How and why I canceled our trip due to coronavirus concerns

Mar 10, 2020

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As the old Kenny Rogers song goes, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” These words very accurately portray the scenario that ultimately led us to cancel our scheduled trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, due to the coronavirus and its real and potential implications.

While we acknowledge and respect that some people are still pushing forward with their travel plans, let me tell the other side of the story. I’ll share both some background information on the nature of our trip and the personal and societal factors that came into play that made this a wrong trip at the wrong time situation. While we were confident that Alaska was as safe a destination as any, it was largely the rapidly changing status of the situation and the travel process that elevated our concerns.

READ MORE: Visit this page for TPG’s full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The trip that could have been

The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, has been high on our “bucket list” from the beginning of said wish list. Shortly before this past Christmas, the lights went from a level one daydream stage to the level five let’s-do-this-thing-now as we booked flights from Houston to Fairbanks for four nights inside the auroral zone.

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Artistic rendering of lights that we hoped to see. (Painting by C.L. Cope)

We had considered Finland, Greenland, Norway and Canada as possible viewing destinations, but decided on Northern Alaska because of our familiarity with the area, the comfort of known commodities and name brands, the relative ease of access and good flight values using our American Airlines miles. We booked our MileSAAver round-trip airline travel for only 30,000 AAdvantage miles each on American’s partner, Alaska Airlines. The cash price would have been around $700 per person.

We did our due diligence in acquiring good information and viewing tips to increase our odds for a successful sighting. Dark skies are good, so we looked for new moon phases. Historically speaking, equinoxes are better than solstices for solar activity so we entered that into the equation. Allowing at least three nights statistically increases the chances, as does an area that is far enough north to be included in the preferred auroral zone.

Our personal computer, the Human Brain 2020, came up with Fairbanks, Alaska, for four nights with the dates of March 21–25. We were pleased with our decision and excited for the journey.

Related reading: How to photograph the northern lights with your smartphone

And then…

Enter, coronavirus

A new virus, coronavirus (COVID-19), was first reported in China and, well, you know the rest of the story. People are quarantined, travel is restricted, some cruises have waited off the coast with confirmed cases, virus has spread, deaths are sadly in the thousands, states of emergency are being enacted, countries are being locked down, big events are being canceled, unanswerable questions are being posed, uncertainty continues to grow and anxiety levels are rising by the day. We are now two months into this quandary and there are as many interrogative sentences as there are declarative ones.

We, like most others, had become concerned and proactive. We became professional hand washers and hand sanitizers.

We looked warily at those people sneezing or coughing. We avoided big crowds. We opened doors with our sleeves and pushed buttons with our knuckles. We have purchased face masks (here’s what you need to know about their effectiveness) and stocked up on basic foodstuff. You know, just in case. We followed the news and advisories — but all that by itself wasn’t enough to make the call on this trip.

As the outbreak continued to spread from its center of origin throughout our global community, we realized about a month ago that our trip to see the northern lights was in jeopardy.

The days came and went and we put our trip into a mental holding pattern. We wanted to take this adventure but, pardon the pun, we did have reservations.

We didn’t want to either overreact or dismiss the obvious — so, we waited. Sometimes patience is the best course of action. We very much hoped — for everyone’s sake — that the spread of the virus would somehow abate, that the crisis and its accompanying fear would lessen and that calm would follow the storm.

However, over the weekend, the equation continued to tilt toward scrubbing our own personal mission.

Related reading: The Critical Points — Why I’m not slowing down my travel during coronavirus

Age is a factor

As I’m sure you know, this novel virus strikes those in the most “experienced” age bracket the hardest. This is especially true if there are pre-existing health issues present. All in our travel party are 70+, or very close to it, and one has an underlying health issue. I am personally in my 72nd year on this fine planet, which lands me in the more concerning coronavirus statistics category.

Even with window seats and a game plan to wipe down all local surfaces, we still had doubts about flying for 18 total hours inside the very close quarters of an aircraft’s fuselage. There is no place to run, no place to hide inside the skin of a 737.

Related reading: How to thoroughly disinfect your airplane seat

Oh, and I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that we had a long layover in Seattle, which unfortunately for all involved, is in an area that has thus far been one of the hardest-hit areas of the country.

Canceling the trip

We knew that if we decided to forego this trip that our hotel and car reservations would be easily cancelable with no financial repercussions. We had deliberately avoided making nonrefundable reservations for everything except the flights themselves.

While all major U.S. airlines are waiving change fees for the most recent flights purchased to encourage the flying public to continue to book travel, the same was not guaranteed for pre-outbreak reservations. We hoped a blanket policy to change all reservations would become a reality. However, we ran out of time to wait and see. (Note that since this writing, United, American and Delta have announced that previously made reservations will be more flexible.)

Not knowing how the call would go, we dialed up American Airlines to discuss our options. We knew there could be a long wait as there often is even in periods of less volatility — and indeed, we were advised that there was an unusually high volume of calls and that all agents were busy helping others. However, instead of being placed on indefinite hold, we were advised we could get a call back when our place in line came up instead of holding an estimated 58 to 120 minutes. 

Related reading: Top tips to reach an airline customer service agent quickly

We got the call about an hour later and I was prepared to relay our story and our concerns. However, Katrina, the customer service rep, advised us that since we booked with miles, we could cancel the trip with no fees involved and the points would be credited as an unused flight.

To keep from losing the miles, we just had to book a trip by December of this year. That was it. Simple and straightforward.

Related reading: How to refund a nonrefundable ticket

Our traveling partner had booked her flights slightly differently than we had. She had used a mix of Chase Ultimate Rewards and cash to book the same Alaska Airlines-operated flights as us. She had to spend an afternoon listening to some slightly soul-crushing hold music, was hung up on after two hours and started again. Her journey to cancel started with Chase, where she made the reservation, but she was ultimately directed to Alaska Airlines where a supervisor became involved to approve canceling the current reservation without penalty. She will have one year from the date of booking to use the total value of the flight with Alaska Airlines. Getting points returned was not an option.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but she was told that the wait time is likely only expected to get longer in the days ahead as the number of coronavirus based cancellations increases.

Related reading: Should I travel? Advice for the coronavirus outbreak

Bottom line

We are both sad and relieved with our decision to unplug the lights on our Alaskan journey. We are very sad that the situation exists, but relieved that we may have lessened our exposure and vulnerability by hunkering down for a bit. We did not cancel out of knee-jerk panic, but rather with an abundance of caution and an ounce or three of prevention. Given all factors, for us, it was the right call.

We will put the northern lights back on our to-do list knowing that they will still be wafting ethereally long after this virus has taken its proper place in the medical history books. We will be thrilled and excited to stand in the cold, dark Alaskan night gazing at the heavens watching the dancing and darting lights waving at us from on high. It is going to be spectacular.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay tuned.

Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy

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