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Travel cancellations in times of turmoils: What are your options?

By Anne Banas, Smarter Living Staff -- USA Today
February 2003

In the event of war, terrorism, or other forms of international unrest, your travel plans may be disrupted. Whether you're wondering what recourse you have if your travel arrangements are canceled, or if you're feeling uneasy about traveling and want to cancel your plans yourself, you should know your options ahead of time.

What if the provider cancels your travel plans?

According to the Consumer Travel Rights Center (CTRC), the golden rule of air-related cancellation is, "Airlines Do Not Guarantee Their Flights." With that in mind, it's important to know just what rights and recourse you do have should an airline cancel your flight for reasons relating to war, terrorism, or other hostilities.

In a situation in which an airline is at fault for the cancellation, such as in the case of schedule irregularities, generally, the airline will book you on the next available flight or provide a full refund of the unused portion of your ticket. If it can't accommodate affected passengers on another flight within a reasonable time (often four hours, but times vary by airline), the airline will supply certain provisions, including meals (often for first class passengers only), and a long-distance phone call, hotel, and ground transportation for all passengers. See your airline's contract of carriage for specific details.

However, in cases that are outside of the airline's control, called force majeure events, the airline simply owes you a refund. For example, Delta's contract says that force majeure events can include meteorological conditions, "acts of God," riots, civil commotion, embargoes, wars, hostilities, disturbances, or unsettled international conditions, which, loosely interpreted, could include terrorism. Also, airlines only owe you a refund as a result of any government regulation, demand, or requirement, which could include ordering all planes to land for security purposes as on September 11.

Historically, however, airlines have bent the rules to accommodate passengers. On September 11 and in the immediate aftermath, airlines opted to refund passengers and/or accommodate them on future flights without penalty, even on nonrefundable tickets. Even during the blizzard that shut down much of the Eastern U.S. this past February, many airlines relaxed nonrefundable ticket policies for affected passengers.

Although it's impossible to predict what the airlines and other travel providers might do should they be forced to cancel for war-related reasons, travelers should assume the worst and prepare accordingly.

One way to prepare is to pay for your travel plans by credit card. If a company folds or files for bankruptcy protection—which has happened to several travel companies since September 11, including Renaissance Cruises (which ceased operations) and United and US Airways (bankruptcy)—you will be protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act should your trip be canceled. The Fair Credit Billing Act states that you are not responsible for "charges for goods and services you didn't accept or weren't delivered as agreed." In other words, if you don't get the trip you paid for and the travel provider is unable to refund your money, the credit card company will refund your money.

However, San Francisco travel attorney Alexander Anolik, author of The Law and the Travel Industry, says that if you decide to cancel, even if there is a government warning or threat of war, the credit card can still demand payment from you. The only exception is when the U.S. government bans you from traveling to your destination.

If you're unsure about your trip, consider purchasing travel insurance, particularly insurance that covers war and acts of terrorism. Anolik recommends reading specific policies carefully before purchasing, particularly to look for war exclusions—the fewer exclusions in the policy, the better. Keep in mind that policies are continuously changing to add war, terrorism, as well as other exclusions. It also makes sense to purchase third-party insurance rather than a policy from the travel provider itself. Otherwise, if the travel provider ceases operations, the insurance may go with it—leaving you with no recourse. For more information on travel insurance, read our story by columnist Ed Perkins.

What if you want to cancel your travel plans?

Most airlines will allow you to cancel a ticket without penalty within 24 hours of the original reservation. After that, you're on your own unless you've purchased a fully refundable fare. For nonrefundable tickets, most airlines will allow you to change your ticket for a fee up until the time of departure (generally $100 for domestic travel, and $200 for international, plus any fare difference), but only if you contact the airline. If you don't contact the airline and don't fly, your ticket has no value.

Also keep in mind that some airlines will not refund tickets purchased through third-party ticket discounters. For example, US Airways' policy states that, "some fares are not eligible for refunds or changes at any time, including some fares offered via the Internet. Third party ticket discounters, including but not limited to discount travel web sites, may have their own policies regarding refunds of tickets. US Airways will not refund tickets purchased through third-party ticket discounters."

However, several airlines have already relaxed their cancellation policies in anticipation of war. For example, on March 4, US Airways announced its "Peace of Mind" policy, which permits travelers to rebook tickets for free or receive a credit towards a future trip if the trip is booked prior to the action that precipitates cancellation. Other airlines, such as Delta, United, and Virgin Atlantic, have made similar adjustments. Read our story on airline policy changes for the most up-to-date information.

In addition to airfare cancellations, you may decide to cancel hotel accommodations or packaged trips. Every hotel has its own cancellation policy, and many will offer you a full or partial refund if you cancel. In many cases, you can cancel up to a certain time on the day of your scheduled arrival, usually 6:00 p.m., without penalty. But during holidays and other peak travel periods, cancellation rules are often more severe. For more details, read our story on hotel cancellation.

Refund flexibility for cruise and tour providers typically decreases the closer you get to your scheduled departure date. However, some cruise lines and tour companies, in the face of a possible war, are easing their cancellation policies and offering new ways to insure travel purchases. Conditions range from the most generous—some providers will allow you to cancel reservations without penalty—to those that will permit you to postpone your trip to a later date.

If you've already booked a trip with a particular company, make sure to find out about its cancellation policy and consider travel insurance if the policy is not satisfactory. Also, some cruise lines sell their own travel insurance, but make sure the company it stable before purchasing, or buy third-party insurance instead. For more details, read our story on new trip cancellation policies.

Our best advice is to determine your risk tolerance before you decide to make travel arrangements. Ask yourself whether you can afford to lose your investment if the worst-case scenario should occur. Also be aware of whether the U.S. government has issued travel warnings for your destination, and plan accordingly.

If yous do decide to go, particularly if you go abroad, educate yourself on ways to protect yourself and travel safely in tense times. If you decide to change your plans, consider alternatives such as vacations closer to home, including destinations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. If you are uneasy about flying in general, even within the U.S., consider driving or taking a train or bus to get to your destination.

Airlines contracts of carriage
· American Airlines
· America West Airlines
· American Trans Air (in PDF format)
· Continental Airlines
· Delta Air Lines
· Frontier Airlines
· Hawaiian Airlines
· Northwest Airlines
· Southwest Airlines
· United Airlines
· US Airways