Coronavirus-2019: travel advice

Your insurer is unlikely to pay if you decide not to travel due to the public health emergency.

20feb coronavirus hero

Travel plans affected by the 2019 coronavirus outbreak? Don’t assume you’re covered by travel insurance. Many insurers won’t cover delays and cancellations caused by epidemics and pandemics – or reimburse you if you choose to postpone.

As airlines – including Air New Zealand – announce they’re suspending flights to mainland China, travellers need to get in touch with their insurer as soon as possible to check if they’re covered.

Under Air New Zealand’s conditions of carriage, passengers on cancelled flights will be re-routed or receive a refund. But if you’re flying with another airline or have booked non-refundable accommodation or tours, you may be left out of pocket as your travel insurer refuses to pick up the tab.

Many of the 15 travel insurers in our survey – including 1Cover, AA, Air New Zealand, Cover-More, Flight Centre, Mix and Match, TINZ, Tower, Westpac and WorldCare – exclude cover for travel cancellations and delays caused by epidemics and pandemics.

ANZ’s Travel Protector policy doesn’t specifically exclude epidemics. However, it won’t pay if your journey’s disrupted by a government order (a rule common in travel policies). This will impact anyone planning to travel to or via the cities the Chinese government has locked down (such as Wuhan, Huanggang or Ezhou).

Most policies (including ANZ’s) will reject your claims if you purchased insurance after the New Zealand government’s January 29 announcement Kiwis should avoid travelling to China.

Although all of Cigna’s policies state you’re not covered for “a human pandemic illness or the threat or perceived threat of any human pandemic illness”, the company said China-bound policyholders would be covered for medical costs and travel disruption if they purchased or activated their travel insurance before January 19. This is the date the coronavirus outbreak became “a known event”, Cigna (which also backs ASB and BNZ policies) said.

“Policyholders travelling to other destinations and not transiting through China are currently covered for claims related to coronavirus,” the insurer said.

Southern Cross Travel Insurance’s TravelCare policy document excludes any claims related to a declared or developing “epidemic illness or pandemic illness”. However, it said travellers headed to mainland China (excluding the Hubei province) who purchased policies before January 21 “may be cover[ed] subject to the terms, conditions and exclusions”.

Because of this conflicting info, we advise all customers to ring their insurer and check if pandemic exclusions will apply if your trip’s gone (or may still go) pear-shaped. Record the name of the person you spoke to and what they told you.

Most insurers won’t have your back if you decide to call off your trip. All 15 companies exclude claims arising because you or your travelling companions made the choice to postpone or cancel a trip.

Notably, Cigna offered some leniency here. It will “allow those travelling to any location in China (including stopovers), to make a claim if they cancelled their travel plans due to the virus. This was over and above our policy conditions to give our customers peace of mind,” the insurer said.

Fight or flight?

Once you know what your insurance covers, get in touch with your airline or transport provider. If you were due to travel to one of the cities under government-ordered lockdown, check if the airline is offering credits, re-routing or refunds on cancelled journeys.

Many of the airlines that cancelled flights to other Chinese cities are also refunding or re-routing passengers. If the company doesn’t operate in New Zealand, the local consumer protections will apply.

If your flight’s still scheduled, some airlines are allowing customers to amend or cancel flights to and through China at no charge.

For other passengers on non-refundable tickets: consider upgrading to flexi-fares and changing your dates if the airline’s not open to re-routing you (though keep in mind you won’t always get a full refund if you later cancel). All in all, it might be a better prospect than losing the ticket price entirely.

Delays are likely as passengers are re-routed to avoid the epicentre of the disease outbreak. International flights are subject to the Montreal Convention, which sets out what airlines must do if passengers are delayed. However, airlines aren’t required to provide compensation if delays or disruptions are caused by circumstances beyond the airline’s control – such as an international public health emergency.

Top tips

If you’re travelling to or through China in the coming months, get in contact with:

  • Your travel insurer. Confirm what exclusions may apply before you depart or change your travel plans – and note down what’s said and who you spoke to.
  • Your airline and transport providers. If they opt to cancel your journey, you’re typically eligible for a refund or re-routing.
  • Your hotel, accommodation and tour providers. If you’ve booked flexible services, you can amend your dates or receive a refund. Some major hotel chains are waiving change fees for customers booked into Chinese hotels.
  • Consumer NZ. Affected members can call our advice line. We’ll help you to understand and enforce your rights.

Member comments

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Peter M.
08 Feb 2020
Caution needed for regions that are not reporting

China has land borders with multiple countries that lack the ability to detect, report and track the disease in their remote border regions. Until the outbreak became well known, it is likely that movements across these borders were very active before and during the Lunar New Year holidays. For many people, transborder bus routes are the only affordable means of international travel. The lack of reports from these bordering countries is no indication of safety.

Since China has been restricting outward movements following the outbreak, the bordering countries have been protected to some extent, but we cannot know if the restrictions have been effective until testing and reporting becomes more widespread in mainland SE Asia.