Italy. Here’s what you need to know about travel insurance.

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Editor’s note: This post is being continuously updated as new information becomes available. It was originally published on Jan. 21, 2020.

The coronavirus outbreak that has infected almost 77,000 people in China has prompted severe travel restraints into and out of that country.

Airlines around the world have suspended flights, severely disrupting travel by tourists and business executives in one of the world’s busiest aviation markets, according to CNN. Major U.S. airlines, including United, American and Delta, are among those canceling flights to China.

The United States has temporarily banned foreign nationals who have traveled in China within 14 days before their planned arrival in the U.S., except for the immediate families of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

All flights to the U.S. from China are being directed to 11 ports of entry where all passengers will be screened. If passengers show no signs of the virus, they are told to self-screen for two weeks, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Any passengers who have been in Hubei province — the center of the outbreak — will be automatically quarantined for two weeks. The quarantine measures, which have been in place for more than three weeks, are the first of their kind in 50 years, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The U.S. State Department has also warned Americans not to travel to China.

As of Feb. 23, the U.S. has 34 confirmed cases of the coronavirus — officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization — and one U.S. citizen has died in China. These numbers don’t include the more than 300 American passengers from the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess, 14 of whom tested positive for the virus. Those passengers were flown back to the US several days ago and remain under quarantine.

In Europe, Italy is the most heavily impacted country to date, with 132 infected and two fatalities. Italian authorities have yet to find patient zero, which has prompted closure of universities, cancellation of football games and impromptu checkpoints to prevent citizens from leaving affected areas.

In China, The Associated Press reported, there have been 2,442 deaths among the 76,936 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The impact far exceeds the SARS outbreak of 2003 in which more than 5,300 people were infected. Health officials say it’s still too early to predict when it will end.

Meanwhile, five Qatar Airways Cargo freighters have been sent to China carrying approximately 300 ton of medical supplies donated by the airline to support Cornavirus relief efforts.

We talked with several experts about what travelers should know about the virus and how you can protect yourself. We also have news on trip cancellation insurance, shuttered hotels, canceled events and more:

In This Post

What is this coronavirus?

It’s a newly discovered type of coronavirus that causes respiratory illness, including pneumonia. Symptoms can be as mild as those of the common cold, including runny nose, fever, sore throat, cough and breathing difficulties. Coronaviruses get their names from the crown-like spikes on the virus as it appears under a microscope.

Will travel insurance cover me if I cancel my trip?

Travelers are understandably reconsidering upcoming trips — both to China and elsewhere in the region.

Airlines and cruise lines around the globe have been canceling, redirecting and reducing service to China. Several airlines and hotels are offering full refunds to anyone with plans to travel to, through, or from China in the coming weeks.

January and February are always busy travel months in Asia. Hundreds of millions of people go home to see family or vacation during the Lunar New Year festival. Many travelers in the region are choosing to cut their trips short and return home.

A TPG reader told us that he’s currently traveling in Thailand with his family and they had to reroute their trip to avoid traveling through China. He reached out to Chase to inquire about insurance coverage through his Chase Sapphire Reserve and was informed that the coronavirus is not a covered event that would trigger his trip interruption insurance.

What should you do if a travel waiver does not cover your itinerary? Can you cancel your trip and rely on credit card protections or travel insurance to reimburse you for your nonrefundable expenses?

Possibly — but probably not. Let’s dig a little deeper. 

Credit card travel protections

Trip cancellation and interruption protection is a benefit offered by several premium travel credit cards — including the Chase Sapphire Reserve — that provides reimbursement for covered expenses for nonrefundable, prepaid trip expenses when a trip must be canceled or altered.

Covered situations, maximum coverage amounts and eligible expenses vary across the cards that offer this benefit, but covered situations typically include accidental bodily injury; loss of life or sickness; severe weather; terrorist action or hijacking, and jury duty or a court subpoena that cannot be postponed or waived.

Related: What to know about trip cancellation and interruption protection offered by select credit cards

The outbreak of a virus is not listed as a covered reason. Even if your flight has been canceled because of the outbreak and you have no way of traveling to your original destination, you will not be reimbursed for any nonrefundable expenses like hotel bookings.

