Coronavirus outbreak: How will the emergency affect your travel plans?

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With the spread of the new coronavirus into dozens of countries, international travel is being hit hard.

The COVID-19 outbreak has now hit Asia, the United States, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Australia. Johns Hopkins University reported that as of Thursday 82,164 cases had been confirmed, leading to 2801 fatalities.

But apart from the health risks posed by the illness, there are logistical headaches for some. Across the globe, travellers' plans are being thrown into doubt – and many are wondering whether it's worth going overseas in the first place.

What should you do if you've booked a trip? Can you recoup costs if you cancel? And what's a useful framework for thinking about travel at the moment?

What should you do if you've already booked an overseas trip and you still want to go?

First, check with your airline and insurance company. Many airlines have cancelled flights because of reduced demand or to halt the spread of the disease, with flights to and from Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and much of Europe affected.

Flights are also being delayed in Asian transport hubs because of increased measures  to screen passengers. Check you're not at risk of missing your connecting flight if you're transiting through other airports – even if there are no restrictions on your particular service.

Chairs left empty at cafes in Venice this week as travellers stayed away.

Chairs left empty at cafes in Venice this week as travellers stayed away. Credit:AP

Qantas has suspended its two direct services between Australia and mainland China until March 29, due, it says, "to the entry restrictions imposed by countries including Singapore and the United States".

It says customers with tickets issued on or before January 24 will have the option to cancel or rebook flights; and people with bookings between February 9 and March 29 should speak to the airline and their original booking agent.

There's no certainty beyond that – anyone with tickets for travel in April, May and beyond will simply have to keep checking in with their airline and insurer, and the Australian government's Smartraveller website. It's highly recommended that you check the status of the country you're heading to – and any country you might transit through to get there – regularly before you go.

Smartraveller also has a handy list of things to check before you go, if that's what you decide to do. It recommends talking to your doctor before you travel, particularly if you are, or are travelling with, elderly or pregnant people. Babies and people with compromised immune systems are also more at risk of contracting illnesses including COVID-19.

Will travel insurance cover you for any coronavirus-related losses?

That depends when you booked, and with whom. While every insurance company is different, most follow a basic rule of thumb – they won't cover you for a risk you should have been aware of before you bought your policy. This is called a "known event" clause.

Chinese authorities cut off Wuhan from the outside world on January 23, and the World Health Organisation declared the new coronavirus a global health emergency on January 30.

As such, most insurers assume travellers should have known about the risks posed by coronavirus by January 21 to 23 for travel to China (policies differ), and by January 31 for travel to other countries.

It's worth checking the fine print for any tickets and insurance you've bought before those dates, but also worth bearing in mind that many insurance companies won't cover customers for any coronavirus-related losses for policies bought after those dates.

Choice travel expert Jodi Bird says most Australian airlines have their own cancellation policies. For example, if you had an airline booking to South Korea and the Australian government raised its risk level to "do not travel" to South Korea, you should be able to reschedule flights, or secure a credit for another trip. Insurance is likely to be another matter, however.

"We're not aware of any insurance companies that will cover coronavirus claims as of now," he says.

Mr Bird recommends that if people are contacting their insurer they do so either on the phone (phone calls to insurance companies are recorded) or via email. The consumer group has compiled a thorough list of advice about what rights travellers have in the midst of the crisis. It includes a list of which insurers will cover people for losses incurred due to epidemics and pandemics.

A man looks out on Hong Kong's Victoria Habour from the near-empty Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, which is usually bustling with tourists.

A man looks out on Hong Kong's Victoria Habour from the near-empty Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, which is usually bustling with tourists.Credit:Getty Images

Can you change your mind about travelling?

Intrepid Travel chief executive James Thornton says while Australians are some of the most adventurous in the world, his customers have shown real concern. "Around half of inquiries to our call centre are coronavirus related."

Generally speaking, you won't get your money refunded by your insurer if you decide travelling is too hard and too risky at the moment – unless you are booked to fly somewhere the Australian government has designated a "do not travel" destination. You can, however, try to negotiate with your airline.

What about accommodation?

According to Choice, Australian consumer law covers accommodation booked from Australia, including Airbnb. Booking sites should also be subject to Australian consumer laws, which offer some protection, particularly in the event of an epidemic or pandemic. If authorities warn tourists that travel to a particular region is no longer safe, Australians should be able to cancel accommodation with no fees or strings attached.

Should you risk travelling if you feel unwell?

No. A number of Asian airports, including Hong Kong and and Singapore, are screening passengers passing through – even those transiting to connecting flights – and those who appear unwell could be taken into quarantine. Allow extra time to get through temperature testing and other screening measures at airports too.

What happens if you contract the coronavirus and your insurance won't cover you?

Australia holds reciprocal healthcare agreements with 11 countries, so that Australians in need of healthcare can be treated – subject to certain conditions. Anyone who gets sick in other countries could find themselves coming home with a hefty medical bill.

How do you assess the risks of travel?

Many people find it "really hard" to make decisions in conditions of uncertainty, says Macquarie University associate psychology professor Mel Taylor.

"The difficulty here – with the great uncertainty – springs from the potential for many different negative consequences that could occur if we decide to travel, and we don't have enough information in this current COVID-19 pre-pandemic situation to be able to consider the relative probabilities of these different outcomes," Dr Taylor says.

"For example, if you’re travelling to a wedding or to see family, the decision to forgo travelling has a significant emotional cost. Similarly, if you’re travelling for work, there might be an economic cost."

Dr Taylor recommends doing a "threat and coping appraisal" to decide whether going ahead with the trip is worth the risk.

"You can ask yourself – what’s the likelihood of me contracting the virus or being stuck and quarantined? What would be the consequences?  If after answering these questions you think that there is a risk, you then need to think about your ability to cope, or manage, these consequences."

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