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Can you cancel that flight? Here are your rights with coronavirus

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Americans are considering their travel plans as the coronavirus spreads across the globe, with the World Health Organization on Friday upgrading the global risk from the disease to "very high." Travelers are weighing what happens if they decide to cancel flights because of fear of infection, including whether they'll get refunds. 

The answer: Refunds are unlikely unless they bought "cancel for any reason" insurance, which isn't as widely used by travelers because it costs about 40% more than standard travel insurance. But more common insurance policies won't cover the cost of a ticket if you opt against traveling because of the outbreak. 

A key phrase for travelers to understand: "unexpected event" — that's what insurance companies are offering to cover when you buy a standard travel policy. But now that the virus has spread across the globe, insurers are excluding the disease as a trigger for coverage because it's no longer an unexpected event, according to Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site. 

"Once an event becomes common knowledge, it also becomes excluded by travel insurance policies – this is because insurance providers consider it to have a foreseeable impact on travel," Squaremouth said on its blog. 

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Insurance companies designated the coronavirus as a foreseen event between January 21 and 24, which means policies sold after those dates aren't going to cover issues related to the outbreak, said Karen Johnson, a travel insurance program leader with USI Insurance Services.

Some travelers may not need to rely on insurance given that a few airlines are waiving fees for canceling or changing flights due to coronavirus concerns. JetBlue became the first U.S. carrier to introduce the policy when it said this week that it would suspend these fees for trips booked between February 27 through March 11 for travel completed by June 1. Some airlines in Asia, where the disease is most widespread, are also waiving fees. 

Cancel for any reason

Still, travelers concerned about needing to cancel a trip because of the outbreak may want to pay more for "cancel for any reason" policies. In exchange for a higher insurance rate, travelers can expect to recoup about 75% of their travel costs if they need to cancel. 

"I'd expect we'll see more people buying it because they want to say, 'No, I don't want to go because I don't think it's safe for my family'," said Lisa Lindsay, executive director of the Private Risk Management Association.

The good news about "cancel for any reason" policies is that they can be purchased after you make a deposit on a trip, although you typically have a window of about 14 to 21 days to buy it, USI's Johnson said. (The window for purchasing a policy depends on the insurance company.)

In other words, if you bought tickets for an Italian vacation two weeks ago — before the coronavirus spread across the country's northern region — you could still purchase one of these policies to protect your ticket purchase. 

There are some caveats, Johnson added. For instance, you must insure the entire cost of your trip, and if you cancel, you need to do so before 48 hours of your scheduled departure date. Other than that, you are good to go — or not go.

"Literally you can cancel for any reason. If you can see it's going to rain the entire week, well, you can cancel," Johnson noted. "For an event like this, where we don't know how long it's going to be around or if it's just going to explode, this is a perfect example why someone would buy cancel for any reason insurance."

Medical planning

Flight insurance isn't the only consideration for travelers, Lindsay said. People going overseas also should consider medical coverage, including whether you would want to be treated by local health care facilities if you fall ill. 

Some insurers are still offering medical coverage for travelers, which would cover emergency medical treatment and evacuation to those who contract the virus during their travels, Squaremouth said. But it's important to read medical policies' fine print to understand what's covered and what isn't. 

A preparedness plan

More generally, travelers should also create a preparedness plan. "We ask people to think about the trip and think what might happen, and if it does happen, what do we need to know?" Lindsay said.

For instance, it's important to have a communication plan with your family when you travel. Pick a family member or friend who isn't traveling with you, and let them know that you'll check in with them at a specific time each day. A text that says "the trip is great and we're all fine" can help allay fears — and also alert loved ones if something goes awry, she said.

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Likewise, check cell phone coverage and internet access before traveling, including the costs of international coverage and whether you'll encounter any problems. Have a plan in place in case you get sick, such as designating someone in your group to call your insurance carrier. 

"Always, always check and see if your insurance coverage is going to cover you while you are abroad," Lindsay said. "If it's not going to cover you while you are [out of the country], you should buy a temporary policy that will provide you with coverage."

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