Coronavirus is upending air travel. Here’s how to navigate flight cancellations, changes during the outbreak

March 5, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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With coronavirus spreading around the world, travel plans are being roiled, leaving travelers wondering what they can do to minimize disruptions to their itineraries.

There is no panacea, travel experts tell Fortune. While many airlines are waiving change and cancellation fees and making it easier to reschedule flights, full refunds can be hard to come by.

The best thing travelers can do during these trying, flying times is to keep current with coronavirus news, airline policies, and travel updates, experts say. Here’s information you can use—including coronavirus travel policies from the six largest airlines by passenger volume—to better navigate the ever-changing landscape of flying during the outbreak.

Keep current with travel advisories

When it comes to suspending or altering flight operations, U.S.-based carriers typically follow U.S. State Department travel advisories, says aviation expert Kathryn Creedy.

The State Department says American citizens should not visit China due to the coronavirus outbreak. It also recommends against travel to Iran, in part due to COVID-19, as well as “risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”

The department urges Americans to reconsider any travel to Italy and South Korea, and specifically recommends against visiting specific regions: Lombardy and Veneto in Italy, and Daegu, South Korea.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against non-essential travel—its highest advisory—to Italy, Iran, South Korea, and China. The CDC has issued lower warnings due to COVID-19 for travel to Japan and Hong Kong. The CDC website has a map tracking the virus’ progression around the world.

Travel bans and quarantine policies vary from country to country. Travel experts say passengers should check with the airline, cruise line, or rail carrier, as well as with the countries they plan to visit and their return destination.

Check airlines’ coronavirus change and cancellation fees

Airlines around the world are waiving change and cancellation fees. The specific terms and conditions vary from carrier to carrier and are changing day to day as the coronavirus outbreak unfolds, says Brett Snyder, who runs the travel blog Cranky Flier, as well as Cranky Concierge, a travel assistance company. Here are the current policies of the largest worldwide carriers:

American Airlines

American Airlines announced Sunday that it is waiving change fees for any travel booked by March 16.

For Italian travel, American Airlines passengers can also reschedule travel to, from or through nine Italian cities served by the airline or one of its partner airlines. The cities are Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Pisa, Rome, Turin, Venice, and Verona. 

Travelers flying American from or through Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing scheduled through April 24 can cancel and apply for a refund for their flights. Tickets must have been issued by the airline and must be cancelled before the first flight departs. American’s policy is the same for travel to, from, or through Wuhan, China, scheduled on or before March 31. To qualify for a refund, tickets must have been purchased by Feb. 24 for Seoul; Jan. 28 for Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing; and Jan. 23 for Wuhan.

American is also letting flyers traveling to Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing to reschedule their trips to begin or end in Tokyo. Alternatively, they also can delay their trips into early 2021 without incurring a change fee, according to the airline’s website.

For all American flights, differences in fares might be charged under certain conditions. American did not reply to a request for further information.

Delta Air Lines

For all flights booked in March with travel dates before Feb. 25, 2021, Delta Air Lines is offering a one-time change fee waiver. Any change must be made and travel must begin by Feb. 28, 2021. Delta’s website says the fee could be waived for travel beyond that date. Differences in fares may apply, so customers should contact the airline to make sure. 

For all international flights booked on or before March 1 for travel in March, Delta is offering a one-time change fee waiver. However, travel must begin by May 31. The airline’s website says that changes to the trip’s origin or destination could result in a difference in fares, which the customer must pay.

Delta passengers flying from, through or into Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul or any city in Italy through April 30, can delay their trip until May 31. Again, changing the trip’s origin or destination might mean paying to cover a difference in fares. These travelers can also cancel their flights and apply the value toward a new reservation. However, the new booking must be made within a year of the original ticket’s issue date. Also, they have to pay the change fee and any difference in fares. 

Delta has also cut or significantly reduced flights to many of the cities worst hit by COVID-19 through April 30. The changes are based on federal travel advisories. Flights from the U.S. to Beijing and Shanghai have been suspended. Delta’s last flight between Milan and John F. Kennedy International Airport landed Tuesday in New York. The route is on hiatus until May 1. The airline has delayed starting its seasonal JFK-Venice service by one month to May 2. For now, Delta continues to fly between Rome and the U.S.

Additionally, the airline has cut back flights to Seoul and some routes between the U.S. and Japan.

