North End resident Katherine Whidden noticed that as the panic around coronavirus became more widespread, airfares started dropping. So the recent retiree did what any bargain-loving travel hound would do: She bought plane tickets, snagging deals to Florida and France.
But isn’t she worried about COVID-19. After all, this is a virus that has transformed normally reasonable individuals into toilet paper hoarders.
“I will more likely die crossing Congress Street than from any virus,” Whidden said.
Among vacationers, reaction to coronavirus has ranged from panicked trip cancellations to bargain-hunting, and everything in between. One local traveler called it “selective hysteria,” others are boarding airplanes with a litany of cleaning supplies and forging ahead. To date, the virus has infected more than 105,000 worldwide.
Despite concerns over coronavirus, a pair of studies found that very few US travelers have so far canceled trips. A poll by the travel industry website Skift found that nearly 90 percent of Americans have yet to cancel vacation plans. Another study from Global Rescue, a New Hampshire company that offers assistance to travelers in crisis, found that while 86 percent of travelers are concerned about coronavirus, 89 percent still plan to travel this year.
That’s certainly the case for Duane Lefevre, a professor at Northeastern. He is headed to Japan in June, even though the US Department of State has advised Americans traveling there to “exercise increased caution.”
“We were initially concerned about going to Japan,” he said. “But respiratory viruses don’t spread well in the warmer weather, and COVID-19 is mainly fatal with folks over 80 or with compromised immune systems. It will be warm in June, and we’re healthy, so it seems quite safe to go. We’ll be traveling with a doctor friend and he is unconcerned, so that it also comforting.”
While many of those who have booked trips seemed determined to stick with them, such as one local mother who said she will be going to Florida next month “Come hell or high water,” Americans appear to be dragging their feet on making future travel plans, waiting to see how the virus plays out. ForwardKeys, a travel analytics company, found that Americans aren’t in a hurry to schedule future travel. Bookings to Europe from North America dropped by more than 60 percent during the last week of February over the previous year. Much of the decline was a result of decreased demand for Italy.
“The arrival of the COVID-19 virus in Italy marks a new phase in the travel crisis in Europe,” said Olivier Ponti of ForwardKeys. “The drop-off in bookings to Italy is even worse than we have observed in the past for some of the most disruptive events such as terror attacks.”
Globally, airlines are on track to lose $113 billion in 2020 if the virus continues to spread, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Demand for flights to Asia, particularly China, dropped off significantly in January and continues to decline. But while Europe and Asia are down, interest has grown significantly in domestic travel. Hopper, a Cambridge-based company that analyzes airfare searches and tracks pricing, found that searches for domestic travel and some travel to Canada is growing.
The company also found that US airlines, facing sluggish ticket sales as coronavirus fears grow, cut ticket prices by about 20 percent this week. Sensing price cuts on the horizon, the bargain hunters have begun to gather like travel hungry wolves, prepared to pounce.
“I have an alert set, specifically for Disney World next month, because I think that could be when people really start dropping their trips,” said Briana Volk, owner and creative director of the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “I already know a few people who have, so I have my eye out, for sure.”
Volk said she’s taking the virus seriously, the way she would a major flu outbreak, but feels that hysteria is unwarranted.
Meanwhile, significant numbers of vacationers are delaying making final plans until they have a clearer picture of what’s happening. Terri Barosky of Canton and her husband were scheduled to go to Eastern Europe next month, but the seniors, who are in generally good health, are still trying to make a decision.
“It’s hard with the constant news … to make an informed decision,” she said. “Even the travel agent said they are in a wait-and-see mode."
Others aren’t taking chances. Elaine and Guy Doran of Lexington, who are “60-ish” and “70-ish” canceled a trip to Florida without much hesitation.
“The number of cases was continuing to rise, and the federal government didn’t seem to have a good handle on where this was going and what precautions needed to be taken,” Elaine Doran said.
The Dorans, who had booked their flight to Sarasota through JetBlue, said they had no problem receiving an immediate refund for the trip. Most major US airlines are, at least for the moment, waiving change fees to lure hesitant travelers, although some travelers report waiting on the phone for hours to talk to a representative. Others have expressed frustration because they have been unable to successfully obtain refunds or had to wait until a country was declared a danger until they received a refund or credit.
After American Airlines canceled his flight to Italy, local traveler Ben Moroze said he had to battle the airline to get a refund. After a bit of back and forth, American finally made good and issued the refund.
Cruise lines, which have also been hit hard by cancellations, have also become much more flexible with cancellations and postponements. Luxury cruise line Silver Seas Cruises announced this week that customers who make new bookings on sailings departing between June 1 and Dec. 31 will be able to cancel until just 30 days prior to departure. Viking is going a step further by allowing cruisers to postpone any cruise at any time up until 24 hours before departure with all cancellation fees waived. It’s a policy that would have been unheard of until the coronavirus upended the travel world.
If you have any hesitation, triple check the cancellation or change policy of the airline or cruise company you’re considering booking with. If you want to be absolutely certain that you’ll be able to recover your money if anything goes awry, consider travel insurance. These days it’s becoming a must-have travel accessory. There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of travel insurance policies sold since coronavirus began making headlines in January.
“We have also seen a 208 percent increase in travelers searching for cancellation coverage since the outbreak became known,” said Kasara Barto, a spokeswoman for the travel insurance comparison website Squaremouth. If you opt to purchase insurance, make sure you purchase a “cancel for any reason” policy, even though the cost is considerably higher. Travel insurance is designed to cover “unforeseen events,” and coronavirus is not unforeseen.
It‘s an option that Boston real estate developer David Goldman decided to take as his May trip to France and Croatia quickly approaches.
“I don’t know if I’ll eventually decide to cancel, so I went online and bought travel insurance just to hedge my bets,” he said.
At the moment, there is no correct answer to the nagging question “Should I stay or should I go?” Like picking a location or deciding on a vacation budget, travel, particularly in the time of coronavirus, remains a highly personal decision.
“For the most part, immediate travel plans are falling into three categories: Postponing to a later date, pivoting to another destination, or just saying ‘the heck with it’ and traveling anyway,” said Misty Belles, a spokeswoman for Virtuoso, a network of high-end travel companies and advisers. “Bottom line, everyone has a different level of risk tolerance, and people need to make the best decision for themselves.”