The corona virus outbreak has disrupted the entire travel industry across the board... everything from airfare, hotels, car rentals, and cruises have been effected.
With nearly 20 years experience in the travel industry, we have seen a lot, and will offer our thoughts and perspective below.
WHAT TO DO NOW:
NEAR TERM TRAVEL PLANS:
Travel companies are experiencing unprecedented call volume and wait times are excessively long. Companies are asking that you refrain from calling if your travel plans are not within the next week, as this will enable those with immediate travel plans to get the assistance they need in a timely manner (or at least the best that can be expected).
If you do need to get in touch with customer support try the following:
visit the company website that you booked through to see if they are processing cancellations / refunds online
look for online chat functionality, although don't waste your time with any 'chat bot' as their automated responses will not be of any value given the current circumstances
if you used an OTA (PRICELINE, HOTWIRE, Expedia, etc) for a hotel booking, try calling the hotel directly using their local phone number. You're trying to reach the actual hotel front desk... not the call center. Speak to the hotel directly to find out how they have been handling the situation. See if you can get the person at the desk to process a refund and enter it in their system, writing down all the information such as their name, time you called, etc. If possible ask for an email confirmation of what was agreed upon, as this also gives you written proof and eliminates any 'he said she said' discrepancy in the future as to what the hotel agreed to do.
try to reach the company via Twitter, Facebook, etc. as you may get a quicker response
if you must call, try to multi-task by putting the call on speaker phone and doing other things (cooking, checking email, surfing the web, planning your next trip, etc, etc) until you have a representative on the line
FUTURE TRAVEL PLANS:
If you believe the current situation will pass, consider making future travel plans now.
Airlines are currently desperate for business and generally offering flexible cancellation options if you book by the end of March. Most cancellations come in the form of a credit to be used within a certain amount of time in the future, so check with each airline for their specific terms.
Hotels can be safely booked using a refundable rate. This locks you in to a low rate while fear may be near it's peak, gives you the ability to cancel until a few days before your trip if you decide not to travel, as well as gives you the ability to cancel and re-book should rates head even lower. You can use our sister site RefundableRates.com to compare the best hotels/rates on a refundable basis
Hotel prices in many cities have plummeted to levels that have not been seen since post-9/11. It's certainly worth a look if your travel plans are far enough into the future. A quick look at rates for NYC and Chicago sees many 4+ star and higher rated hotels for under $100/nite. (at the moment HOTWIRE prices seem to be a little less than PRICELINE, but you can easily check/compare them both using our BiddingHelper.com tool)
MY OWN RECENT EXPERIENCES:
I have recently booked airfare for two trips, one in August and one in November. I feel 'pretty good' that both of these trips will take place, but should i need to cancel, i can use the airfare credit anytime in the next year (and i'm assuming that if travel continues to be inhibited that they may extend the time that the credit can be used). Hotels for each trip are booked at good prices which can be canceled up until a few days before my arrival.
Before i purchased the first airline ticket i bought i did have a question for the airline as it was only one day since they announced their updated cancellation policy. I was told the hold time would be about 4 hours so i used their callback feature that they would call me back when it was my turn. I did receive a callback about 9 hours later at 1am in the morning! The representative was pleasant (and new) but unfortunately wasn't trained to answer my question and transferred me to a different department. Unfortunately this put me on hold for which i gave up after 15 minutes as i suspected it could be hours.
I did have plans to go to Atlantic City for March Madness as i wanted to see if things down there were growing with legalized sports betting, but i canceled the trip when the tournament was canceled, which was a moot point anyway since the casino hotels closed today for at least the next 2 weeks.
THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL:
The travel industry has been very strong over the last 10+ years, and with hotel occupancy high and virtually no empty seats on airplanes, deeply discounted prices were harder to come by. Deals were still out there... but they were farther and fewer between and not available for all travel dates. I don't necessarily expect a quick snapback to travel, as it will take awhile before the general population feels comfortable traveling again. I suspect we may see hotels be the first to comeback as people take local trips they can drive to, which should be followed by airfare, with the cruise industry being last to return to normal. During this recovery window, we may see PRICELINE / HOTWIRE deals return to the bargain basement prices that we were accustomed to 5-10 years ago, as hotels try to fill empty rooms and airlines try to fill empty seats.
There will be setbacks for both our country and economy over the coming weeks, but hopefully it will be a case of 'two steps forward and one step back', with consistent progress.
I urge everyone to remain calm, keep things in perspective, and keep yourselves and your families healthy.