A potential covered situation would be a quarantine imposed by a physician or governmental authority for health reasons. Still, we’ve confirmed with Chase’s Card Benefit Services that this would only apply if you’re actually infected with the virus — not if you’ve been quarantined out of precaution.

Related: What proof is needed for Chase’s trip insurance?

The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to China. (Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH/Contributor/Getty Images)

Independent travel insurance

If you purchased independent travel insurance and now want to cancel your trip because of the outbreak, you may be in luck. Although most bare-bones plans come with eligibility restrictions for trip cancellation coverage similar to that with credit cards, there are pricier “cancel for any reason” and “cancel for work reasons” plans that offer a lot more flexibility.

Travel insurance can technically be purchased up until the day before departure, but many optional coverages, such as “cancel for any reason,” often must be purchased within a set number of days after making your initial trip payment. Prices vary by package, but premium vacation plans that cover just about any conceivable issue often cost more than 12% of your total trip expenses.

Related: How my $200 travel insurance plan gave me almost $1,300 to spend in Italy

Credit card trip cancellation and interruption protection have proved to be extremely valuable in certain situations, but they won’t be much help in reimbursing trips canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. However, you may be able to protect yourself by purchasing independent travel insurance.

What if you have travel booked to or from China?

If you have travel booked to or from China, you should reach out to your insurance provider and check your coverage eligibility. Some providers might cover you if the airline cancels your flight, but not if you change plans voluntarily — there’s a lot of variation.

When dealing with a severe virus like this, safety comes first. Travel insurance is a nice benefit if it helps you recoup the cost of your trip. If you have a flight, trip or tour that’s canceled and your travel insurance won’t cover you, you can ask for a refund from the airline or tour provider. If that fails, initiate a chargeback with your credit card company, as you paid for a service that was never provided.

If you’re traveling elsewhere in the region but flying through China, keep an eye out for airline waivers. Many airlines have waived change or cancellation fees, giving you the ability to cancel, get your money back and book an alternate itinerary. Note that these waivers only apply to the change fee, and you may be responsible for any difference in the fare.

How is the coronavirus like SARS?

The coronavirus outbreak sparks memories of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis of 2003; this novel coronavirus and the SARS virus are in the same family of coronaviruses. Nearly 800 people across Asia died because of SARS between 2002 and 2003. Officials were slow to identify and report SARS.

So, how is the coronavirus like SARS?

“Both SARS and the 2019 novel coronavirus are types of coronaviruses and are thought to have emerged in humans from a transmission event from an animal carrying the virus,” Dr. Theresa Madaline, hospital epidemiologist and assistant professor of infectious diseases at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told TPG.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses and several known types cause mild respiratory symptoms like the common cold. However, similar to SARS and MERS, the 2019 novel coronavirus can cause more severe lower respiratory disease.” (MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — broke out in South Korea in 2015.) “But it is not clear if … the full spectrum of symptoms, mortality or complications are comparable to SARS at this time,” she added.

Who is at risk?

Because the virus is new, it’s not clear who should worry the most about catching it. The majority of fatalities are among older adults and those with underlying health conditions.

“Everything is very preliminary and information is changing very quickly,” said Dr. Julie Fischer, a research associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University. “What we do know is that the severe cases and the fatalities were with people who had underlying health conditions, particularly older people who have underlying health conditions,” Dr. Fischer said.

“I think that’s the other thing we also learned from SARS — that older people who have chronic diseases like heart disease or respiratory disease or diabetes are probably at a higher risk. … They should have a higher level of concern and be more prepared to seek medical care if they find themselves developing severe symptoms,” she added.

But she advises that everyone should take precautions when traveling, no matter their age or overall health.

How quickly could it spread?

A sick passenger who is not yet showing symptoms could board a plane and be in the U.S. within the likely incubation period for the virus. That raises the possibility of even more cases being identified in the U.S. 

“If the virus … follows the same pattern as SARS, we could see a rapid uptick in the number of infected health workers and exposures by ‘super-spreaders’ who have the potential to infect large numbers of people in the absence of prevention measures,” said Dr. Fischer.

“People who’ve been exposed to this novel coronavirus may not know of their exposure or yet have symptoms. … What we’re hoping for right now is that the screening measures will help identify them and make sure that they’re sent for appropriate care,” she added.

