CORONAVIORUS Q & A: ESSENTIAL KNOWLEDGE FOR THE INTELLIGENT, INTERNATIONAL TRAVELER

The Responses to Your Questions Below are No Substitute for a Private Consultation with your Personal Physician for Any Medically-Based Opinions related to Your Upcoming Travels.

Q – It is now late March and we have a tour scheduled to Italy the third week in June. That is less than 90 days away. Shouldn’t we know by now if Tauck is going to operate this tour or cancel. We can’t see how it can possibly operate given the lockdowns in large cities in Italy. Friends are in the same situation with their early June Silversea cruise to Russia and Scandinavia. What is going on here? Why won’t our consultants or these companies tell us if we can travel or not? It seems as though the travel industry is in a state of confusion with no one able to make a decision about anything.

A – We fully understand how you would feel that way. And you’re not alone. The key here is understanding the logistics of managing the movement of a tour group or a ship, staffing, guarantees from ports and hotels as well as airport officials that entry will not be hampered. This is the most challenging human chess game ever played and there is no precedent for most of what is now taking place. Every executive of every cruise line, hotel chain, and tour operator is in constant meetings trying to get specifics, commitments, and alternative plans from overseas offices and contacts.

Stock prices have tanked, as you know, and a few of these companies are planning for their guests while also trying to figure out how to assure their own survival.

No one in the industry knows when Covid-19 will be under control. Dr. Fauci does not know and our political leaders certainly don’t know. The planning in the tourism sector seems to be based on good news and improvement, with medical applications, being introduced this summer or early fall. Most don’t think the crisis will run into 2021 – but some do.

For now, it is important for all guests to understand that logistically it is important for all of these travel companies to work on imminent programs first and then work backwards in terms of planning, operations, and guest policies. Almost no company we know is making decisions much beyond April or early May given the several scenarios that can occur. For that reason, tough as it may seem, patience is going to be necessary for a little while longer.

Q – We are booked on a cruise to the Greek Island in September on Seabourn. We are taking your advice to wait until Seabourn announces the cruise will proceed or that they are cancelling, in which case we would expect a more generous offer than if we cancel now. But if that happens, what about the air we did on our own and the insurance we did through Travelex?

A – The air cancellation penalties would be up to the airline and you would need to contact them directly. Most are allowing cancellation but a lot depends on whether or not you booked a refundable or non-refundable fare The airline’s “Contract of Carriage”, the fine print you agreed to when you purchased your ticket, gives them great leeway to handle cancellation as they see fit in this kind of emergency.

Travelex is excellent insurance and you may be eligible for a clause that allows you to move your policy over to a re-booking next year or later this year.

You are doing the right thing by waiting. It is always best to have the cruise line cancel a sailing instead of jumping the gun and exposing yourself to stated cancellation policies.

Q – Why doesn’t Princess Cruises, along with some of the other large cruise lines, defend itself against all of the anti-cruise stuff we’re reading? We couldn’t believe the Bill Maher rant on his HBO show last week calling for the end of the cruise industry an d saying that cruise ships are “floating petri dishes”. Why doesn’t the industry fight back and, with your online voice, why aren’t you all more aggressive in fighting he anti-cruising stereotypes. We’ve been on 27 cruises and we’ll keep going as long as they let us. The people who got infected can be traced to passengers who had originally spent time in Wuhan, China. What are you telling people about cruising at this moment – are you telling people they should not be cruising? Is a hotel room any cleaner or safer? Is a bus filled with tourists any better? Is a church filled with parishioners and/or tourists any better for your health prospects?

