Nervous about travel (again)? What to know about airline, hotel and cruise cancellation policies as omicron surges

·11 min read

Dominic Sorbara bought a plane ticket to North Carolina in November so he could spend Christmas with his family.

The 23-year-old animator from New York was excited to check out the Raleigh area, where his parents and sister recently relocated.

The American Airlines flight he booked took off without him on Tuesday.

Sorbara was on the fence about the trip given the omicron surge but didn't cancel his flight until his cousin, with whom he shares an apartment, tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Sorbara, who is vaccinated and got the booster shot, had no symptoms and tested negative, and his family is vaccinated.

"I still don't want to take any chances getting on a plane,'' he said.

Travelers around the world are weighing the risks of vacationing or visiting friends and relatives during the holiday season and early winter months given the rapid spread of the variant first reported in South Africa just before Thanksgiving.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that vaccinated Americans can safely gather during the holidays if vaccinated, "particularly if you've gotten your booster shot.''

His chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that those who are vaccinated and boosted "should be OK'' during holiday travel as long as they keep masks on and take other precautions in crowded settings.

"But, we're going to see breakthrough infections,'' he said. "There's no doubt about that.''

Many people have already taken off for holiday getaways, with the TSA screening 2 million-plus people for five consecutive days for the first time since the pre-Thanksgiving rush.

For those still on the fence about holiday travel or post-holiday trips, here's what travelers need to know about cancellation policies:

Can I cancel a flight if I don't want to travel due to omicron COVID-19 variant

Travelers skittish about flying during the latest COVID-19 wave or those who have tested positive for COVID-19 can cancel flights by reaching out to the airline or travel agency that booked the tickets. Start online for the quickest resolution and don't overlook the airline or agency's social media accounts for help. Wait times tend to be the longest over the phone.

The bad news about canceling a flight, regardless of the reason: Airlines don't owe you a refund unless you purchased a refundable ticket. Department of Transportation rules say they only owe you if they cancel the flight.

►Travel fine print: What airlines owe you when flights are delayed, canceled

The good news: You won't lose the value of your ticket on major airlines unless you purchased a basic economy fare. Those are airlines' cheapest tickets and carry the most restrictions. Airlines loosened those restrictions early in the pandemic when travel all but evaporated but have gradually brought them back, making them non-changeable and nonrefundable. (Note that a couple of major airlines, Delta and United, say travelers with basic economy tickets for travel through the end of 2021 can cancel them.)

►Goodbye flexible policies: Change fees and other pre-pandemic policies are back on cheapest airline tickets

►New restrictions: Delta makes big changes to basic economy tickets

An American Airlines plane takes off at Miami International Airport in this file photo from June 16, 2021.
An American Airlines plane takes off at Miami International Airport in this file photo from June 16, 2021.

Nashville, Tennessee, filmmaker, author and speaker Molly Secours couldn't believe budget airline Frontier Airlines shaved $90 off the value of her ticket when she canceled a holiday flight from Nashville to Denver this month due to COVID-19 concerns.

"I was like, 'That's over a third of the (ticket) price,'' she said.

The airline told her via Twitter that they would look into it but never got back to her, she said.

Secours was due to fly out on Christmas Eve but canceled after "things started looking wonky'' with the omicron variant and her friends started getting sick.

She didn't consider for a second that she wouldn't get all of her money back because she had to cancel a flight on American recently and received the full value of the ticket as a credit for a future flight.

Major airlines including American, United and Delta permanently eliminated change fees on regular tickets during the pandemic, a major plus for travelers. Southwest Airlines has never charged ticket change fees. Keep in mind, however, the credit is a dollar amount and not a new ticket that can be used when you are comfortable taking the flight you booked. If fares go up, you'll have to pay the difference. Travel credits also come with an expiration date.

Bottom line for travelers considering canceling their flight: Read the fine print on your ticket or reach out to the airline for details.

►Yes, Omicron has overtaken delta: No, it's not March 2020

►Vaccinated and test positive? What to know about Omicron variant

How do I get a refund for my vacation rental?

Airbnb offers a total of nine cancellation policies, but the most common for short-term stays are:

  • Flexible: Guests can get a full refund on their nightly rate as long as they cancel 24 hours before check-in. Guests who cancel less than 24 hours before check-in must pay for at least one night.

  • Moderate: Guests can get a full refund if they cancel at least five days before check-in. If they cancel with less than five days of notice, they'll need to pay for one night, plus 50% for all unspent nights and each night they stay in full.

  • Firm: Guests can cancel and get a firm refund if they cancel at least 30 days before check-in or within 48 hours of booking if the reservation is at least 14 days out. Guests who cancel between seven and 30 days before check-in will receive a 50% refund but will need to pay in full if they cancel less than seven days before check-in.

  • Strict: Guests can get a full refund if they cancel within 48 hours of booking for a reservation at least 14 days out. If they cancel between seven and 14 days before check-in, they are eligible for a 50% refund but must pay the full amount if they cancel any later.

Cancellation policies from Vrbo hosts include:

  • No refund policy: Bookings are nonrefundable.

  • 60-day policy: Travelers can get a full refund if they cancel 60 days before check-in.

  • 60/30 day policy: Travelers can get a full refund if they cancel 60 days before check-in and a 50% refund (not including the service fee) if they cancel at least 30 days before check-in.