Southwest Airlines

Not charging fees to change or cancel reservations is a hallmark of Southwest Airlines’ business model. In that sense, it is business as usual for the popular low-cost carrier. Customers can cancel up to 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time. The ticket price can be used toward another booked within a year of when the original ticket was purchased.

United Airlines

The world’s fourth-largest carrier by volume knows “people are taking a second look at their travel plans right now,” and so it is waiving change fees for any ticket booked through March 31 and rescheduled within 12 months of the when the ticket was first issued, the carrier’s says on its website.

United is also refunding tickets for flights not yet flown to certain destinations in China, if travel was booked before it became clear that COVID-19 was in the city. To qualify for a refund, tickets to Wuhan, where the virus was first reported, must have been purchased before Jan. 21 for a flight originally scheduled no later than March 29.

United is also offering refunds for unflown flights to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Hong Kong—the second wave of Chinese cities infected with the virus. Since outbreaks occurred later in these cities, the applicable dates for refunds are later than Wuhan: Tickets must be for travel by April 30 and must have been purchased by Feb. 12.

The airline is also waiving change fees for those destinations, as well as for flights to Seoul, and nine airports in Italy. To qualify, the original travel dates must have been before April 30 for all cities, except Wuhan, which has an earlier cutoff date. Tickets for Seoul must have been purchased by Feb. 23. Travelers headed to Italy must have bought their tickets by Feb. 26.

If a passenger reschedules their travel to one of those cities to depart by June 30, does not change the destination, and is in the same cabin class, United will waive differences in the fares. For departures rescheduled for after June 30, the airline will waive the the change fee, but any fare differences apply. Any rescheduled flights must occur within one year of when the original ticket was purchased.


The Ireland-based carrier announced Monday that it plans to cut flights to and from Italy from March 17 through April 8. Ryanair has seen “a notable drop in forward bookings towards the end of March, into early April,” the airline’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, said in a press release. The company says affected passengers are being notified at least two weeks ahead of any schedule changes.

Otherwise, Ryanair has almost no information about changing travel plans due to coronavirus on its website. As of this writing, the low-cost airline’s FAQ page for COVID-19 has a 404 notice saying, “We’re sorry! This page is off sightseeing. Why don’t you do the same?”

Ryanair did not reply to Fortune’s request for more information. 

China Southern Airlines

Among the major carriers, China Southern Airlines is offering the most liberal coronavirus-related refund policies. The airline has also been among the hardest hit by the epidemic, which has forced it to significantly reduce flight operations.

China Southern is offering refunds for travel through, to or from Wuhan scheduled through March 29. Customers can also reschedule without a change fee.

Ticket refunds also are available for cancelled flights or for passengers who are scheduled to fly by June 10 and could be caught up by other countries’ restrictions on travelers coming from COVID-19 outbreak locales. These customers can also change travel plans free of charge to other China Southern flights serving the same country or region.

All other China Southern tickets for flights through March 29 can request a refund if the reservation is canceled before departure.

Other U.S. and European airlines have also announced coronavirus-related policies.

For example, Emirates is offering refunds for travel to China, Hong Kong, and Iran, as well as to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which have put certain travel restrictions in place. Again, tickets must meet a variety of criteria to qualify.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue—neither of which fly to China or Italy—are waiving change fees for tickets booked through early March and scheduled in the next few months.

It’s important to note that whether tickets were booked through an airline or a travel agent can affect a traveler’s options. For example, British Airways has stopped flying to mainland China through April 17, and is refunding tickets booked directly with the airline for cancelled flights. For bookings made through a travel agent, the airline recommends flyers contact the agent.

And since no one can say where coronavirus might pop up next, making travel plans right now might feel like rolling dice.

For instance, Snyder says, imagine booking a summer trip to South Africa. Coronavirus is not there now, but what if it shows up by the planned trip? “Will South African Airways put a waiver out?” he asks. “Hopefully, they would, but your guess is as good as mine.”

With that in mind, Snyder recommends American travelers book international flights through a U.S.-based airline, even if it is through a codeshare on a partner airlines’ aircraft.

In general, airlines have restricted when they grant refunds, and they are more likely to offer vouchers or credit for future travel, Snyder says.

“If you have that credit on an American airline rather than (a foreign carrier), you’ll have lot more use for that credit,” he says.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

How to think about COVID-19
—Coronavirus spreads to a previously healthy sector: corporate earnings
Coronavirus is giving China cover to expand its surveillance. What happens next?
—Coronavirus shows why we need vaccines before, not after, an outbreak
—Before coronavirus, there were SARS and MERS. Do epidemics ever really end?

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