Canceling Flights Due To Zika Virus

Filed Under: Advice, Family

If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve probably seen stories about the spread of the Zika virus in Central and South America. While the disease itself seems to be relatively mild, the ramifications for pregnant women are potentially more complicated, which has led to the Centers for Disease Control issuing a Level 2 travel alert to the region.

This type of travel alert suggests “enhanced precautions” and doesn’t necessarily dissuade people from traveling generally. For context, there are also Level 2 alerts for MERS in the Arabian Peninsula, and Polio in the Ukraine.

Regardless, I know many people will want to avoid traveling to the most severely impacted areas, so I thought it would be helpful to go over the rules and policies for changing or canceling your flights.

Zika virus travel waivers

As of this morning, United Airlines has issued a travel notification for all regions affected by the Zika outbreak, and is recommending travelers contact customer service.

According to USA Today, American has also begun to allow more leniency for pregnant travelers headed to:

  • San Pedro Sula, Honduras
  • Tegucigalpa, Honduras
  • Panama City, Panama
  • Guatemala City, Guatemala

This policy isn’t posted on the American website yet, and I would anticipate having to go through more of the usual medical cancelation process in the meantime (more on that below). That’s also a very small fraction of the American route network in the region, so if you’re ticketed for travel to another impacted area, you may still have some leeway.

If an airline issues a waiver for any reason, be it weather or a strike or anything else, it should be posted on their respective travel alert pages:

As with other situations, when a general waiver is issued you can typically rebook for later dates with no penalty. In many cases you can also have your tickets refunded completely, but that depends on the specific situation, and the parameters of the waiver.

Canceling for medical reasons in general

Even without a travel waiver, you still have options for canceling a trip due to medical reasons.

Earlier in the week reader Sam H. posted the following question over on Ask Lucky:

I have paid tickets booked on United to Mexico in February – unfortunately, the Zika virus is now there and my (newly) pregnant wife and I are unwilling to chance it. I called United to see if they would waive the cancellation fees and they said no waiver has been issued yet.

Any thoughts on how to proceed? We would like to either cancel or reschedule to go somewhere else.

At the time, specific waivers hadn’t been issued, so the best advice from the group was to treat this like any other medical concern. This is the same approach you’ll need to use if your airline hasn’t issued a waiver for the Zika virus:

  • Consult with a doctor, and determine if it’s safe to travel
  • If travel isn’t advised, work with the airline to cancel under their medical policy
  • This generally involves supplemental paperwork, and a reimbursement of the change/cancelation fees after the fact

United, for example, has the following policy if you need to cancel flights for medical reasons:

Change fee refunds require a letter (on letterhead) from a licensed physician confirming that travel was not recommended due to the customer’s illness.

Ticket refunds require a letter (on letterhead) from a licensed physician confirming that travel was not recommended within the validity of the ticket (one year of ticket’s issued date) due to illness.

If the request is due to the illness of an immediate family member, the request must contain the family member’s name and relationship to you.

You may also be able to have those change fees reimbursed by your travel insurance. Regardless, it’s important to note that the front-line reservation agent you speak with generally won’t be able to waive fees regardless of the reason. You have to submit the paperwork, and then will receive a refund later on.

People tend to get very frustrated at legacy carriers over medical cancelations, and then rave about how easy it was to cancel their Southwest tickets — it’s always easy to cancel Southwest tickets, and other carriers have more complex policies, they’re not being purposefully insensitive.

Canceling award tickets

One of the great things about using miles is that the rules are often more relaxed compared to revenue tickets.

Depending on the carrier you can sometimes change the date of travel for no fee at all, or return the miles to your account for a small charge. Check out this post for the full rules for the major mileage currencies:

Change And Cancellation Fees For Airline Award Tickets

Again, if there’s a general waiver you should be able to change your award tickets under those rules instead.

Bottom line

Obviously health is more important than anything, and you shouldn’t risk yours or your loved ones’ because an airline wants to charge a cancelation fee.

Even without a regional waiver, tickets can often be changed or canceled for a fee. If you have a compelling reason you can typically get those charges reimbursed or refunded after the fact — it just takes a bit more legwork.

Have you canceled a flight due to illness? What was the process like?

  1. Yea, I was supposed to spend this weekend at Andaz Papagayo in Costa Rica with my wife who is in her first trimester. Even though Costa Rica isn’t officially on CDC’s list (yet) every country north and south is so I couldn’t take that chance. I was really surprised how easy it was to receive a full refund from United and the points from Hyatt. Thought they were going to give me a hard time since Costa Rica isn’t on the list of affected countries but they were super understanding once I mentioned Zika.

  2. Any thoughts on cancellations due to pregnancy in general.

    I am flying BA, but it is on a Iberia ticket. I guess the zika rule won’t help?