  • 30/14 day policy: Travelers can get a full refund if they cancel at least 30 days before check-in and a 50% refund (not including the service fee) if they cancel at least 14 days before check-in.

  • 14/7 day policy: Travelers can get a full refund if they cancel at least 14 days before check-in and a 50% refund (not including the service fee) if they cancel at least seven days before check-in.

  • Custom policy: Some properties have custom cancellation policies, which are usually available to view on the property page. Vrbo suggests travelers contact the host directly if they can't find their refund policy on the property page.

Airbnb guests who contract COVID-19 are eligible for a refund or travel credit under the company's "extenuating circumstances" policy, while Vrbo guests who contract the virus will still need to comply with their host's cancellation policy.

If a cancellation falls outside the policy's full refund window, both Airbnb and Vrbo suggest travelers try reaching out to their host to see if they can work out a better deal.

"Most hosts prefer to quickly resolve any issue by fixing it, offering a partial refund, or both," Airbnb says on its website.

► Need to cancel an Airbnb or Vrbo? How to get a refund after a last-minute cancellation because of COVID

Can I get a refund if I need to cancel my hotel due to omicron?

Hotel guests can find their hotel’s cancellation policy while booking and can often review the terms in their confirmation email. Here are some policies at some of the largest hotel brands:

Hotel guests can find their hotel’s cancellation policy while booking and can often review the terms in their confirmation email.
Hotel guests can find their hotel’s cancellation policy while booking and can often review the terms in their confirmation email.
  • Hilton allows guests to adjust or cancel “most reservations” up to 24 hours prior to arrival.

  • Marriott guests who booked after Sept. 1 must comply with the cancellation policies in place at the time of booking, which are subject to availability and rate differences.

  • Hyatt reservations booked on or after July 1, 2020, are subject to the cancellation, deposit and refund policy disclosed at the time of reservation. Guests should check the hotel's cancellation policy before booking since hotels can adjust their policies during high-demand periods like the holidays. Most reservations by Explorist, Globalist or Lifetime Globalist World of Hyatt members can be canceled up until 11:59 p.m. the day before arrival if the cancellation period is not more than 48 hours before check-in.

  • Reservation rates at Wyndham vary by hotel, but many let guests cancel direct bookings up to 24 hours before check-in and, in some cases, allow same-day cancellations. Guests who booked directly with the hotel who are prohibited from traveling to their hotel under applicable law can have their cancellation or change penalties waived.

Can I cancel my cruise? What are my options?

Options for canceling cruises vary by line. Canceling doesn't always mean a full refund, it may mean a future cruise credit and some lines are stricter than others but some have more flexible options as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises

Royal Caribbean Group's "Cruise with Confidence" program has been in place since March 2020 and applies to flagship line Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, Lyan Sierra-Caro, spokesperson for the cruise line, told USA TODAY.

"It allows guests to cancel up to 48 hours before their departure – for any reason at all – and get 100% of the value back in a Future Cruise Credit that they can use towards any sailing," Sierra-Caro said.

If a passenger or someone in their party tests positive for COVID-19 before the cruise is set to depart, they can also get a 100% fare refund.

Royal Caribbean's newest cruise ship, Odyssey of the Seas, docked in Willemstad, Curacao, in the Caribbean on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.
Royal Caribbean's newest cruise ship, Odyssey of the Seas, docked in Willemstad, Curacao, in the Caribbean on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Corp.'s namesake line, Carnival Cruise Line, has options for passengers impacted by COVID-19 who need to cancel.

"If you, your family members living with you in the same household or traveling companions assigned to the same stateroom cancel a cruise booking due to testing positive for COVID-19 within 14 days of embarkation, you and they are entitled to a (Future Cruise Credit) for the amount paid to Carnival," Carnival says on its website. "If guest has close contact with a positive or suspected COVID-19 case within 14 days of embarkation, and Carnival deems you are unfit to travel, you are eligible for a FCC."

Holland America Line

Holland America Line, a Carnival Corp. cruise line, has a "flexible" cancellation policy that is in place for cruises booked by Feb. 28 for ships departing through April 30.

"You can cancel for any reason up to 30 days before departure and automatically receive a Future Cruise Credit with our Flexible Cancellation," the cruise line says on its website. "Additionally, you may cancel up to your sailing date if you test positive for COVID-19 and will also receive a Future Cruise Credit."

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise line has in place a "Peace of Mind" policy for pandemic bookings.

"With Norwegian’s Peace of Mind, you can cruise safely with enhanced health and safety protocols and flexible booking," Norwegian says on its website. "Feel Free to change plans as needed and feel confident knowing that we’re looking out for your health and safety."

For cruises departing through March, passengers can cancel up to 61 days ahead of sailing for a full refund.

MSC Cruises

For bookings made through March 31 for cruises through March 31, 2023, passengers can change their cruise up to 48 hours ahead of departure.

"They can move their money to another cruise that sails on or before March 31, 2023 (any ship, any sail date without penalty)," Stephen Schuler, vice president of communications for MSC, told USA TODAY. "The only exception to this is guests booked on MSC World Cruise or World Cruise segments."

If you're nervous about getting on a ship and want to cancel or postpone your trip, check your cruise line's website for cancellation policies, call customer service or your travel agent.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Omicron travel: How to get a refund from that last-minute cancellation