Answering Your Questions About Travel

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day, sponsored by the San Francisco Police Department.

Today we’re looking at all the disruption to travel and how to manage canceled and upcoming trips with Jamie Dejean, a consultant with Frosch, a travel management company with offices in the Bay Area and worldwide.

I can only imagine what life is like for somebody in your sector these days. Pretty crazy?

It's pretty crazy, and ironically today is National Travel Advisor Appreciation Day, so go figure.

(laughs) Well we appreciate you taking some time.

(laughs) Well thank you.

This is an industry that's been kind of hammered already in its own way by the move to online booking; so many people think they can do it on their own. Sometimes, at a time like this, maybe finding out that wasn't such a great idea.

Oh I know, I've actually got people who didn't book with me asking, "what do I do, what do I do?" And I'm like, contact who you booked it with because all of mine are taken care of.

Well let's talk in generalities before we get to the deeper questions here. Number one, people are saying alright my flight hasn't been canceled yet. For example, I've got a flight to Paris in July; I don't think that flight's ever going to happen. Do I get my money now? Do I have to wait until July? How do flight cancelations work?

What my clients are doing is they are waiting until the date which - personally I had a flight booked to Amsterdam and I stupidly canceled it before the airline cancelled it. If the airline cancels it outright - and they're protecting people on an alternative, but sometimes the alternative is on a certain window like a six or seven hour layover - they're supposed to refund your money. Now I can't tell you that you'll get it right away, but legally they're supposed to refund your money if they cancel. If you cancel it, the airlines are giving waivers for change fees or some have extended it out to 2022 so that's a good thing. But I'm telling people to wait until the airline cancels it. You have a better shot of getting your money back.

What about if in the interim - and I've heard about this too - they keep rescheduling it? Say if you had a direct flight from SFO to Amsterdam and now all of a sudden you're going through Toronto, Algiers, and maybe coming back from Moscow or something, that still counts though as a flight, which means they haven't canceled it?

It does, because the airline, their only obligation is to get you from Point A to Point B

Ok, and there's no time window on that? Within a 24 hour period or anything of that sort?

Nuh uh.

Those other, farther-down-the-road situations where people are saying, "I don't know that I’m going to feel comfortable going to fill-in-the-blank by the end of the year," what should they do?

Everything's on a wait and see. If they're outside of penalty, they won't lose as much money if they're just under deposit. All of mine are just sitting there waiting. They're all holding their breath, taking a chance because by the time this is over they're going to be so cabin-fevered they're going to be like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining", ready to get the heck out of there. I've got people chomping at the bit. I have people scheduled for July who are like, "dang it, I'm going. I'm sick of this house."

And are you hearing this from people about domestic as well as foreign travel or is it mostly domestic?

No, international actually. The only new booking I've had in the last month or so is Hawaii and that's not until October or so.

What do you hear in general about the availability of everything from hotel rooms to rental cars for people who actually think they are going to go somewhere?

I keep up with the re-openings. I know Greece is reopening in, I think, mid-May. A lot of the European hotels are opening in early June. Quite a few domestic hotels have never really technically closed. I do have a friend who works at a hotel here in Houston - I'm in Houston by the way - and their hotel never closed. There are still places to go and the hotels have never been cleaner. We get emails constantly, we just got one from Marriott assuring that all their brands - and of course they own everything in the world now with the acquisition of Starwood and St. Regis and all of their brands. There are still options out there domestically, believe it or not.

Ok and let's get to some questions here and if you don't know an answer, our rule here is it's ok to punt and say you don't know the answer. Here's the first one: how are airlines, hotels, etc. handling cancelations and refunds? 

I guess maybe a broad statement is what we're looking for here.

If they cancel they're obligated to give you your money back. Some are offering to waive penalties if you change hotels. Non-refundable deposits - some are keeping them for use for future travel. Some of our partners have been kind enough to return non-refundables but that's because of our relationship with them.

I have a specific question regarding United Airlines. I recently changed an international flight and was told I was receiving a refund via email. The operator told me that I was receiving four vouchers instead. No vouchers were sent to my email and I tried resolving it through their customer support. One operator tells me I’m getting two vouchers, another one four. I’m never getting a straight answer. What do I do?

Welcome to our world, we never get a straight answer from airlines. Yeah, customer support, I know they're backed up but just keep aggravating them.

Do you find that there's any advantage to being a member of one of their frequent flyer clubs or having elevated status?

I think the elevated status helps a great bit. And there's special desks just for the people who have like, a million miles and the gold or platinum or whatever - that can help too.

And those really are special numbers, they have their own staff?

Yeah, they have their own phone numbers.

Can I fly now from Oakland to Hartford, Connecticut without having to be quarantined?

What do you know about now, many many weeks into this pandemic, what's happening to people when they arrive places?

I just read something today about Hawaii, they're requiring the 14 days and they are actually checking up and making sure people are being quarantined. That is the only one I know of specifically, I don't know about quarantine in the rest of the United States.

Ok, so people obviously ought to be looking at their destinations. And that Hawaii one, can you self-quarantine in your hotel room?

Yes, of course.

How do I get money back from things like foreign museums and theater performances? Our European trip scheduled for mid-June obviously isn't going to happen.

I've actually had a situation where a client had tickets to the Alhambra for May 10th and he just waited until the museum itself had canceled it. If they cancel it, they should give you a refund. It should come directly from them. But I would wait until it has actually happened.

My older daughter lives and works in D.C. She has isolated at home with only essential outings since early April, has plans to come visit at the end of May and is now thinking that she may stay for a few months as she is easily able to work remotely here.