A – There are about seventeen good questions in there – although some of those require medical expertise that we don’t have. So, let us respond to you with just a few observations:

  • The challenges of keeping a cruise ship illness free are more difficult when you are caring for 3,00 guests that when you have fewer than 700 guests. Not one of the world’s top-ten rated cruise lines has had any reports of a Covid-19 Outbreak. That is the story that is underreported.
  • The Diamond Princess was on the wrong itinerary at the wrong time. The ship was in Asia with a heavier-than-usual contingent of guests who live in China or who were traveling in China and/or Japan.
  • The ratio of medical staff to guests is significantly better on a smaller, upscale cruise line. The medical services are more personalized.
  • Your analogy of a hotel room to a cabin aboard a hotel that manager to float from place to place is a good one. Mass market cruise lines have a proportion of inside, windowless accommodations. On the top-tier lines, the vast majority of staterooms have balconies with doors that open allowing fresh air into the cabin. We think this is important in terms of good cruise health.
  • The “petri dish” comments we are hearing are generally stated in anger and unfair. Is a movie theater, a mega-church, a grocery store, or a school a “petri dish”?
  • The crew to guest ratios on cruise ships are significantly higher than they are in hotels. Cleaning of public areas on the top tier lines is constant and generally exceeds CDC guidelines. It really all boils down to the boarding process and the level of testing for the virus passengers must experience. All of the lines have learned valuable lessons in this regard.
  • Tours, like cruise ships, serve a variety of demographics. Now, more than ever, we think that choosing tour “brands” is important to maximize the chances that proper precautions are being taken during touring and in accommodations used throughout the route. Some would argue that keeping your cruise stateroom clean is an easier task than micro-managing the cleaning of six or seven hotel rooms and a dozen or more restaurant settings along your tour route.
  • Princess Cruises has taken one of the hardest PR hits of our time. The Diamond Princess story will be repeated in Graduate School Marketing classes for the rest of our lives. At this point, Princess needs to avoid the urge to “fight back”. Much of their financial story will rest on the outcome of this summer’s Alaska and Europe Season. And those are, at present, unknowns.

Q –  We have a cruise planned to Iceland later this coming summer. The sailing will be aboard the Ponant line. We know they have cancelled several of their itineraries including sailings in and out of Japan. Is it likely this August trip will operate? We are traveling with another couple and they are depending on us for information and we are not getting any specifics back from the line. We have no agent – is there someone else we should be speaking to? And is it true that there is no Coronavirus in Iceland?

A – Your situation is one of self-imposed ignorance. You are telling us that you made a conscious decision to pay the travel agent commission to Ponant without receiving the kind of knowledgeable advice that payment should represent. But that’s OK – let us try to help you.

Coronavirus has come to Iceland but there are no serious cases thus far and the country has had time to make medical preparations should the situation worsen. A woman in her forties was diagnosed this week with the COVID-19 virus in Reykjavik, Iceland. Currently quarantined in her own home, she arrived in the country on an Icelandair flight from Munich, but had been skiing in northern Italy. This is the third Icelander, as this is written, to be diagnosed with the virus.

According to the health coordination center, a man in his fifties was the second who was reported to have the virus. The prognosis for both people looks fine, but they show typical symptoms for the disease. Everyone who has been diagnosed with the virus resides in the capital area, but about 300 people are now quarantined in their homes in the capital. Most of Iceland is remote so it would be difficult to the disease to spread as it has in urban centers around the world.

It is very hard to know if your trip will operate as some medical experts seem to feel that we will have a good handle on testing and treatment within the next three to four months. (This is written on March 23, 2020) Speaking to commission-based sale people in a cruise line res center is not going to get you the best information. Ponant is a particularly difficult company to finesse because decisions about ships deployments are currently being made by an executive board based at the company headquarters in Marseilles, France.

Q – Currently booked to Antarctica in December of this year. Do you see any reason why we might consider cancelling at this time? We are in our mid-sixties and I am a hiker. My wife has had lung cancer but is a survivor. Doc seems to feel trip is OK – going with National Geographic. They keep telling us that the trip will operate. We do have cancellation insurance. Most interested in your opinion regarding likelihood that this trip will be operating.

A – Everyone who is currently living in Antarctica is enjoying a form of “No Choice Isolation” within small groups. Before boarding your ship, we expect you will be fully screened for the virus. But December is a long way off and no one can give you definitive information. We think you were wise to consult with your doctor before this trip. Antarctica is one of several places that have not had any Covid-19 reports. We would go and we would bring our children with one important caveat:  We would want to know precisely what our air arrangements were going to be and we would want a sense that flights would still be operating. Given the likely routing, that is not at all certain. Have your travel consultant provide periodic updates on the air situation beginning three months prior to your scheduled departure.  