How to stay safe while traveling

Coronaviruses are transmitted through coughs and sneezes by infected patients and by touching contaminated objects. 

Preventive measures that travelers can take include sanitizing their airplane seat and the surrounding area with disinfecting wipes, Naomi Campbell-style. Carry and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer and wash your hands frequently.

“You get sick when viruses on those surfaces are introduced to your nose and mouth,” Dr. Fischer said. “So limit that risk by being really conscientious about hand-washing.” 

Also, although it won’t protect against this particular coronavirus, get your flu shot, said Dr. Jesse Goodman, a professor of medicine and director of the Center on Medical Product Access, Safety and Stewardship. “It’s not too late to reduce your risk of flu, which causes similar symptoms and could be confused with coronavirus,” she explained.

Do face masks protect against coronavirus?

Wearing a face mask is no guarantee against the transmission of the virus. You might think it’s a good idea, given that the virus can be transmitted through coughs and sneezes and many photos from China show people taking this measure. Many others who are traveling in a closed environment, such as an airplane, also take this precaution.

“Most of the evidence with the use of surgical masks is that it’s helpful for people who already have respiratory symptoms, not to infect others,” said Dr. Fischer. “But they’re not so effective at protecting people who are healthy from those who are sick. It might be better to convince people who have respiratory symptoms to wear masks so that they are not sneezing and coughing out in the open.”

Related: Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

Dr. Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., an expert in the field and a frequent flyer, seconded what Dr. Fischer said, adding, “It’s not guaranteed to protect you against any virus, especially if you don’t ensure it fits properly.” The coronavirus particles are smaller than those filtered by most of these masks. Coronavirus particles measure 0.1 micron, as opposed to the 0.3 micron blocked by most masks.

There is no CDC recommendation regarding mask usage.

Should you wear gloves to protect against coronavirus?

If masks are helpful for those who are sick, do gloves make a difference for travelers?

“Gloves are useful in that they remind people not to touch their own noses and mouth,” said Dr. Fischer. “Because when you’re wearing gloves, you become hyperconscious of that. But the best protection for individuals is to be very careful about hand-washing.”

How to protect yourself against coronavirus in a hotel

According to Dr. Fischer, the initial spread of SARS internationally in 2003 happened when a clinician who had been infected traveled to Hong Kong for an event and transmitted his infection to other hotel guests. Most of those guests were international travelers and boarded planes and flew home to their respective countries while incubating the virus. 

So what can you do?

“Again, for routine travel, hand-washing is the most effective way to prevent illness,” said Dr. Fischer. “And you can take other general precautions like avoiding large crowds and close spaces.”

What to do if you’re traveling and feel sick

Common symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, dry cough, mild breathing difficulties, stomach issues, diarrhea and general body aches, according to the CDC. If you experience these symptoms while traveling, take these measures:

Prevent transmitting to others around you. Wear a mask, avoid large crowds and situations where you might come in contact with a lot of people and surfaces.

“Also, if you have traveled to affected areas and become sick, or have had contact with someone who has [been] or is under investigation for coronavirus, let your health care provider know,” said Dr. Goodman. “Many clinics prefer that, if possible, you call ahead if you have a respiratory illness so they can take steps to avoid the spread of infection in health care facilities.”

What coronavirus means for travel and tourism

The SARS outbreak had a huge impact on the Chinese economy, leading to a 64% decrease in revenue from domestic tourism, according to Rory Green, an economist who specializes in China and South Korea. And the novel coronavirus is similarly sending shock waves through the industry.

Related: Airlines and hotels offering full refunds in response to coronavirus outbreak

Disney says it will refund fees for admission, hotel bookings and other tickets but would not say when it plans to reopen its park in Shanghai.

Airlines respond to coronavirus

If you had plans to travel within China, you should be eligible for a full refund on the following airlines: Air China, Capital Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon, Chengdu Airlines, China Airlines and Mandarin Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, China United Airlines, Juneyao Airlines, Lucky Air, Hainan Airlines, OK Air, Scoot, Shandong Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Spring Airlines, Suparna Airlines, Tianjin Airlines, West Air, Urumqi Air and Xiamen Air.

