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The coronavirus outbreak is creating extra havoc for travelers

Experts are weighing in on travel insurance, credit card reservations, and preventative measures

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The warnings regarding the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) continue to mount. Italy, China, South Korea, Japan, and Iran are already on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Travel Alert list, and the number of countries on it is likely to grow.

For many Americans, facing a health scare like this is something new. The last major widespread panic came before a vaccine was developed to combat measles. In the decade before 1963 when a vaccine became available, nearly all children contracted measles by the time they were 15 years old -- all in all, about 3-4 million a year in the U.S. alone.  The biggest scare before that was probably diphtheria, but that was nearly a century ago. 

Now, with the CDC saying that the coronavirus spreading across the U.S. is a “when” and not an “if,” combined with Americans’ love of travel and the quickly approaching spring break and Easter vacation, no level of caution can be thrown to the wind. To that end, ConsumerAffairs has put together a list of precautions every traveler should take until the caution light stops blinking.

Travel questions and reminders

How old is the traveler?

The CDC says that older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel.

Where are you headed?

On top of China, South Korea, Japan, and Iran, coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Spain, Italy, the Canary Islands, Germany, Mallorca, and Britain.

The CDC also lists Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam as “other destinations with apparent community spread.” 

Whether you’re flying or sailing to any of these places, caution is advised.

Going to the Olympics?

If you’ve already got tickets to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, there’s reports suggesting that the Games may be canceled, although that is improbable. Adding fuel to the fire, Bloomberg News reports that a number of global sporting events and Olympic qualifiers in Asia have already been nixed or moved to another location. 

Will travel insurance cover the virus?

Because the virus isn’t something travel insurers planned for, it’s caught most, if not all, of them off-guard. Credit card companies that include travel insurance policies as a perk to cardholders also appear ill-prepared.

"Unfortunately, it appears that credit card travel insurance policies aren’t offering much help with the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,” CreditCards.com industry analyst Ted Rossman told ConsumerAffairs.

Rossman cited Travel Guard as a provider that he thinks has a fairly general bottom line for this particular situation. “Trip cancellation for concern or fear of travel associated with sickness, epidemic or pandemic is not covered,” the company said.

But if you simply got cold feet and changed your mind, you’re not completely out of luck.

ConsumerAffairs did find an umbrella travel insurance feature that might do the trick. It’s a policy that has a “Cancel for Any Reason” (CFAR) benefit. A fair warning, though -- it can be pricey and include caveats regarding when the policy is purchased and just how much of a refund you’ll get back if you wind up using it. However, some ConsumerAffairs reviewers who bought the upgrade say it’s worth the money.

The word is getting out about CFAR. “We've seen a surge in policy sales with Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) selected as an optional upgrade,” Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, told Forbes. “In January and February of this year, sales of CFAR policies increased by roughly 150 percent compared to the same period last year.”

What if I made a reservation in an affected area?

While standard-issue travel insurance might not help and CFAR might be too costly of a gamble, there’s some good news for travelers holding airline and hotel reservations for one of the areas impacted by the virus.

“Many airlines and hotels are canceling reservations and offering fee waivers in the most affected areas.” Rossman said. “That’s probably going to be your best option for getting your money back.”

What preventative measures can I take?

With all the unknowns of the virus, travelers can’t be too careful -- no matter where they go. ConsumerAffairs spoke with Dr. Arielle Levitan, the co-founder of Vous Vitamin, who told us that the bottom line for any traveler while the virus is still spreading is intensifying their health and hygiene routines. Her suggestions include:

Wash up: “The best things to do include hand washing with soap and warm water frequently (this is preferred over antibacterial gels but they can be used in a pinch),” Levitan said. “We also recommend appropriate immunizations such as the flu shot, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis and possibly wearing an appropriate mask in crowds or on planes. You can also bring antibacterial wipes to wipe down surfaces such as tray tables etc. On a general health level, staying well hydrated, getting adequate sleep, and exercising are also important.”

Take your vitamins: “Taking the right vitamins on a regular basis and in certain crisis situations can be helpful...Vitamins such as vitamin C, D and key B vitamins...can support your immune system.” Levitan added, “When you are starting to come down with something or [feel] particularly at risk, you may benefit from taking extra of certain vitamins such as C, D, and zinc, which may shorten the course of certain illnesses.”

Look out for symptoms

If you decide to forego the warnings and still travel, the CDC’s signs of visual cues relating to coronavirus could be a valuable print-out to take with you. Skin rash, cough, fever, and other signs, symptoms, and conditions are covered under the agency’s list of visual cues.

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