Q – We are booked with Viking River on an August river and land program that is supposed to include the Oberammergau Passion Play. Will it be operating? We’ve heard nothing.

A – It will not be operating. The Passion Play is being re-scheduled for the summer of 2022. Viking is currently working on adjusting all of their Passion Play inclusive itineraries on both land and in conjunction with their river boat departures. This can be a lengthy process. You need to discuss your situation with your travel agency to make a determine if canceling now or waiting is your best option. What you do will also depend on who arranged the air and what cancellation penalties might be associated with your booking.

If you made your booking with directly with Viking and paid the travel agency commission anyway, we can only wish you good luck. Our suggestion is to communicate with the Customer Service Desk in writing. You should have it all straightened out by the time the Play actually is staged.

Q –  If we had planned on going on an escorted tour operating in April and it was cancelled because of the Coronavirus, would the tour operator we were going with be responsible for reimbursing us for our air costs? We’re flying Delta in Business so the costs are close to $9,000.

A – Unless your air is part of the cancelled tour operator package, it is highly likely that you will be responsible for all cancelation fees.

Q – We notice in answering these questions that there seems to be a fair amount of equivocation. I feel like I want specifics. Our situation is that we are about to cancel a September cruise round-trip from Barcelona. We have no interest in visiting Spain now that the Virus has hit them hard. But our travel agent says they have not yet cancelled the sailing. So how do we get information? They wouldn’t talk to us when we called Oceania.

A – We are getting many questions related to the lack of available information. This is, of course, an unprecedented event for which no airline, hotel, cruise line or tour operator could be fully prepared. The most important thing for you to understand about the process is that the cruise lines are working each sailing in order. Right now in Europe, for example, policies have been formulated for most sailing in the next 60 days. Beyond that, lots of decision-making and discussion will be based on the most up-to-date information. The truth is that most cruise lines in March or April will not know what they will be doing this summer. A number of ships will likely just be drydocked.

Strategize with your travel consultant to see whether or not it would be wise to wait for Oceania to cancel your sailing or if you should just pull the plug now. We do not see summer European schedules operating normally. Nothing impactful on the spread of the virus will happen that quickly. As to why they won’t speak to you – it is protocol in the industry for suppliers not to talk directly to guests who are being counseled by an approved travel professional.

Q – We just exercised an option to cancel a Crystal cruise. We have been given a full credit and we are re-booked on the same itinerary next year. But we can’t seem to get any paperwork from anyone, Crystal or our TA, showing that the original payment has been moved over. As a CPA, I kind of like to have a paper trial about large expenditures. I lover in Manhattan, am I being too aggressive?

A – In this case – perhaps yes. The travel suppliers have not programmed their software to handle the level of changes the companmy is handling. Accounting is likely overworked and short-staffed given the current needs to re-book large portions of the exisiting bookings on record. Pricing and credits, along with air and pre/post cruise arrangements have to be factored in. This is, to put it milding a CPA’s worst accounting nightmare. Refunds and adjustments will take two to three weeks longer than usual. We’re sure you can understand this.

Q – Let’s suppose I am booked on a cruise or tour to Italy this fall and the Center for Disease Control advises that Americans not travel there, am I automatically entitled to my money back from the tour operator or cruise line? I am actually booked on a cruise and am curious as to how the rules on this work.

A – There is no law that requires a cruise line or a tour operator to give you either a full refund or a future travel credit. This is covered in the supplier’s “fine print” and is usually known as the cruise line “Agreement”. Anything offered to guests is legally considered an “Act of Goodwill”.

Q – I have been on a total of 29 cruises and I am planning on going on many more. So you can imagine how I felt when the government of the United States started advising citizens to “avoid cruises”. What is the real reason they are doing this? I can’t figure it out. Can’t they just avoid the riskier ports?

