Has Swine Flu Infected Your Travel Plans?

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Israel Leal / AP

As swine flu cases rose on Friday — with 141 confirmed cases in the U.S., 397 in Mexico, including 16 deaths, and the first case confirmed in Asia — the strongly held consensus among health officials remains that borders should not be closed. (Americans are advised, however, to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico.) Grounding travel would do nothing to stave off a full-fledged pandemic and, despite any ill-considered advice from Vice President Joe Biden, there's no risk for a healthy person in the U.S. to take mass transportation, but the truth is that many travelers these days are still feeling skittish about getting on a plane. In a recent TripAdvisor.com poll of 2,857 users of the site, a quarter of the people who responded said they were changing their plans because of the H1N1 flu virus.

So if you're looking to cancel or delay a trip you've already booked, what are your options? Right now, if you're holding tickets for any destination other than Mexico, you'll pay the usual penalties for changing or canceling your flight. For those who would be Mexico-bound, however, most airlines are waiving change fees — but not always refunding money. Continental, which has cut capacity to Mexico by 50%, is allowing passengers to postpone trips to Mexico without penalty for all flights departing the U.S. through May 15. Delta will let you trade in your tickets to Mexico for another destination altogether without a change fee for flights leaving through May 16. American Airlines is offering refunds for all tickets to Mexico for flights through May 31. Click here to get the details of most major airline policies.

Cruise lines have rerouted their May cruises, substituting stops at Catalina Island, Santa Barbara and San Francisco, or days at sea, for the usual ports in Mexico. If California is not your idea of an exotic cruise destination, Carnival will waive its cancellation policy and allow customers to reschedule for a later cruise. Princess is offering to credit you back 50% of the fare you paid for a Mexico cruise, which you may use toward any other cruise through April 2011. If you want to cancel altogether, the standard policies apply — unless you bought the Princess Vacation Protection insurance, which gets you a credit of up to 90% of the fare; without insurance, you forfeit your fare. To date, no cases of swine flu have been reported aboard cruises in progress, and the cruise lines assure passengers that they will be screening crew and passengers for illness and will isolate anyone who shows flu-like symptoms.

Many hotels in Mexico are accommodating last-minute cancellations without penalty. Iberostar Hotels & Resorts is allowing guests to trade upcoming stays in Mexico for stays at other properties in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic with no change fee, and is not charging guests who elect to leave Mexico early. The InterContinental Hotels Group, which operates the InterContinental in Cancun and the Crowne Plaza in Acapulco, among other properties, is offering to waive cancellation fees for reservations at any of its Mexican properties through May 31.

"We are seeing a mix of cancellations and re-bookings," says Brian Hoyt, a spokesperson for the travel booking and comparison site Orbitz, which has also waived its rebooking fees for trips to Mexico through mid-May. "We're suggesting alternatives like Las Vegas and the Caribbean, which have similar climates."

On the whole, though, "people are still flying," says Hoyt, emphasizing that there are some great travel deals to be had right now. "Travelers should take precautions, but they should let science, meaning the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, dictate their decisions," says Hoyt. "Right now the only place they're saying to be careful is in Mexico."

U.S. hotel groups say there have been no cases of swine flu in their properties, and they're being extra diligent about continuous cleaning and disinfecting. If that doesn't reassure you, some hotels in the U.S., such as the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego, will allow anxious guests to cancel. "A vacation shouldn't be spoiled with fears of illness," says general manager Matt Greene, who has amended the hotel's usual policy to allow cancellations with no penalties during the heightened swine flu threat.

But keep in mind that most U.S. hotels, hit hard by 16 months of recession, will not oblige you enthusiastically if you try to cancel. "Right now, they don't have the leverage, or give, they've had in the past," says Lalia Rach, the dean of New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality and an expert on the global hospitality industry. "I'm sympathetic to travelers, but it is a business. In New York, people are still going to work."

If you're uncertain of whether to book a summer trip in light of the rapidly changing flu situation, consider purchasing travel insurance policy. Basic travel insurance, which typically costs 4% to 8% of the cost of the trip, gets you your money back if you encounter illness (as well as travel mishaps like missed connections or airline strikes) before or during travel. But look closely at the fine print or ask the insurers directly whether you will be covered if you contract the H1N1 flu. "Some companies have a specific exclusion for pandemics," says Brad Finkle, past president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association (USTIA). To do a side-by-side comparison on swine flu coverage, Finkle suggests checking out InsureMyTrip.com.

Most insurance plans will not cover cancellations simply because you're afraid to travel — even if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel advisory, as it has for Mexico. To be able to cancel for any reason, you'll have to invest in a "cancel for any reason" insurance policy, offered by companies like Travel Guard. But that kind of peace of mind doesn't come cheap — up to an extra 35% to 50% of the policy's price, estimates Linda Kundell of the USTIA — and depends on your age, your itinerary, how far out you are booking and the cost of your vacation. Depending on the policy you buy, the insurance plan may get up to 70% of your money back from airlines and hotels; you won't get a full refund. But the good news is that, as of May 1, Travel Guard said it is still insuring vacations to Mexico.

See pictures of thermal scanners hunting for swine flu.

See pictures of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico.