COVID-19: Travel agencies’ advice on what stranded travellers should do
Your flight is gone and the city you’re in is going into a lockdown. Stay calm and follow these steps, say these travel experts.
With increasing travel restrictions and nations from El Salvador to New Zealand closing their borders in succession, these past few weeks have felt like a nightmarish Amazing Race episode as travellers scramble to fly home.
As of March 26, 65 airlines worldwide have suspended at least 80 per cent or all of their flight operations, including Singapore Airlines, which is cutting 96 per cent of its capacity until end-April. So what do you do if you are trying to return from overseas or have hit a snafu with your travel plans? CNA Luxury reached out to bespoke travel planners and was given a few tips.
For those whose flights are cancelled, there’re several options. Zelia Leong, co-founder of Anywhr, a local travel planner that organises bespoke and surprise trips, says that airline cancellations due to cost-saving measures would usually have compensation in the form of a full refund, or a credit refund or voucher.
She added, “This would take the airline some time – up to weeks – to process, and travellers should get an official written notice by the airline regarding cancellation and compensation. Then follow up every week to ensure they are processing the refunds.”
If flights are cancelled by local governments due to entry restrictions, she advises travellers to contact their individual operators – airlines, hotels, transfers, tour operators etc – to cancel their bookings as soon as possible and maximise refunds.
“Travellers should get an official written notice by the airline regarding cancellation and compensation. Then follow up every week to ensure they are processing the refunds.” – Zelia Leong
If no refunds are given, Lucy Jackson, Co-Founder and Director of luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel, suggests that travellers check their insurance policies for coverage, speak to their insurer and file the claim while having supporting documentation at hand, including a letter explaining why changes have to be made to travel plans.
Chloe Chan, Executive Director of Chan Brothers Prestige, the bespoke travel arm of Chan Brothers Travel, added, “Travellers should verify meticulously with their respective travel insurers as different providers have varying terms of coverage.”
“Travellers should verify meticulously with their respective travel insurers as different providers have varying terms of coverage.” – Chloe Chan
However, ever since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a “pandemic” on March 12, many travel insurance policies have excluded claims related to the outbreak.
“Even if your plan covers you in the event of a pandemic, you'll need to first request cancellation for all your bookings,” Leong cautioned. “Insurance will only cover the non-refundable cost of your cancellation, and you'll need official supporting documents from each operator to justify your claims.” Most policies also have a clause to prevent claims arising from premature cancellations, such as more than 30 days before a trip.
A point to note in booking future holidays is that working with an experienced and reliable travel planner can make curveballs less nerve-wracking.
Case in point: Anywhr bookings include a 24/7 emergency and support hotline for customers to text or call should they run into problems during their vacations.
The company swiftly moved in to help a customer who was in Vietnam on Mar 13 when the country announced a closure of all tourist attractions, resulting in many hotels in Hanoi stopping operations. The company contacted the accommodation host to ensure the customer’s safety and discussed possible options with him.
“Airlines were cancelling flights at the last minute so we advised him to come back as soon as possible to avoid being stranded, and managed to get him on an earlier flight back. We constantly updated him via WhatsApp to assure that we are with him throughout the journey and are helping to ensure his safe return,” Leong shared.
Similarly, Lightfoot Travel had a Singaporean client who was in Botswana and due to fly to South Africa for a few days before heading back to Singapore. But there were looming border control issues so the company contacted the client to discuss options and alternative flights at no extra cost.
Jackson shared, “The group was staying in a Botswana camp that had no WiFi, so it was hard to reach them. But we worked with our partners on the ground to get messages back and forth and to assist them with details.”
Don’t stop thinking about that dream holiday to Antarctica or to see the Northern Lights just yet. While Leong feels it’s not wise to make plans for the next two months, it is still a good time to plan for future trips, such as at the end of the year or in 2021.
“Flight prices to many destinations are at an all-time low, and accommodations are going for as much as 90 per cent off. Travellers will have to make prudent choices with operators, such as choosing flights and hotel stays that can be cancelled or are refundable,” Leong shared, citing examples such as a S$4,000-a-night Maldivian resort going for a song at only S$500 per night. The company is also in talks with several airlines on refundable bookings at even lower prices for post-COVID-19 trips.
Jackson agreed, and encouraged travellers to postpone rather than cancel any current bookings. She said, “Think further ahead, plan to travel at a later time and consider meaningful trips such as an African safari, a multi-generational villa holiday in Asia or a Latin American odyssey in remote Patagonia. This time has highlighted how important it is to spend valuable time with loved ones, and destinations will be taking special care and attention of their guests.”
Chan summed it all in a hopeful refrain: “Keep travel close to our hearts, even though it may be difficult to travel the world right now; those bucket-list destinations are certainly not going anywhere. Keep a travel diary, continue planning and jet off when the world is ready for travel again.”
“Think further ahead, plan to travel at a later time and consider meaningful trips. This time has highlighted how important it is to spend valuable time with loved ones, and destinations will be taking special care and attention of their guests.” – Lucy Jackson