Cathay Pacific announced it would close three lounges at Hong Kong International (HKG) beginning Feb. 17, 2020: The Bridge, The Deck and The Pier. The airline is also modifying service at airport lounges across Hong Kong, Shanghai Pudong (PVG) and Beijing Capital International (PEK).

All three major domestic airlines — American, Delta and United— have issued travel waivers for travel to, through and from various cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu (CTU).

Hotel brands respond to coronavirus

Even major hotel brands are offering free cancellations.

During an earnings call on Feb. 11, 2020, Hilton CEO and President Christopher Nassetta said approximately 33,000 hotel rooms across 150 properties in China have been closed because of the coronavirus. And, according to Business Traveller, Hilton is waiving cancellation and rebooking fees for people who planned to stay at any Hilton property in Greater China on or before March 31, 2020, as well as people traveling from Greater China to any Hilton hotel.

Hyatt has a similar policy in place, and is currently waiving any cancellation fees through Feb. 29, 2020, for travelers from Greater China who had plans to stay at any Hyatt globally, or travelers bound for a Hyatt property in Greater China. Hyatt has also announced that it will be extending elite status and tier benefits for some members.

Marriott issued an even broader statement, promising to waive cancellation fees for hotel stays through March 15, 2020, for guests with reservations at hotels in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, as well as travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan with plans to visit Marriott destinations globally.

Even Airbnb is taking action, canceling bookings in Beijing until April 30, 2020, USA Today reported. Bookings in Wuxi, the Yongchuan District and Wuhan have also been suspended, though dates vary.

Cruise lines respond to coronavirus

Cruise lines have canceled or significantly altered dozens of upcoming sailings across Asia as fears grow about the spread of coronavirus. All voyages out of China have been stopped, for now, and some lines also have canceled departures from other destinations around Asia.

Among the lines taking the most drastic action is Norwegian Cruise Line, which has canceled nearly all Asia sailing through the end of the year. Celebrity Cruises has canceled all remaining Asia sailings of its Celebrity Millennium, which had been scheduled to operate in Asia through May.

Related: Booked on a cruise to Asia? Here’s how the coronavirus outbreak might affect you

The line hardest hit by the outbreak has been Princess Cruises. One of its Asia-based ships, Diamond Princess, had been under quarantine in the harbor of Yokohama, Japan, since Feb. 4, 2020, the day passengers on the vessel first tested positive for coronavirus. Initially, nine passengers and a single crew member tested positive for the illness. But the number of confirmed cases has since jumped to nearly 300. The U.S. State Department sent a chartered aircraft to evacuate hundreds of Americans from the ship on February 16. They face another two weeks of quarantine after arriving in the United States.

In response to the quarantine, Princess has canceled all Diamond Princess departures through mid-March. It also has canceled or altered a number of voyages on two more ships operating in Asia, Sapphire Princess and Sun Princess.

Holland America, which has a single ship sailing in Asia — Westerdam — has also been significantly affected. The ship recently was turned away from a number of countries over a 10-day cruise — including Japan, the Philippines and Thailand — due to coronavirus fears. It finally was allowed to disembark its 1,455 passengers in Cambodia. None tested positive for coronavirus. Holland America has canceled all remaining cruises of its ship, Westerdam, remaining in this season.

Related: Trip wrecked: 7 ways to prepare for any kind of travel disaster

How Coronavirus is affecting events around the world?

The coronavirus outbreak is putting the brakes on several business and sporting events around the world. Mobile World Congress (MWC), the host of the world’s biggest phone show, recently canceled its upcoming convention in Barcelona. Other cancellations and postponements include:

Bottom line

With memories of SARS and its deadly impact, countries have acted quickly to control the coronavirus outbreak by implementing screening at airports and restricting travel. According to experts, the best thing that you can do is watch the CDC recommendations before canceling a trip. The agency is closely monitoring the outbreak and updating its website and announcements often.

For more on the coronavirus outbreak, see:

Additional reporting by Katherine Fan, Clint Henderson, Liz Hund, Melanie Lieberman, Gene Sloan, Benji Stawski, Ethan Steinberg, Victoria M. Walker, and Carissa Rawson.

Featured photo by Thanit Weerawan/Getty Images.

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