A – It will be interesting to see how the ad agencies for the major cruise lines deal with the ultimate public relations nightmare. This will be studied in Marketing classes at universities for many years to come. The issue on the ships is less about the departure ports than it is the idea that large numbers of passengers and crew are gathered under the roof of one hotel that has the unusual ability to float. This virus loves gatherings of people. The ships in the news are all “High Density” vessels. There are mathematical formulations for every ship measuring the amount of public space per guest. Just imagine, you are walking around a typical Carnival cruise ship. And everywhere you walk there is an imaginary box of space that belongs to you. On a mega-liner, that box might have about 20 square feet in it. If, on the other hand, you are on a low-density five-star line, that box could have up to 50 sq. ft. in it. So the amount of close contact varies widely and the consumer press doesn’t really understand this. There is one cruise line, for instance, that only accommodates 100 guests, fewer than any riverboat. A lot of the CDC warnings are based on configurations of the world’s most popular and largest budget cruise ships.

Q –   The safest plan for our “paid in Full” visit to Scotland in April is to take out some cancel for any reason policy. Which is the policy you most highly recommend?

A – It doesn’t exist. You are far too late to attempt to take out a Cancel for Any Reason policy. And if you still could, you would undoubtedly go through a period of “buyer’s regret” when you realized that it was not going to cover the entirety of your visit. Most of these policies only return 50-75% of your total cost at a premium designed for the foolhardy.

Q –  We booked an Azamara Cruise directly through the cruise line and our friends booked through a local travel agent. I noticed they got the same offer we did so what was the point of their paying for the agent?

A – Good logic – until it isn’t. Yes, the buy-off, cancel offers would likely be the same in keeping with stated policy. But your friends should not have been charged a penny to use a professional agent and they now have an advocate for issues related to your new booking as well as the possibility of consortium group amenities. But if you enjoy being charged for services you are not receiving, such as the agent commission built into the price of every cruise, have at it. But these are extraordinary times in the travel industry and it might be wise to have someone who can contact executives at the line on your behalf in your corner.

Q – Would you advise us to continue on a trip we have planned for Spain in two months? We will be visiting Barcelona and areas along the Spanish coast including the island of Ibiza? We are in our early forties, in good health, and we love clubbing and dancing.

A – Well Spain is, as of this writing, in health lockdown mode. They are emulating the Italian model only more quickly. You might want to ask your physician if this trip is a good idea. Whether or not we would recommend it would have a great deal to do with your health profile, how you are flying, where you will be staying, and the types of activities you will be planning. If you are looking for a city that is packed in season and is a prime example of tourism overload, you could not find a better destination than Barcelona. If you are going to Ibiza for its nightlife, and we are guessing that you are, we would want to ask why you seem so anxious to be surrounded by international travelers in close proximity, who may be carrying more than a social disease.

Q –  We are headed to Cape Town in the next two months for a long-awaited safari. We are going to both South Africa and Botswana. No one will convince us not to go – but you can have at it if you want. Our one question is wearing masks on the flight. We are having trouble finding them. Is this a necessity?

A – If you are in good health and your doctor approves, we think that, currently, southern Africa makes sense as a destination. But watch this carefully. We trust you are flying in Business or First on that long route. If you’re not, change your seating to the front of the plane. Masks are not necessary unless you are a health care worker. In certain societies, such as Japan, wearing a mask is a kind of awareness fashion statement. But excessive hand-washing is still the way to go. Be safe and please make certain your physician has signed off on this trip.

Q – We are watching the news, seeing these cruise ships described as “petri dishes” and wondering how any of the passengers can put up with prison-like conditions as they are locked inside their staterooms. We have a cruise booked on a Holland America cruise ship called the Koningdam. They are a more upscale line than Princess but as this will be our first cruise we are hesitant. The cruise goes to Mexico on October 3rd. We are less worried about the ports than the passengers. Any advice would be appreciated. I think we may be overthinking this one. Our travel agent keeps telling my wife not to worry.

A – Holland America Line and Princess are both cruise lines owned by the Carnival Corporation. Holland America’s ships, on average, carry fewer guests than a Princess ship. Your ship is the largest in the Holland America fleet at 2,605 Guests. Add to that, another 1,000 or so crew members, and you have a floating city of about 3600 folks. Many things will change between now and your departure date so it is hard to give you specific advice. But we are concerned about the size of the crowd. For now, we think consumers ought to limit their cruise options to any ship with fewer than 1000 guests. This will generally place you in a higher category of ship but we think that is exactly what you want to do. You want to be surrounded by fewer folks and a group with higher-than-average medical care, the kind of fellow-travelers who would be more likely to seek out competent medical attention if they had any symptoms of the virus. Sounds snobby but in this kind of crisis, we’ll risk it.

