Published March 13, 2020
by Sally French
Your credit card’s trip-insurance benefit probably won’t cover coronavirus-related trip cancellations, unless you or someone in your travel party actually gets sick (whether it's coronavirus or any other sickness).
[Editorial note: The evaluations of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.]
In general, credit cards that offer travel insurance can help you recoup all or most of your money if your trip is cancelled or interrupted for an eligible reason. Eligible reasons vary by the insurer, but typically include accidental injury—you broke your leg during flag football finals, which means no ski safari in the Alps next week—or something far more mundane, like jury duty.
But cancelling your trip because you’re afraid of getting the coronavirus on the plane or in another city is unlikely to be covered.
Will my credit card’s trip-insurance benefit cover coronavirus?
“If you have the coronavirus and you are medically advised to not travel, that is a covered reason,” said Peter Alter, vice president at CBSI, an insurance firm that designs credit card benefits like trip insurance and extended warranty. “If you or someone you’re traveling with [typically someone on the same booking reservation] gets coronavirus, you’re entitled to cancel your trip and get your money back.”
If you don’t want to go on your trip (and there are a number of smart reasons why you wouldn’t, like heeding government warnings to avoid cruise ships), it’s a toss-up as to whether you’ll be reimbursed.
Many people may be rushing to cancel upcoming trips to follow social-distancing recommendations or avoid getting stuck in a foreign country. But unless you or your travel companions actually have the coronavirus (or some other sickness), your credit card’s trip-insurance benefit likely won’t cover it.
“What’s not covered is that disinclination to travel out of fear,” Alter said. “‘Fear’ is not a covered event.”
If you don’t want to go on your trip (and there are a number of smart reasons why you wouldn’t, like heeding government warnings to avoid cruise ships), it’s a toss-up as to whether you’ll be reimbursed. Some, but not all, travel providers are waiving change or cancellation fees for trips booked prior to March 2020, so it’s never a bad idea to call your carrier for a refund before you pursue your credit card’s trip-cancellation insurance.
When your credit card may cover your coronavirus travel cancellations (even if you don’t have the coronavirus)
If you booked your trip on a credit card that offers trip-cancellation/-interruption insurance, you may be covered for the following coronavirus-related events:
You are medically advised not to travel. Coverage varies from card to card, but many credit cards cover loss of life or sickness experienced by you, your travel companion, or an immediate family member of you or your companion.
Whether you’ve officially been tested for the coronavirus or you have any other illness, a doctor’s note stating that you’re unfit to travel is likely enough to make you eligible for your credit card’s trip-cancellation benefit.
“If you have the coronavirus, it’s treated like any other illness,” Alter said. “If you are medically advised to not travel, that is a covered reason. You’re entitled to cancel your trip and get your money back.”
A family member has a life-threatening case of the coronavirus. If you or your travel companion have an immediate family member who is hospitalized with a life-threatening case of the coronavirus disease COVID-19, you may be covered.
You are quarantined because of the coronavirus. The terms and conditions of the travel-insurance protections offered by Chase Sapphire cards specifically mention quarantine as a covered event when it is imposed by a physician or the government.
When your credit card won’t cover your coronavirus travel cancellations.
While not an exhaustive list, here are some coronavirus-related circumstances that are unlikely to be covered by credit card insurance:
There’s an epidemic or a pandemic. The policies for numerous credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Platinum Card from American Express, explicitly state that disinclination to travel due to an epidemic or a pandemic is not covered. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.
Your travel arrangements are cancelled by the airline, hotel, or travel agency. A number of airlines—including United, JetBlue, British Airways, Portugal’s TAP, and Norwegian Air—are suspending flights or modifying their schedules. Some, but not all, airlines are moving customers to other carriers, issuing full refunds, or allowing flyers to rebook at a later date.
But rebooking at a later date may not fit into your schedule. And perhaps your return flight is cancelled, but your outbound flight isn’t. The airline may offer reimbursement for your return flight, but you’re unlikely to take your departing flight if you don’t have a way home.
Your airline goes bankrupt. Chase explicitly states that “financial insolvency of the cardholder’s travel agency, tour operator, or travel supplier” is not a covered event. Flybe, a regional airline in Europe, has already collapsed, and your credit card’s travel insurance may not kick in if you have a flight booked on another airline that goes out of business.
How to get reimbursed for a coronavirus travel claim
If you paid for a trip on a credit card with travel insurance and the trip is cancelled or delayed due to a covered reason, you’ll need to file a claim to get reimbursed.
You can generally start the claims process through your card issuer’s website. (One note: You likely won’t deal with your credit card company directly, as most benefits are underwritten and managed by third-party insurers.) Given the likely increase in the number of people making claims right now, expect to wait a bit longer to receive a decision on yours.
From there, get ready for the paperwork. You typically have a very short window in which to get the ball rolling. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for instance, you have 20 days after the date of loss to file a claim, and 90 days (also from the date of loss) to supply supporting documentation. You may be asked to provide:
- copies of your trip itinerary
- proof of your covered reason (such as medical reports or a death certificate)
- a copy of your account statement reflecting the charge for the trip
- expense receipts
- a copy of the cancellation or refund policies of applicable travel providers, including the common carrier (for example, the airline or cruise ship), tour operator, or travel agency
If my credit card won’t cover coronavirus, should I get general travel insurance?