  3. @ Andrew Rivlin — Looks like Iberia has a waiver for “pregnant customers travelling to Brazil and Mexico,” so it’s probably worth contacting them.

  4. Just cancelled our trip to CUN b/c of Zika. United processed refund on non-refundable tickets. Generous of United.

  5. SJO/LIR (Costa Rica) should make the list(s) early next week. First confirmed case yesterday, five more suspected. Reporting is a little slow here and, as everywhere, the conspiracy “theorists” are claiming the government doesn’t want to put a damper on arrivals during the high season.

    I live here and travel all over Central America — remember the same breed of mosquito carries dengue and “chicken-gumbo” (chikungunya), neither of which is particularly pleasant but usually will not pose life-long risks for the unborn.

    Glad to see the travel providers using common sense for once as opposed to strict interpretations of fare rules.

  6. Just recently had a bad experience with trying to cancel / change some flights booked with my Alaska Airlines miles (for travel on Delta/AA)… my 5 yo son ended up in the ER 3 days prior to a planned trip. I wasn’t overreacting – I’d taken him to the pediatrician that day, who sent us down to the ER because his symptoms (high fever, severe headache, too weak to walk), combined with what we knew *wasn’t* causing the problem (negative tests for flu and strep) led her to be concerned about meningitis or something else potentially bad. Seems there aren’t very many things other than flu/strep that cause a high fever and headache w/o also causing other symptoms which he didn’t have.

    In the end, we were released for home observation and at the time I called Alaska, my son still had a 103.6 degree fever and couldn’t walk. They were very unhelpful. For our family’s 4 tickets, they offered to waive the $125 redeposit fee only for our son – we’d have to pay $375 for the rest of us to get our miles back. This next part bugs me the most: a supervisor said they would fwd the details of my situation (incl that I had a doctor’s note) on to their customer service dept who could get the other 3 fees waived. I was placed on hold while they contacted this other department. When the rep came back on the phone, she said the other dept had declined to help, saying they don’t offer any medical waivers and wouldn’t waive the other 3 fees. And since the other dept had not been able to help, there was nothing they could do either. I think it’s really crappy how they basically told me I “could” get the fees waived and then backtracked on that.

    I hung up, discussed with my husband about whether to lose our miles or pay the fee and called back again hoping to get a more sympathetic agent before agreeing to pay the $375. However, the 2nd agent was curt and saw the internal notes that said they would only waive the fee for my son, and stuck to that. We paid in the end. Overall, it was a really bad experience at a worrisome time, and it’s made me reconsider using my Alaska miles, knowing that they are such hardliners and that they don’t even cut you a break on subsequent award tickets booked under the same PNR like other major airlines do. And if I’d had status, it would have been no problem.

  7. I’ve got non-refundable paid tickets to the Caribbean on Norwegian Air for 4, 2 of which are pregnant, and they are taking a strong stance that will not refund the tickets in any way. Anyone have any advice?

  8. @ Tara Lanning — Ouch, sorry to hear about that, and hope he’s feeling better now! Alaska doesn’t technically offer medical waivers (which I’m surprised by as well), but it might be worth writing in. I think if you explained the situation and your frustration in writing you might get further than with the phone agents. Good luck!

  9. Thanks Tiffany, I appreciate your response! I emailed them back to bring to their attention what the big 3 US carriers are doing and I’ll hope they decide to follow a similar course. I’ll report back if anything happens but I won’t hold my breath.

  10. Our experience in canceling tickets purchased through Sun Country Airlines has gone from bad to worse. I’m 20 weeks pregnant, and was excited to head to Mexico next month. Obviously Zika has affected our plans, and my OB immediately issued a letter to our airline and travel insurance company that I was not recommended to travel to those areas. Additionally, we had purchased travel insurance at the time of booking for further protection from something like this. The travel insurance company has been a complete nightmare, not offering any common decency or respect in a situation that affects so many. The airline stands strong on their decision not to refund any flights, our travel insurance company won’t acknowledge that this is a threat to the general health and welfare of a developing baby, and we are left in the lurch. The whole experience is evidence of an airline and insurance companies strong-arming paying customers into accepting their draconian policies–policies that apparently are completely inflexible despite general world health threats that obviously change and intensify without warning.

  11. I will be traveling to Costa Rica with my daughter,3 yr old and 6 yr old grand daughters in April. We are flying round trip on American and staying at a Marriott resort for 6 days. Should I camcel trip, and can I get a refund from American?

  12. @ Kristen — Ouch, sorry to hear that. Does your travel insurance cover medical cancelations? If so, and you have a letter, I would think they would honor it!

  13. @ Karen — You’ll want to contact American, but my understanding is that the travel warnings only apply to women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Everyone else should be safe to travel, and should just take extra precautions regarding insect exposure.

