Coronavirus: Everything you need to know about travel cancellations

Everyone is talking about the dreaded 'C' word, but what does the outbreak mean for those of us who've recently travelled, or planned to travel? Here's everything you need to know...

5 mins

Please note: much of the below information applies to British nationals specifically

What is coronavirus, exactly?

If you’ve suddenly noticed shops sold out of hand sanitiser and people wearing face masks, it’s all because of a new strain of coronavirus called COVID-19, that has gripped the world in a pandemic.

A respiratory illness that has come from animals, COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, and has currently infected more than 354,000 people worldwide, with Johns Hopkins University reporting more than 80,000 cases and 3,000 deaths in China alone.

In spite of a smaller population and fewer infections, Italy's death toll has now exceeded China's, with more than 5,000 reported deaths.

Of China's 80,000 cases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that "more than 70% have recovered or been discharged." 

On 19 March 2020, Wuhan reported no new cases for the first time since the outbreak started. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says that the city "provides hope for the rest of the world, that even the most severe situation can be turned around".

He also adds: "Of course, we must exercise caution – the situation can reverse. But the experience of cities and countries that have pushed back this virus give hope and courage to the rest of the world."

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Initial symptoms include a fever (a temperature above 37.8°C), and a new, continuous cough, according to the NHS. Shortness of breath and breathing difficulties may also be present.

In older people, or vulnerable people with pre-existing health conditions, symptoms could progressively worsen. COVID-19 has led to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome and kidney failure in some cases. 

You can now check if you have symptoms of coronavirus on the NHS website using their online survey.

Where is the outbreak, and where does FCO advise against travelling?

Although the outbreak began in China, COVID-19 has spread worldwide, with Italy, US and Spain now being among the worst affected.

Europe is now at the heart of the pandemic, with rising number of cases in Spain and Germany. South Korea, the site of Asia's worst outbreak outside of China, has reported the lowest number of new cases since infection rates peaked four weeks ago.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is constantly updating its travel advice, with the current advice being against all non-essential overseas travel from 17 March for the next 30 days, although this time may be extended.

This means that you can claim a refund or rebook a package holiday with your operator and airline or, if necessary, claim on travel insurance. You may only be able to rebook, though.

You can also check WHO, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) and Fit For Travel for up-to-date travel alerts and notices on the status of COVID-19. 

Why is it affecting travellers so drastically?

Currently, the UK Foreign Office advises against all non-essential travel worldwide. So, very few people are currently travelling.

But with airlines cancelling or delaying flights to affected areas, the last few weeks have been the perfect breeding ground for chaos and confusion.

British Airways, Jet2 and Ryanair were among the airlines airlines cancelling or suspending flights, and British airline Flybe collapsing into administration on 5 March 2020, partly due to falling customer demand.

If you had planned to travel in the near future, it's very likely your trip will be postponed or perhaps even cancelled altogether. Sadly, many UK travellers are currently stuck in other countries, unable to fly back home due to travel restrictions.

It may seem doom and gloom right now, but you should look out for silver linings, if you're following government guidelines to stay at home.  You may have to cancel your trip, but Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes says that being grounded in your home isn't always  a bad thing. 

Instead, she suggests using this hiatus "to dream, research and plan" for future adventures, adding that "when all the current restrictions lift, we can catch the trade winds in our sails again and explore this fascinating world of ours".

Is it safe to fly right now?

Just a few weeks ago, many of you told us in a reader survey that you still planned to travel.

However, the situation has changed rapidly, and now the UK government has advised against non-essential travel, and against leaving your home for non-essential purposes.

But what if you're one of the unlucky travellers stuck abroad, and are trying to catch an emergency flight home?

If you do have to catch an essential flight, Lyn says, "You obviously need to take the same precautions as you would on any public transport. Ensure you are washing your hands after contact with surfaces and before touching food.”

Our resident health expert, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, emphasises that "meticulous personal hygiene is crucial and this includes frequent hand washing with soap and water, especially after touching your face".

What about face masks? According to Dr Jane, "paper or cloth surgical masks don’t offer significant protection but help you avoid infecting people. The key way of avoiding COVID-19 is by reducing contact with other people including through using mass transport which means flying."

She also adds: "Currently, the fewer journeys we make, the less the virus will spread globally, so everyone should strive to be public spirited and... think carefully before travelling. Senior travellers and people with long-standing medical conditions should probably avoid travel."

If you have to cancel your flight, what do you do? Can you get the money back?

The Association of British Insurers advises that you can get your money back – if you buy travel insurance as soon as you book, and also before the government places any travel restrictions on your destination.

The list of countries with travel restrictions keeps growing, so check the list to see if yours is restricted.

What if your trip has been cancelled, though?

Before you do anything else, get in touch with your airline or travel provider to reschedule your trip or sort out a refund.

Many tour operators are offering to refund, or providing credit, for trips booked directly with them, which is certainly handy if you'd like to take the same trip, just at a later date. 

Audley Travel, for example, are currently contacting everyone with an upcoming to talk through their options. Intrepid Travel and G Adventures are also among operators that have decided to suspend most of their tours, departing between 16 March and 31 May.

Expect slight delays in response times, as many of these companies will be dealing with an unprecedented amount of claims, calls, and emails.

If you're staying in an Airbnb, you can claim a full refund if you're travelling from a severely affected area, but you can also check out their policy for extenuating circumstances here.

Once you've spoken to your travel provider, then contact your insurance to recover any costs not refunded directly to your account.

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a refund if there aren’t any FCO warnings in place, and it may be that you can only rebook your trip for a different time, even with FCO advising against non-essential overseas travel. 

That said, check your policy – Dr Jane advises that "medical expenses are generally covered by insurance unless people are travelling against medical advice, against FCO advice or haven’t declared important past medical history or ongoing medical problems. But it is important always to check the small print."

Currently, you'd have a hard time buying any travel insurance. Aviva, Direct Line, Churchill and AXA are among insurers that have stopped selling policies to new customers in light of the outbreak.

Whenever you're purchasing travel insurance in future, make sure to double check the T&C's regarding cancellation cover and travel disruption. 

If you’re still mid-travel, will you have any problems in transit?

It's probably safe to say that the vast majority of us are no longer travelling.

Those travellers unable to return to their home country yet may be wondering about being quarantined, as and when they finally do.


Dr Jane says, "The situation with quarantining and even visas is changing rapidly and it is important for all travellers to check and check again individual country websites, airline information and health sites including Fit for Travel and WHO.

"Here in Nepal, for example, many travellers are used to buying a visa on arrival but that is no longer an option, and restrictions are being put in place for certain nationals and others arriving from ‘high risk’ countries."

She adds that "it is probably worth getting the flu jab simply to reduce the chances of being quarantined for ‘ordinary’ flu. No-one should fly if feeling unwell or feverish, but keep some paracetamol to hand."

Generally, the NHS advises that you self-isolate for up to 14 days if you are showing any coronavirus symptoms, or after arriving home from an affected country.

If you are showing symptoms and are struggling to manage at home in isolation, dial 111 and inform them of your recent travel for more tailored advice.

Related Articles