Q – We have a nice trip planned this September to Costa Rica. If the tour operator we have booked decides to cancel the departure are we automatically entitled to a full cash refund?

A – That is a bit more complicated question than it might seem. The air part of your trip would have to be refunded in cash as part of the airline’s “Contract of Carriage”. But that is the airlines. In fact, tour companies, resorts, and cruise lines are bound by their “Terms & Conditions”. Those Terms usually allow Future Credits to be offered instead of actual cash refunds. It is perfectly legal.

Q – We are booked on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager to Europe in September. I have been told that if I cancel within 30 days of my departure date, Regent will give me back a full refund in the form of a future credit that I can use in either 2021 or even 2022. This is part of something called the Regent Reassurance Program. Two questions: Will the refund/credit include the air I booked and what will happen to my insurance premium if I cancel?

A – Understand that any policy you or we reference may have changed, expired, or simply been thrown out if the implementation is proving impractical. Cruise line executives are in constant meetings, computer systems have not been programmed to handle the changes, and reservations staff internally as well as cruise sellers can barely keep up with the changes. So – that having been said, you must be paid in full to take advantage of this offer and you will automatically be placed in 100% Cancellation mode. So no cash refund of any kind. But you will get the 100% future credit and it will apply to both Regent’s air and insurance programs. If you booked your own air and purchased your insurance elsewhere, those costs will not be covered by the Reassurance Program.

Q – From a travel industry standpoint, which destinations in the world seem strong right now compared to the complete slowdown of travel to Asia? Where are our neighbors headed on vacation? Any trends?

A – Well you’ll find some of your neighbors waiting in lines at Wal-Mart for toilet paper, any kind of anything that says “Anti-bacterial” on the packaging, and cushions designed to help you slide under your bed in fetal hiding position. But most of your neighbors are still traveling. Travel agents are reporting upticks in travel closer to home such as Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Spain and Portugal are seeing growth and travel to Africa remains strong. Cruises on American Rivers are selling out as are smaller, French barges and river boats in Europe.

Q – Is there anything that we are not being told in terms of what we should be taking with us during our travels abroad or even in the US?

A – We don’t know what you don’t know. But we’ll mention a pocket pen. Us it to press elevator buttons and to press keys on a banking screen. Avoid signing with your finger at supermarket check-out. Carry a thick handkerchief and use it to grip stairs or door handles. Use a clean one each day. Carry a supply of bacterial wipes in a plastic baggie in the car. Do not go to China to play ping-pong this month.

Q – We are scheduled to go on a Regent Seven Seas cruise to Scandinavia and Russia in August. As a former hospital administrator, I have confidence that the Scandinavian countries will handle this outbreak considerably better than we will, sadly, in our own country. So my wife and I have no fear of going and we are really looking forward to the journey. I do wonder, however, if Chinese passport holders seeking to get away will be allowed to book and travel on our cruise. That could be a bit of a concern.

Q – Effective on February 20, 2020 Regent has relaxed its previous policy prohibiting guests holding a Chinese Passport from boarding its ships. This is in reaction to new, stringent immigration, customs, and health screening protocols and regulations in place around the world. This also applies to holders of Hong Kong and Macau Passports.

Q – Is there any way that we can know where the risk of the Outbreak is likely to be highest? We are scheduled for a 42-Day Cruise that will hit many parts of Europe, a bit of Asia, and even some of Africa. It would be really useful to know where the Virus is likely to hit next. Thanks so much. This Q & A approach is extremely helpful.

A – It is, of course, a bit of a guessing game. But there is solid, empirical evidence used by researchers at the University of Oxford and The London School of Medicine and Tropical Hygiene. They maintain something called the IDVI, the Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index which tries to measure a country’s ability to manage a serious infectious disease outbreak.

