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Flight refunds and travel insurance - what are you entitled to if you had booked a trip to Italy?

The Irish government has changed its advice to suggest avoiding all travel to Italy.

A military checkpoint in Milan's Stazione Centrale train station
A military checkpoint in Milan's Stazione Centrale train station
Image: Piero Cruciatti/SIPA USA/PA Images

IN A MAJOR step on Monday night, the Italian government announced that the entire country would effectively be put into lockdown as the country struggles to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.

The unprecedented move covers the entire country and its population of 60 million people. 

In the space of a few weeks, there have been thousands of cases across Europe with 50 cases confirmed on the island of Ireland at the time of writing so far.

In a tweet yesterday morning, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the Department of Foreign Affairs was upgrading travel advice to Irish citizens to recommend “against travel to the whole of Italy”. 

And shortly before midday the Department upgraded its advisory for Italy to the highest possible level of warning. The ‘do not travel’ advisory puts Italy in the same category as countries like Afghanistan and Syria.

This new advice will affect travellers who had planned to travel to the country in the immediate future. It remaining unclear when the current restrictions will be lifted. 

What happens to my flight to Italy, given the updated guidance?

Firstly this depends on whether or not the flight is cancelled.

Ryanair, for example, yesterday announced that all of its flights to and from Italy would be suspended from Friday evening onwards until early April.

It said: “Ryanair continues to comply fully with WHO and national government guidance and travel bans.

The situation is changing on a daily basis, and all passengers on flights affected by travel bans or cancellations, are receiving emails and are being offered flight transfers, full refunds or travel credits.

Aer Lingus has followed suit in cancelling all its flights to and from Italy until early April.

Cancelled flights

If your flight is cancelled, the airline must offer you a choice between the following:

  • rerouting as soon as possible
  • rerouting at a later date at your convenience
  • a refund

If you choose the first option (re-routing as soon as possible) and are travelling home, your airline must provide you with care and assistance while you wait for the alternative flight. Care and assistance comprises:

  • meals and refreshments as reasonable in relation to waiting time
  • hotel accommodation where an overnight stay becomes necessary
  • transport between the hotel accommodation and the airport
  • two free telephone calls/access to email

Given that the Irish government has now advised against travel to the whole of Italy, that makes the situation clear cut according to Dermot Jewell from the Consumers’ Association of Ireland.

He told TheJournal.ie: “The official advice is not to travel there so the consumer is entitled to a refund or to reschedule the flight. That’s plain and simple.”

Will my travel insurance cover anything I’ve paid for already, such as the hotel?

As part of its travel advice, the Department of Foreign Affairs says it “strongly recommends” obtaining comprehensive travel insurance which would cover all overseas medical costs and also urges people to check any exclusions to the policy.

Jewell said that when it comes to getting reimbursed via your insurance – if you’re not able to go on a trip to Italy, for example – it very much depends on the terms and conditions of your policy. 

“I think that’s a lesson being learned,” he said. “There’s people that don’t take insurance of any kind, or they take the minimum amount.”

While some booking websites offer free cancellations, Jewell said he could understand if some hotels were reluctant to offer refunds – in that, from the business-owner’s perspective, the hotel was remaining open for business even if getting to it was impossible for the customer. 

On the situation with flights, Jewell said one sticking point that had emerged was an unwillingness from some airlines to waive the cost of amending a booking or getting a refund if you now wish to cancel your flight.

In a statement last week, the Irish Travel Agents Association said it was aware of a number of airlines offering free-of-charge changes, including British Airways, KLM, United Airlines, Emirates and Turkish Airlines. 

Its CEO Pat Dawson said: “We really appreciate your assistance, and would call on our other partners to follow suit as we try to navigate our way through this issue.”

However, it is not the same for every airline. Irish boxing star Mick Conlan took to Twitter earlier today to say he had tried to cancel Aer Lingus flights to Rome but was told he’d only get a fraction of his money back.

mick conlan

In response, Aer Lingus said on Twitter: “Hi Michael, the normal fare rules will apply in this case but if there are any changes you will be contacted directly. We continue to monitor the situation.”

TheJournal.ie has contacted Aer Lingus for comment. 

Jewell said it was “disappointing” that the change fee wasn’t being waived by some airlines given the seriousness of the situation. 

“It would go a long way,” he said. “This is a difficult situation. And a very unusual one. I think it requires a different approach.”

I’ve a trip booked for a few weeks on the continent. Should I be worried? And should I avoid booking holidays for now?

At this stage, it is impossible to know what travel restrictions could be recommended as the number of cases increases in Europe and beyond.

Photos all across social media have been showing near-empty flights to affected regions, Italy in particular, in recent weeks. To retain their slots at popular airports, some have been forced to run nearly empty flights when it otherwise might not have. 

The British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has already written to the European Commission asking for these rules to be changed, as running so-called “ghost flights” is “bad news for the environment, airlines and passengers”. 

The EU has confirmed it will act “very rapidly” help airlines struggling from the new coronavirus outbreak by proposing a law to stop “ghost flights” to keep airport slots.

The advice for people is to avoid travel to Italy at present, while people are urged to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling to France and urged against non-essential travel to China (a ‘do not travel’ advisory is in place for the Hubei province).

In its own advice, the Irish Travel Agents Association says that if the government issues a warning to avoid non-essential travel, “then you should be eligible for refunds or re-bookings”.

It says: “In the first instance, contact your travel provider (i.e. airline or tour operator) who will advise you about your ability to reclaim costs for trips which have been cancelled or curtailed.

If you booked separate accommodation yourself (i.e. not through a travel agent or tour operator) then you will need to check the Terms and Conditions of your booking, or look to your travel insurance to recover money.

However, if you choose to cancel a holiday, you may be eligible for a refund but that isn’t guaranteed.

The Irish Travel Agents Association adds: “If there is no advice against travel to your destination, if you don’t want to go, you’re free to make that choice, but there’s no obligation on your holiday company to give you a refund.

Normal cancellation charges will apply. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to claim any cancellation charge on your insurance as there isn’t normally cover for disinclination to travel but you can check the terms of your policy.

When it comes to whether or not to follow through with a planned trip to other parts of Europe or to book one, Jewell said “that’s a personal decision”. 

“Right now, people are considering cancelling or rescheduling,” he said.

I think a lot of people have taken that decision to not go ahead with the planned trip. One thing they’ll definitely need to look at is making sure they’ve the right insurance.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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