Travel in time of war

Airlines cancel some flights, ease policies on delays

Strategies

March 30, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Susan Saniie isn't worried about the wisdom of traveling to London in April while a war rages in Iraq.

It's not terrorism or violence that concerns the Baltimore acupuncturist -- it's the possibility that the war will disrupt her travel plans. "I really want to go," she says.

With no quick resolution to the war in sight, those with scheduled trips have good reason to wonder if their plans will be affected. And those pondering spring and summer travel must decide whether to forge ahead or stay at home.

Earlier this week, Delta Air Lines announced a 12 percent reduction in domestic and international flights after bookings declined sharply with the prospect of war. American and Continental airlines have also reduced flights.

The best policy for travelers is to monitor their scheduled flights and to be aware of options if flights, tours or other travel-related activities are canceled.

"If you're holding a flight next week from Baltimore to Los Angeles and we change the time or we cancel it, we'll notify you and work on other arrangements," says David Castelveter, US Airways spokesman.

So far, consumers appear to be postponing rather than canceling trips, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group that tracks travel trends.

If you postpone travel until war subsides, it's now easier to reschedule without paying a penalty or rebooking fees. The travel industry, including cruise and tour companies, car rental companies, airlines and hotels, "has been very proactive in relaxing cancellation policies," says Cathy Keefe, Travel Industry Association spokeswoman.

"You can change your trip without penalty or for a very nominal fee," Keefe says. "It's one of the wisest things the industry has done."

Another way for travelers to protect themselves is by purchasing travel insurance. According to Lynda Maxwell, president of Destinations travel agency in Ellicott City, such policies typically cover unforeseen circumstances, such as blizzards or earthquakes, car wrecks on the way to the airport or illness. But since the Iraq conflict began, Trafalgar Tours, for example, changed its cancellation policy "to cover for all reasons," Maxwell says.

"It's a good idea to check now with the travel agent or tour company and find out what the cancellation policies are," she says.

School trips affected

When the Howard County school system recently canceled all school-sponsored foreign travel through July for security reasons, 17 school trips to Europe and Central America were affected.

In the case of River Hill High School's planned trip to Spain, parents decided earlier this month to run the trip themselves rather than lose a hefty deposit. At that point, before the war's start, "We didn't feel like the situation was that bad to prevent them from going safely," says Anne Ryals, a travel agent and River Hill parent.

Since then, the tour company, Boston-based EF Tours, has relaxed its cancellation policy, permitting a refund in the form of a voucher for later travel. Now, parents are reconsidering their decision. Although she still plans to let her son go on the trip, Ryals says, "I would probably be more comfortable with them going in the summer or later."

Even with more flexible cancellation policies, there still may be a price to pay. If you have booked a block of rooms as part of a group through a wholesaler or tour operator, you may not be reimbursed or allowed to reschedule, says Tia Gordon, spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Policies vary. The Wyndham chain, for example, has decided to keep deposits and credit them toward future trips, Gordon says.

War or no war, it's wise for those who travel to buy insurance that covers nonrefundable portions of their trip, including airline tickets and hotel deposits, Maxwell says.

But don't count on travel insurance to cover costs if the war in Iraq prompts you to nix a trip. Typically, war is not a "covered reason" for canceling a trip, according to most travel insurance policies. (However, travel insurance will generally cover an act of terrorism that takes place in a region where you plan to travel.)

Just the same, if you are reconsidering travel plans because of the war, chances are you will be able to take advantage of the current, more flexible policies throughout the travel industry.

Online booking companies, such as Orbitz and Travelocity, are following suit with their own relaxed policies. On its Web site, Orbitz announced that it is "waiving its service and processing fees for any customer who meets the airline exchange policy." Travelocity has a similar policy.

But if a ticket on a canceled flight has been purchased through an online company, it's more efficient to reschedule directly with the airline, Maxwell says. (Maxwell suggests that East Coast residents call the airlines first thing in the morning, before Midwesterners and Westerners get on their phones.)

When a reservation is made through a travel agency and the flight is canceled, "the airlines notify us," Maxwell says. Travelers are guaranteed a seat on the next flight or booked on another carrier. If they choose not to fly after all, they will be reimbursed, even with a nonrefundable ticket, she says.

If economy is the most crucial consideration, don't hold your breath for better prices, Keefe advises. Prices plummeted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but they probably won't decrease as a result of the Iraq war, she says.

"There is no guarantee prices will go down, the industry is struggling so hard," she says. And besides, "there are good prices now."

Insurance protection

For more information about purchasing travel insurance:

* Travel Guard International: 877-248-8992; www.travelguard.com

* CSA Vacation Guarantee: 888-873-5484; www. csatravelprotection.com

* Travel Insured International: 800-243-3174; www.travelinsured.com

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