You can purchase travel insurance through companies like Travelex or Travel Guard.
In many cases, traditional trip-protection plans don’t cover much more than what your credit card will. Travelex Travel Select, our pick for the best travel insurance policy, won’t cover cancellations made due to a fear of travel.
That said, there are a couple of reasons why purchasing travel insurance might still make sense, even if you have a credit card with its own trip-insurance policy:
You want additional coverage beyond what your credit card covers. Let’s say you prepaid for a 10-day stay at the Hyatt Regency Seragaki Island Okinawa in Japan, which tends to cost $800 a night. You charged all $8,000 of it to your World of Hyatt Credit Card, but its trip-cancellation/-interruption insurance has a maximum benefit of $5,000 per person. You could purchase a separate $3,000 policy to cover the rest (again, it would apply only to covered events, such as sickness, as opposed to a fear of travel).
You want insurance coverage for your fear of traveling. Some insurers offer pricey “cancel for any reason” coverage. That’s an upgrade option wherein the insurer allows you to cancel a trip with no questions asked. You’re generally reimbursed for anywhere from 50% to 75% of your prepaid travel costs.
Alter said that credit cards don’t offer cancel-for-any-reason policies because they’re prohibitively expensive. He also posited that the coronavirus may push insurers to reduce their cancel-for-any-reason options—or make them even more costly.
“It would not surprise me to see insurance companies begin to limit options for ‘cancel for any reason’ because it is literally any reason,” Alter said.
In fact, two insurance companies, RoamRight and Italian insurance company Generali, have already stopped letting people upgrade to a cancel-for-any-reason policy, according to The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter). Some customers also reported that Travelex has also suspended new sales of Cancel For Any Reason travel insurance
What’s worse is that many travel insurance policies are more expensive for older adults and people with pre-existing conditions, both of whom have a higher risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the other hand, most credit card trip-insurance benefits don’t distinguish coverage based on age. For older adults who don’t want to pay more for general travel insurance, booking travel with a credit card that offers trip-cancellation/-interruption coverage may be a better bet.
If you plan on booking travel in the next few months
Tread carefully. The US has already imposed a 30-day ban on foreign travelers from 26 European countries. While the ban exempts American citizens and permanent legal residents and their families, it has already caused chaos at airports worldwide.
It’s unclear if other travel bans will go into effect, but given the uncertainty of the coronavirus, it’s a bad time to book nonessential travel no matter where you’re headed, especially since travel insurance likely won’t cover cancellations. (In a speech on March 11, 2020, US President Donald Trump recommended that older Americans cut back on unnecessary travel.)
That $99 round-trip flight to Hawaii may be tempting, but it might not be worth the savings if a wrench in your travel plans results in a big headache later.
If you really want to book travel right now, it’s still worth paying with a credit card that offers travel insurance. While it won’t cover “what if” situations, it may offer reimbursement in the event you test positive for the coronavirus (we hope it doesn’t come to that). Here’s what else you can do:
Skip Basic Economy. Higher fare classes generally offer more flexible cancellation or change policies, though you’ll likely still have to pay a fee—which can be a couple hundred bucks or more—to rebook your flight.
Book with flexible air carriers like Southwest. In addition to no change fees, Southwest’s Business Select and Anytime fares are fully refundable to your original form of payment. While its Wanna Get Away tickets aren’t refundable, they are reusable: If you cancel your flight, 100% of the cost of your ticket can be applied to future travel for up to 12 months.
Book with companies that don’t require full payment up front. For example, Airbnb lets you reserve stays with partial payment—typically 50% of the total cost—and pay the rest closer to your check-in date.
This might also be a time to forgo early booking discounts. World of Hyatt loyalty members get up to 15% off stays when they book at least two weeks out (and prepay in full), but it may be worth sacrificing the discount and booking closer to your departure date, if you’re fine with the risk that the hotel may sell out by then.
Look for waived airline cancellation fees. Airlines are offering discounts, and some—including American, Delta, and United—are waiving cancellation and/or change fees for flights booked in the next few weeks. Policies vary by airline, so read the fine print before you book.
For Scott Keyes, founder of travel deal site Scott’s Cheap Flights, the coronavirus isn’t all bad news.
“This creates a great arbitrage opportunity that isn’t usually afforded travelers,” he said. “You can book abnormally cheap fares available now, and with many airlines, you can cancel them without penalty if you later choose to.”
- Peter Alter, vice president at CBSI, phone interview, March 11, 2020
- Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, email interview, March 11, 2020
Sally French: Staff Writer
Sally French is a staff writer at Wirecutter, covering personal finance. Previously she spent five years writing for MarketWatch, where she reported on everything from comparing meal kit costs to detailing her own personal experience buying a home in San Francisco. Her personal finance stories have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and many other publications. You can find her on LinkedIn.