If she travels here - other than the expected precautions on her flight and travels (gloves, mask, etc.) - what precautions should we take here when she arrives? We have also been sheltering in place since March per our Bay Area requirements.

I do not know, I'm just being honest with you. I mean there are flights that are still flying, the airplanes are so clean. There's social distancing, they're requiring masks. Some of them, beginning Monday a lot of the major airlines are requiring masks. I don't know what happens when she gets there, to be honest.

What's it like at the airport these days? You're in Texas, a state where there's been a little bit of re-opening, but it's not like they said go to the races. What are airports like, are there services?

Yeah there are, but they're limited. It's probably the best time to go because at TSA there's no line. I actually have to go to the Houston Airport at the end of May for my TSA interview and I don't know what to expect when I get there. Houston - like San Francisco - is notorious for traffic. So I do not know.

I purchased tickets through Air Canada’s website early December 2019 for travel on March 15th of this year. We thought we could still go up until the 12th when we realized the gravity of the situation. I’ve been contacting them initially by phone - no luck - and by email only to be told back on March 15th that I will hear from someone after 30 days. Now 32 days after that I've been back in touch, now saying I will be contacted again 60 days after my initial request. I want either a full refund or credit for future travel. What do you suggest?

Customer service, that's all I can tell you at this point. We as travel agents have relationships with the carriers so we have our own salespersons who go above and beyond, but if they're dealing with the airline directly, their only recourse is either customer service or reservations.

I’ve had two trips cancelled because of coronavirus. Both were prepaid on Southwest. Instead of refunding the money they're only offering credits. Their response was they are still flying so they won’t refund any money. Is there any recourse or anything that can be done so I can get my money? 

Southwest of course has always had this fairly liberal policy, they don't charge you a cancellation fee they just keep a voucher out there in the system for you to use in the future.

And they don't charge penalties, that's the good thing about Southwest.

So because of that system of theirs, is it any different? Can customers actually demand a refund because of trips being cancelled?

If they’re canceled. I don't know of Southwest having any cancellations per se, except for international but I haven't had any people on Southwest in a while. I had one person who was going to Vegas but she's like, "no I'll just leave it there and I'm going to go back."

This next one was also about Southwest but it does, I think, apply to other airlines. People often are the booking agent for a group, it could be their family or it could be their friends; they put the trip together, they pay for the tickets but different people's names are on the tickets or their passports are associated with the tickets. How does that get worked out?

It's kinda crazy because the rules are, the ticket has to be used for the person - doesn't matter if they paid for it. I've had situations where a boyfriend and girlfriend broke up and they're like, "but I paid for their ticket!" It has to be used by the person whose name is on the ticket, unfortunately. 

And they (airlines) give them a year, but they have been extending for two years depending on the airline, and they're doing their best to waive penalties.

Do you worry about the solvency of these airlines given the hits they're taking right now?

Some of them are getting bailouts though. Yeah, they're being used to transport medical workers and essential people so there are still flights, they still serve a purpose in some kind of way. I'm in wait-and-see, fingers crossed. I'm originally from New Orleans, I light my good voodoo candles (laughs). There are some good voodoo, gris-gris.

Are major airlines still honoring and accepting miles to book trips, or has that all been suspended?

No, they take miles. You can use your miles. That's what they're there for.

And what happens to those bookings if they get delayed or cancelled?

They put the miles back and some of them are waiving the redeposit fees if they (the airline) cancel it.

We purchased several international advanced-purchase hotel reservations late last year for this July. These were in Italy and France. They are non-refundable, no cancellations or changes allowed.

I hate those things.

Yeah, obviously we're all rethinking that approach now right?

Definitely, it's worth a few more bucks for the flexibility and peace of mind.

This questioner says, some of the hotel rooms are still open at this time. Are we able to obtain any kind of credit for these reservations? What's the best way to follow up?

Contact the hotels or whoever you booked it with directly.

And another side question here maybe has to do with travel cancellation insurance. What's your thought on that?

I'm a big fan of it, although a lot of people are mad because it doesn't cover pandemics. They're very liberal about changing the dates, they give you almost not quite two years to change the dates of your insurance. I had my appendix taken out while on vacation so anything can happen.

That happened to me once too!

Oh no! I was on a layover in LA coming from Tahiti.

I was in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It wasn't an encouraging place. In fact my brother-in-law the same way, it happened in Rome. 

Anyway, next question, I want to know how the cruise ships are going to enforce mandatory hand washing and sanitization.

They're talking about dining and sensitive areas. Currently a mere suggestion, poorly enforced, etc. 

I am a big big cruiser, big fan of cruising and the last, I don't know, five or six years every single dining room has had the hand sanitizer. You cannot get on and off a ship without hand sanitizer because of norovirus - another fun thing that people don't want, but it lasts only 24 hours. I've had it myself. 

But they've always been enforcing cleanliness, I read that they make you fill out a form ahead of time, have you had a cough etc. I believe they're going to be taking temperatures on and off, anyone over a certain age has to get a medical clearance, maybe a note from the doctor. So this is all new.

I have a vacation planned for Cabo San Lucas second week of June and when we bought the vacation we added the trip protection and paid extra for it. Under the trip protection policy it says if we cancel for any reason we would receive our money back in full. If the trip is canceled at this time, will I receive my money back if I'm not the one who cancels?

I guess the question is whether it’s the buyer of the trip who cancels or the property where the vacation was to be taken or the airline that does the cancelling.

Whoever they booked it with, it's up to them.

Ok, that runs down our list of questions. Anything you want to add before we let you go?

Everybody stay safe and 2021's going to be a great year for travel.