I've written quite a bit about the absence of common sense in many recent developments in travel, but perhaps few make so little sense as does the high cost of deciding not to travel when you are ill. While the airlines claim to be very serious about containing disease in flight, their policies are heavily tilted to make sure you will fly or pay for it, contagious or not.
If you are not feeling well, the airline policies aren't going to make you feel any better -- the "bad medicine" of surcharges, fare difference markups and change fees conspires to make it potentially very expensive to stay home. The following guide to your rights, recourse and medical options should help the next time you are not feeling well before a trip, and are faced with the decision to fly sick -- or pay dearly.
First and Foremost
One critical piece of advice up front: If it looks like you may not be able to travel, get a doctor's note -- it may not help in the end, but without it you are really stuck. If you do file an appeal or claim with the airline or your travel insurer, this piece of documentation may decide the outcome.
How to Avoid Catching a Cold on a Plane
Policies affecting sick or injured travelers vary considerably by airline. Southwest, for example, imposes no change fees or penalties for travel postponed for illness, applying a full credit for use within the next 12 months -- but it is just about alone in this regard. Among the big carriers, the most common stance is to charge a standard change fee (usually $75 to $150), plus any difference in fare.
This can get extremely expensive; say, for example, you bought a ticket with a 21-day advance purchase, but decide on the day of your flight that you are too sick to fly. Then the next morning you are feeling better and try to land a new seat to travel that day. Airfares for same-day travel usually cost a LOT more than 21-day advance purchases, and you will have to make up the difference, as well as the $150 change fee. In most cases, you are looking at extra costs in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you are traveling as a family, multiply those costs by the number in your travel party. Owwww... For a family of four, deferring travel by just one day could cost a couple thousand dollars.
Poll: What Do You Do When You Get Sick While Traveling?
Most airlines will allow you to appeal the extra charges "on a case-by-case basis," but this usually means paying the change and fare difference up front, writing an appeal accompanied by a doctor's note to airline customer service, and hoping they think your situation merits a refund of the upcharges.
A few airlines have made policy exceptions for documented cases of specific illnesses; for example, AirTran will not charge a fee if you have a proven case of swine flu. For other illnesses (even for a different type of flu -- go figure), AirTran's $75 change fee will typically apply.
Of course, all of the above applies to nonrefundable fares; for refundable fares, you may cancel for any reason in most cases, but of course you have already paid a considerable premium for that right, as refundable fares cost much more.
On some occasions, an understanding and proactive customer service representative may waive fees on the spot when travelers contact the airline; this depends as much on the person who answers the phone as it does the specific circumstances. If you are really in trouble, airline personnel sometimes do have the authority to make exceptions. I wouldn't count on it if you are calling in with a cold, however.
Five Foods to Avoid Before You Fly
Policies at hotels vary tremendously from property to property. Even at a single place, policies may change depending on any number of variables, such as whether you're traveling over the holidays, whether you booked directly with the hotel, whether your credit card has been run, whether you bought your room on a site like Priceline where the refund process can be byzantine ... you get the picture. My suggestion would be to contact the company with which you made your booking, and go from there.
Hidden Hotel Fees to Watch Out For
Most car rental reservations are not paid before you pick up your car, so you are on a bit more solid ground. However, as with hotels above, if you made your car reservation on an auction site or other booking engine that has already charged your credit card, it gets a lot tougher to get your money back. These policies vary both by booking engine and by car rental company; your best bet if you think you may not be able to travel is to contact them immediately.
Does Travel Insurance Cover You?
In most cases, the simple answer is yes -- this is the most commonly cited reason to purchase travel insurance, after all.
A representative at Access America, which has partnerships with many major airlines -- these are the folks you probably end up talking to when you choose to purchase insurance during the booking process on most major airline booking sites -- let me know that most common travel insurance policies do cover the cost of delays or cancellations due to illness. However, as we have noted elsewhere on the site, it is important to know what is and is not covered in your specific policy.