Cases of the novel coronavirus have continued to rise, with some travellers asking whether it is safe to travel to Japan, South Korea, Italy, Tenerife and other countries and regions where there has been a significant outbreak.
The illness – which was first reported in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China – has been categorised as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. While most fatalities have been confined to China, there have been cases in 29 countries including the UK.
South Korea and Japan have had the largest number of coronavirus cases outside China, with 977 and 146 people diagnosed with the disease respectively.
Italy has also suffered an outbreak in the region around Milan. The number of infected people in the country has risen to 200 with six deaths.
Spanish health authorities are also carrying out tests on hundreds of tourists after a case was identified at a Tenerife hotel. Another three people have since been diagnosed.
We talked to insurers and travel agents to find out what you can do if you decide you no longer want to travel because of the coronavirus. If you do go ahead as planned, read our expert advice on avoiding spreading germs while travelling.
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What is coronavirus?
The respiratory disease (also known as COVID-19) has flu-like symptoms – including a fever, cough and shortness of breath. Because it’s a new virus, there is currently no vaccine and little is known about how it spreads from person to person. However, similar viruses spread in cough droplets.
Anyone who has recently travelled to the Hubei province, or is worried they may have contracted the disease, should call NHS 111 immediately.
If you planned to visit China
The UK Foreign Office has advised against all travel to Hubei province and all but essential travel to mainland China.
It means you will have to cancel your trip if you were planning to travel in the next few weeks. You should get a full refund from your airline or travel company.
However, you won’t be entitled to any compensation, such as flight delay compensation under EU261 rules, as a disease outbreak is considered an extraordinary circumstance. Find out more about your rights with our guide to cancelling a holiday due to unrest or natural disaster.
If you were set to travel through China on a connecting flight, contact your airline or travel agent. You should be able to arrange to be rerouted at no extra cost.
Worried about an upcoming trip? Join the conversation with your travel questions answered.
Travel to Italy
The Italian government has introduced extraordinary measures in response to the outbreak, including the isolation of 10 small towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto.
Major events, like the Venice carnival, have been scrapped while schools and businesses have been closed.
The Foreign Office has now updated its advice, warning against all but essential travel to the 11 quarantined towns.
However, it’s business as usual for the rest of Italy – meaning you will not automatically be eligible for a refund if you abandon your plans because of the outbreak.
Travellers returning from one of the towns under containment measures are told to immediately self-isolate for 14 days and call 111 to inform of recent travel. Those who have visited any part of Italy north of Pisa should do the same if they develop flu-like symptoms.
Several schools in England have already shut after pupils returned from skiing trips in affected areas.
Will travel agents and airlines allow me to cancel because of coronavirus?
The UK Foreign Office hasn’t advised against travel to Singapore, Japan or any other country apart from China and Northern Italy.
If you’re worried about contracting the virus and want to cancel your plans, you won’t be entitled to a refund from your airline, cruise company or travel agent – unless you’re travelling to, or via, China – or to one of towns in North Italy on lockdown.
Instead, you’re reliant on your travel operator’s goodwill if you want to arrange an alternative holiday or rebook at a later date. But some travel agents are offering worried travellers the chance to change plans where possible.
Trailfinders told us it was working with suppliers to offer ‘as much flexibility as possible or maximise any refund’ if they choose to cancel.
A spokesperson told us: ‘For all bookings to, or transiting 14 selected countries in Asia, for departures to 30 April, there will be no Trailfinders fees and we will only pass on any supplier charges for amendment or cancellation.
‘Where we have forward bookings with flights not yet issued, we are pro-actively contacting clients to see if they wish to adjust their trip.’
Check your flight is still going ahead if you have an internal flight across Asia. Some carriers are running reduced services.
British Airways changes its refund policy
BA has cancelled all flights to Beijing and Shanghai until 17 April and the situation remains under review.
However, it has now changed its refund policy for passengers booked on a later flight to China that has not been cancelled – and those flying to or from Hong Kong.
Up until yesterday (25 February), passengers were given the choice of a full refund or to rebook at a later date. Now they can only use the value of their ticket towards any other BA destination.
This is likely to leave customers out of pocket if rebooking is impractical, or they do not wish to make alternative travel plans.
Is coronavirus covered by my travel insurance?
If you draw a blank with your travel company, check if your policy covers unexpected circumstances.
Even if it doesn’t, contact your provider directly to find out where you stand.
The Association of British Insurers said: ‘In general cancellation or travel disruption, cover will activate when the FCO advises against all travel or all but essential travel to an area.
‘Travel insurance is not designed to cover “disinclination to travel” where the FCO advice has not changed to advise against travel.’
However, insurance company Axa told us that each scenario would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
A spokesperson said: ‘If you have been advised against travelling by your doctor due to the risk of the virus being present in a certain country, please contact our claims team.’
If you ignore travel advice and go ahead with your trip, you risk invalidating your insurance policy.
For more information, see out separate guide on what coronavirus means for your travel insurance.
If you have booked a cruise
Passengers are still being held in quarantine on the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan, with hundreds of confirmed cases on board. A fourth person has now died.
Now cruise lines are refusing to take passengers who have passed through China, Hong Kong or Macau in the previous 14 days. Some are screening for coronavirus before embarkation.
For cancelled voyages, customers are being offered full refunds or the chance to rebook at a later date.
Others are changing their itineraries to avoid some of the riskier ports. However, they are not legally required to offer compensation if a ship still sails – even if it’s had to reroute.
If you still plan to travel
Make sure you check the latest advice for your destination on the Foreign Office website and Fit For Travel.
If you’re concerned about the risks to you, speak to your doctor. Older travellers and those with underlying health conditions are most vulnerable.
Check your travel insurance policy. Medical evacuation and repatriation cover is essential if you fall ill and have to be transported home.
Make sure you’re covered for any eventuality with our guide to the best and worst travel insurance companies.
How to avoid catching or spreading germs
Which? Travel spoke to Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, author of several travel guides, for her advice on protecting yourself against infection. She says:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before eating and drinking, and after visiting the toilet
- Alcohol-based gels aren’t nearly as effective as plenty of soap and water
- Choose a window seat on the plane, if possible. A 2018 study found these passengers typically only come into contact with 12 other people, compared with those in middle (58 people) or aisle seats (64)
- There is currently insufficient evidence around the effectiveness of paper surgical masks. Instead use good hygiene etiquette and cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing
Fit For Travel also advises travellers to consider carrying a small first aid kit, with a thermometer or strips to check body temperature.
Avoid contact with animals and people who appear unwell, including their personal items. And make contactless payments where possible to steer clear of handling cash.