Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flu outbreak alters travelers' playbook

travellers insurance

Last spring thousands of travelers canceled trips to Mexico after a swine flu outbreak there emptied beaches and resorts.

Staying home won't protect you from swine flu now: Most states have reported widespread flu activity.

"The thought that the virus was just a Mexico problem is gone," said Sondra Wilson, owner of several Travel Leaders travel agency locations in Washington. "We know it's here and all around us." She said her clients are booking travel to Mexico, but trips there and elsewhere are being booked closer to departure dates than in the past.

Here are some questions and answers about travel insurance, basic hygiene and other aspects of traveling during the swine flu outbreak.

Is it OK to travel during the swine flu outbreak?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say travelers at increased risk of complications from flu may want to consider postponing travel. The agency identifies those in the high-risk categories as pregnant women, adults older than 65, babies and children younger than 5, and those with chronic illnesses. If you are in a high-risk category and must travel, the CDC recommends that you talk to a doctor about whether to take flu medications with you in case you can't get medical care right away. If you are sick, stay home.

For more information from the CDC:

Will I face a health screening if I fly?

The U.S. is not screening air travelers, according to the CDC. But you may face screening in
other countries, including having your temperature taken by a walk-by thermal scanner, or with an oral or ear thermometer. Last spring and summer, the U.S. State Department received many reports of U.S. citizens who were quarantined in China during the swine flu outbreak. In some cases, they had no symptoms but had merely been on flights that stopped in Mexico en route to Asia. For more information from the State Department:

Even in the U.S., airlines have the right to deny boarding to passengers for any number of reasons, including sobriety, hygiene and illness, according to Wayne Harvey, president of the Airport Facilities Council of the International Facilities Management Association.

How can I protect myself against swine flu? Should I wear a face mask?

The CDC says little information is available on the effectiveness of disposable paper face masks. They are not recommended in most settings.

The most important thing you can do is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. To protect others, use a tissue, or cough and sneeze into your sleeve.

Frequent travelers have other rituals, too. Anne Banas, executive editor of, says she cleans airplane tray tables with sanitizing wipes before using them, and she avoids putting items in the seatback pocket, where previous passengers may have stored dirty tissues.

The CDC says studies have shown that influenza virus can survive on environmental surfaces and can infect a person for two to eight hours after being deposited there.

Bill Miller, who handles business development for, avoids drinking out of glasses in hotel rooms; he instead uses disposable cups and bottled water. He also tries to stay away from breakfast bars and other buffet meals where germs can spread.

If I cancel a planned trip because of swine flu, will I get a refund?

Travel suppliers are not obligated to help but it's worth asking. Last spring, when the outbreak was at its worst in Mexico, some travel suppliers offered credits toward future trips. Some resort chains with hotels in Mexico and other locations allowed travelers to switch destinations if they had availability at hotels elsewhere, but travelers had to book new airfare.

Should I buy travel insurance?

"We're telling our clients: 'Don't leave home without travel insurance,'" said Mike Weingart, president and managing director of Travel Leaders in Houston.

But traditional travel insurance only offers coverage if you become too sick to travel before departure or if you become sick during the trip.

Traditional insurance will not cover your losses if you cancel a planned trip simply because you are worried about exposure to illness, even if a pandemic is declared, said Judy Sutton, director of product management for Travel Insured International.

To be covered in that case, you'd need a "cancel for any reason" policy, Sutton said.

Be aware, however, that "cancel for any reason" policies usually offer only a 75 percent reimbursement of your losses.

And as with traditional insurance, such policies typically require you to cancel two days before departure. They cost about 50 percent more than regular policies.

Traditional travel insurance typically runs about 3 to 5 percent of the price of your trip.

What about cruises?

The cruise industry requires passengers to fill out preboarding questionnaires screening for swine flu symptoms. Passengers who report symptoms or exposure to flu may face additional screening by medical personnel. They could be barred from boarding if they are ill.

Paul Motter, editor of, points out that because of past outbreaks of norovirus on cruises, "the newer ships already have hands-free lavatory facilities, with doors that open automatically and hands-free sinks and toilets, as well as procedures to isolate passengers who become sick."