The coronavirus outbreak isn't just having an immediate effect on travel, prompting a surge of cancellations not seen since 9/11. It also couldn't have come at a worse time for travelers finalizing their summer vacation plans. Many need to make a final payment on a tour or cruise and are wondering: Should I go — or not?
It's a feeling I know all too well. I'm writing this on a train from Barcelona to Marseille, France, and Italy is where I was headed next. So now what?
"Summer travel is such an indispensable part of contemporary lifestyle that most American tourists will not easily give up," says Robert Li, director of Temple University's U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism & Hospitality Research.
Your options range from pressing on with summer vacation plans to scaling back to outright cancellation. Each choice comes with risks and rewards, and it's worth weighing them all before you make a decision.
Linda Singleton-Driscoll, a market researcher from Richmond, Virginia, is sticking to her plans to attend a family reunion in Ireland this summer. She says her husband, a retired science educator, believes that the virus danger is often exaggerated.
"Our chance of contracting the disease while we are in Ireland is not really any larger than it is staying home," she told me.
Although she may be in the minority, she's far from alone.
"No one has canceled a vacation booked through me yet," says Donna Manz, a Europe specialist with Caddie Tours in Vienna, Virginia, who describes her customers as "seasoned" travelers. "In fact, two clients are currently in Avignon, France."
The benefits to sticking to your plans? You won't get hit with cancellation penalties. It could be an adventure. Travel companies are offering some attractive deals, too.
And the risk: You could get infected with coronavirus.
Others are taking a more cautious approach, particularly if their vacation plans aren't firmed up yet.
Morgan Taylor, the chief marketing officer for a banking website in Los Angeles, told me that he's spending a week in nearby Santa Barbara instead of flying somewhere exotic.
"You can't beat the zoo, the ocean, the downtown shopping and the seafood," he says. "Looking at it unemotionally, we'll be traveling via car, and most activities are outdoors. We can easily keep six feet from strangers on the beach and at the zoo, if we so choose."
The benefits of a staycation include saving money on travel (although I wouldn't classify Santa Barbara as a budget destination) and never being too far from home. If you're still on the fence about a vacation, the day-trip option is a great way to experience the best of both worlds.
But others see a summer vacation as too risky. That's the situation in which Richard Simms and his wife find themselves. They're trying to cancel a luxury cruise of Great Britain and nearby islands. Simms, who is 78, says it's not worth taking the chance. He can't be sure they'll get the medical care they need if they're infected.
"We thought we were protected by having a Chase Sapphire Reserve Card in case we need medical evacuation," he says. "However, we have learned that our card specifically excludes major epidemics like coronavirus."
But getting a full refund hasn't been easy. Although the cruise line and airline have loosened some of their refund rules, if he cancels now, he'll lose at least $10,000.
Simms is doing the right thing. I've been on the phone with my 76-year-old mother several times this week, trying to talk her into postponing her spring trip to Europe. She says she's considering it. (Now I know where I get my stubborn streak.)
The rewards of canceling your summer vacation are obvious. If the coronavirus outbreak gets any worse, you'll be spared a non-vacation in quarantine, or worse. But there's a downside: You could lose a lot of money.
Before you make a decision, do your due diligence. Check the websites of the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department for the latest information about the coronavirus. Review the WHO daily situation reports and outbreak map. Then find a government site for authoritative information from your destination country. In France, I've been consulting the Ministry for Foreign Affairs page.
Read your vacation's cancellation terms - then read them again.
"It's important to consider cancellation policies and deadlines so you can walk through these and make logical decisions based on these components," says Victoria Zindell, a travel adviser with Protravel International, a travel agency based in Corona del Mar, California.
Also, if you have travel insurance, check to find out whether you can get a refund. Some companies are broadening their cancellation coverage. For example, Allianz Travel Insurance recently said it would temporarily process cancellation claims for customers traveling to China, South Korea, and the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy.
But a travel insurance claim might be a more difficult path to a refund, says Lisa Cheng, a spokeswoman for World Nomads, a travel insurance company.
"Check with your airline, hotel or tour operator first to see what their policies are regarding travel during the coronavirus outbreak," she says. "In these unusual times, they're being more flexible."
It turns out I could have filed a claim with my travel insurance company for my hotel stay in Venice, but the hotel offered a full refund. That solved one immediate problem.
But how can I fill a four-week hole in my schedule now that Italy has shut down? I found a small apartment in Nice, France, on Vrbo, at the last minute. I think that's as close to Italy as I can safely get, at least for now.
If you have to make a decision about your summer vacation, you probably have more time - and options - than I do. I recommend that you stay close to home or, if you don't mind breathing the recycled air on airplanes, fly to a destination with no reported coronavirus cases.