This is their current chart showing places in the world they believe are of most concern in terms of a major risk for visitors:

Q – This Corona virus is coming at a really bad time for our family. My sister is marrying a lovely gentleman from Buenos Aires in two months. We are all flying down for several days to attend. The immediate question involves our air arrangements which we must finalize this weekend. It looks like we can fly First Class for an additional $1900 per person. We’re all in pretty good shape, including both my parents who will be joining us. Any advice?

A – Definitely for your folks. We are recommending the front of the plane for anyone over sixty on international flights. You can decide, after speaking with your physician, if you want to spend the money for the rest of the family. If you bought Apple stock five years ago, fly up front. And do investigate what private jet might cost if there are more than five of you traveling. You might be surprised.

Q – We are booked on a Tauck Escorted Tour to the Canadian Rockies in mid -June. This Corona thing is making us nervous and we are thinking about canceling. We did pay Tauck a deposit and we have their insurance. How will a cancellation work and will we get all of our money back?

A – Final payment for your tour has been pushed back to 30 days prior to departure. Any guest who cancels after making final payment will have ALL cancel fees (including GPP/CPP premium) issued back to them in the form of a travel credit to be used on any 2020-2021 Tauck journey. Airline change fees will not be covered for guests who voluntarily cancel.

Q – Are there really differences between the cruise lines in terms of this virus epidemic or are they all pretty much the same? So far, all I am hearing about is Princess. Do they all share the same cleaning and sanitary guidelines?

A – Actually no. While all manner of media attention has been focused on the Diamond and the Grand Princess, the fact is that, as of this date, we have seen no reported instances of any virus-related emergency on any of the world’s top ten ranked cruise lines. The mass-market lines, of which Princess is one, can provide a lovely non-inclusive cruise experience. Nothing wrong with pay as you go. The difference is not so much where the ship is headed but how crowded she is as she sails. Thousands of people on a giant liner are more susceptible to picking up a transmittable virus than those same people would be on something smaller, more intimate, with a significantly higher crew-passenger ratio. Of course, the issue with the headline garnering Princess ships has a lot to do with the timing and the fact that there were guests aboard who were connected to the virus during travels in China. That situation is now being addressed carefully on all ships.

Q –  I am scheduled to depart Denver in July and will be flying, through Frankfurt, on to Munich and Zurich for an extended vacation. How do I know if my flights are canceled and what my alternatives are? I am flying Lufthansa but I don’t know if the flights will operate. I booked the air directly with Lufthansa and they say the flights have not been canceled. Can I believe them? Will they protect me on other flights if they cancel?

A – You should go to the Lufthansa web site and make certain that your e-mail and cell numbers are listed in the appropriate profile boxes. Currently, and for the next month, Lufthansa is planning on canceling up to 50% of its scheduled flights, mostly within Europe. It is, quite frankly too early to work on this. Reconfirm your flights two weeks prior to departure. You can believe what they are telling you but do not assume that an LU reservation staff member knows what top-level operations execs are planning. Research your flight options and make sure that you have a second and third back-up itinerary ready to utilize.

Q – Which destinations are on the current government lists to avoid in the year to come?

A – No one can predict what the situation will be like even six months from today. It could be better, far better with the release of new medications now in trials, or it could be worse as we head into a serious pandemic with worldwide implications. For now, Americans should avoid all “non-essential” travel to China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. These are currently “Don’t Go” countries. If you are an older, 65 +, and “at-risk” traveler, you should also avoid travel to Japan.

Q – Leaving for a tour to Ireland next week and other than lingering at the various tasting tables at the distilleries I will be visiting, there are no changes to our travel plans. We’ll be playing golf, just to be polite to the natives, and doing a fair amount of outdoor dining. But one member of our group told us last night that he was having a hard time finding face masks for all of us. What is the bottom line on that while traveling – appropriate or a pure rookie move?

A  –  Don’t travel with face masks. They are largely useless among the general population. The only real purpose of a face mask is when you already have a respiratory illness yourself and you wish to avoid spreading it to others. Instead of a mask, practice the six-foot rule – stay at least six feet away from others if you are suspicious or if they are coughing.