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Travel during the COVID-19 pandemic: 5 things you need to know

                                Inbound airline travelers on American Airlines flight 283 from LAX wait curbside for pickup at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, April 30.


    Inbound airline travelers on American Airlines flight 283 from LAX wait curbside for pickup at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, April 30.

Travel has changed since the global pandemic began its trip around the world. Don’t despair; travel won’t be off-limits forever. Here are some things that can help you navigate these difficult times and plan for the future.

1. Can I get a travel refund?

There are as many answers to this question as there are things to do in the world.

Airlines: Each airline conducts its business differently. Many airlines now are more liberal than usual if you decide to change your flight, sometimes waiving change fees.

If the airline cancels the flight, under most circumstances it will try to accommodate you. If it can’t within the time it specifies, it may give you a voucher or a refund. Don’t be surprised if the airline mentions the voucher first or doesn’t mention the refund at all (unless it’s Southwest). If its website or agent doesn’t mention a refund for a flight it canceled, ask and ask again. Not all are forthcoming about refunds.

Cruise lines: Cruise lines worldwide suspended sailings March 13 as the coronavirus pandemic spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 9 extended the no-sail order for cruise ships in the U.S., with no firm return date announced. Carnival, Disney and other cruise lines are pushing back their return-to-service dates and canceling more trips. You can get a refund or a future cruise credit, which usually comes with perks and credits to keep you on board.

Other travel: Here’s good news if you have made or make Amtrak reservations before May 31: If you cancel your ticket and want a refund, you can get one. The only catch: You must call 800-872-7245. The refund cannot be completed on or the Amtrak app. Amtrak is also waiving change fees for reservations before the end of May. Reservations may be modified by phone, or the app.

2. What about my elite status with my airline’s loyalty program?

Airlines want you back. Really. U.S. carriers have allowed passengers to change or cancel flights without penalty fees during the coronavirus pandemic. Some are giving elite members of their loyalty programs automatic extensions of their status — some as long as 18 months. For example, American Airlines recently announced it would reward AAdvantage members by granting an automatic extension of their status until Jan. 31, 2022. Members can expect to see the change reflected in their accounts on May 15. The airline also lowered the qualifications for elite status. Check individual airlines for policies.

3. Should I travel at all right now?

The short answer: It’s up to you. Of course, the real answer is more complicated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention usually doesn’t give travel advice, but the agency’s website devotes an entire page to questions and factors to consider.

You need to weigh whether you are putting yourself or others at risk. Are you sick or do you have underlying health conditions? You probably shouldn’t be traveling and increasing your risk of getting the disease. Is your travel urgent? Every U.S. state has confirmed cases of COVID-19. “This whole (novel coronavirus) problem is evolving. Look where we were two months ago,” said Dr. Robert Winters, an infectious disease specialist in Santa Monica, Calif. Bottom line: There are many things we don’t know about the novel coronavirus.

4. Should I make plans for a summer vacation?

Maybe. There are incredible travel deals right now, from airfares to rafting trips, and that trend probably will continue as the tourism industry acts to recover pandemic losses. If you book, it’s possible you may be financially protected in a way you have not been. Refunds are more plentiful, but so are problems. And the issue of refunds continues to evolve.

5. Can I renew my U.S. passport?

The U.S. State Department is not processing new passports and renewals except for emergency cases because of the coronavirus pandemic. As of March 20, “we are only able to offer service for customers with a qualified life-or-death emergency and who need a passport for immediate international travel within 72 hours,” the agency’s website says. Americans are being asked to wait to apply or renew until the agency resumes “normal operations.” If you already sent in your passport for renewal, you can expect significant delays.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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