  14. We tried to change flights with American Airlines, we were going to San Juan Puerto Rica later in the spring, i called back several times to try to get an agent that would help, and ended up having to pay a $266.40 per person change fee, they refused to waive the fees. We are not pregnant, but we didn’t want to get the virus anyway, who would want to? Doesn’t sound fun. Anyway, just be warned, American Airlines will not waive the change fees unless you are pregnant,. Apparently other airlines will waive the fees no questions asked.

  15. We too are experiencing much distress from the American policy. Our newlywed daughter plans to be become pregnant later this year. They refuse to refund or rebook our Bogota tickets without penalty. We are out $1200 in tickets.

  16. Update: Norwegian refunded in full all four non-refundable tickets that I had purchased to the Caribbean after I sent them this email below in response to their message denying my refund request; I provided doctors notes for the two pregnant women in my party and the refund was processed in about a week.


    Thank you for your response to my inquiry. I understand and respect your policy regarding non-refundable fares. I do not question your policy; however, in this instance, I have to question your decision to not make an exception to the policy.

    The outbreak of the Zika virus is becoming a world-wide epidemic that is endangering the lives of unborn children all around the globe. Your decision to not make an exception for your customers and their unborn babies who are at serious, life-threatening risk as a result of this unexpected pandemic disease calls into question your values as a company. What is the price that Norwegian places on human life? Are you so consumed with producing returns for your shareholders that you are blinded to the realities that the average, hard-working family faces? Or do you simply choose to not concern yourself with the dangers your customers face, the same customers you depend upon to spend their hard earned money to produce your returns? How can you ignore this global issue in the name of policy?

    Norwegian should think long and hard about how they will handle this situation. Other airlines and tourism operators have stepped up to the plate with decisions to take care of their customers who face real danger from this deadly disease that has no cure and no vaccine in sight. I urge Norwegian to follow the lead of its peers. I understand the potential short-term financial impact this could have, but I encourage you to make the health and safety of your customers a priority over short-term financial gain. I think you will find that when companies do the right thing, the loyalty gained from customers produces profits that far outweigh any short-term expense. Do the right thing, Norwegian.

    Thank you,

  17. I recently purchased tickets to Thailand via Budgetair and within 24 hours the CDC added Thailand to the list of zika countries.
    I am trying to get pregnant so called immediately to cancel flights. Unfortunately, they said we got non refundable tickets (but this was not specified in the terms n conditions). They said airline policy (Emirates) says I can only refund if I was actually pregnant but not if I’m trying to get pregnant. Is there anything I can do? I paid £922!

  18. I am having a very tough time getting Delta airlines tickets to Brazil refunded, which were unfortunately bought via an online travel agency (BACC in New York). We are undergoing fertility treatments in order to get pregnant after 2 miscarriages, and I have a doctor’s note discouraging us from travelling. I am willing to change the destinations and to even pay a reasonable fee, but they won’t budge and keep giving me the runaround. Any advice for tickets purchased via a third party? would American Express be able to help in this case, since I used my credit card to pay for this ticket? thanks!

  19. I am 26 weeks pregnant. My husband and I had tickets to fly to Sarasota, FL with American Airlines just after President’s Day. We tried to get a refund as my Doctor advised me not to travel there. Unfortunately, our request was denied as the trip was not to South America or Latin America per their policy. We are now hoping we can get the change fee waived so we can use the tickets later this year without a penalty.

  20. @ churro — Will your daughter be on the trip? If so, you may have more success if she has a letter from her doctor, etc.

  21. @ Christiane — I would contact Delta directly, as it shouldn’t matter how your tickets were purchased.

  22. Just cancelled a United to Cancun with no problems whatsoever. It’s right in their policy. Last day is tomorrow.

  23. I m traveling to Thailand this week and I just found out that I m pregnant! Should I cancel my flight??

  24. we booked a complete vacation ($1518.76 pp) for 20 people/10 rooms through Sun Country in Oct. 2015, well before the Zika warning to Riu Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta. one of our 20 was pregnant, we contacted SC agent, they issued a travel voucher ($595.76) for her to re-book with in a year and said the Riu would issue a full credit after the trip, which would have been $923.00. No credit could be done for her husband, he would lose his $1518.76. Today we found out that they issued a credit of $380.38, $542.62 less than expected. makes us very sad and are hoping to figure out what to do about the other $542.62 difference. Riu said because of the single person using the room. no mention of this at the time of cancellation, implied a full credit would be coming. any suggestions on how to go about getting this credit?

  25. United Airlines said I would have to pay a $250.00 fee to cancel my tickets we are flying to Puerto Rico. The phone rep would not budge at all. My wife is 4 months pregnant. Any suggestions?

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