How I cancelled an international trip during COVID-19

Back in late January before the world completely imploded, there were already stirrings of a brewing outbreak. At that time, COVID-19 was primarily contained in China but many people travelling to surrounding areas in Asia were becoming concerned about the safety of proceeding with their trips. You may recall me mentioning that my mother was meant to join us on our highly anticipated trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, but opted to cancel the entire thing due to her worries about the situation. I think this was probably the right decision for her given that she is a bit older and would be at higher risk of complications if she became sick. In fact, she did come down with a mild cold that would have caused us all a lot of stress if we were in a foreign country without knowledge about accessing the local healthcare system. The anxiety factor was also a major consideration, as we did not feel she would be able to fully enjoy the experience if she was on edge the entire time.

Although I fortunately have not had to deal with any major travel derailments myself in the midst of this pandemic, I was involved in coordinating my mom’s change in plan and thought I would share some details on my experience sorting out an international trip cancellation.

Cancelling the flights

We had booked my mom’s intercontinental roundtrip flight and multiple domestic flights within both Cambodia and Vietnam about two months prior to departure. All flights were Economy class, the lowest budget options available to us at the time. Surprisingly, cancelling the EVA Air international flight was incredibly straightforward. We submitted a refund request on the website, and about three weeks later received a full refund on our credit card, without any apparent cancellation fee. To be honest, I’m not sure if this was perhaps an administrative error but we did have a doctor’s note on file as well, in case we had to submit it to make more of a case to the airline for a refund or voucher to be given.

As for the domestic flights, we had booked with Cambodia Angkor Air and Vietnam Airlines, and submitted ticket refund/change requests here and here. We were not able to recoup many funds, as we had mostly booked the non-refundable/non-changeable Economy fares. Cambodia Angkor Air did offer us a partial refund minus a cancellation fee for our flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam but there was a lengthy delay and lots of back and forth on this one. We have not actually received any money back yet.

Cancelling the hotels

Most of our accommodations were pre-booked directly with the hotels. The ones in Cambodia had generous cancellation policies allowing us to cancel without charge up to seven days prior to arriving, so those bookings were cancelled without much ado. For the hotels in Vietnam, I had personally opted for the slightly more expensive refundable and pay-on-arrival reservations, but my mom wanted to save a few dollars with the pre-paid, non-refundable bookings. As a consequence, we had to accept the loss for most of those hotel cancellations. However, for her hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, she was able to convert it to a voucher valid for use within one year. I’m not sure if this is likely to work out since I have doubts that my mom will be planning such a faraway international trip by February 2021, but this offer was better than nothing.

Cancelling the tours

We chose to pre-book a few tours with Urban Adventures in order to take advantage of their Black Friday discount, so we had a handful of day excursions reserved ahead of time. Urban Adventures allowed cancellations without charge up to 48 hours prior to the tour, so similar to the situation with some of our hotels, we were able to back out easily.

Our cruise with Dragon Legend Indochina Junk on Bai Tu Long Bay was also cancellable with no change fee as long as it was done 30 days prior to departure, so we did not lose any money there either. If it had been closer to date of departure, there would have been a pro-rated fee based on date of cancellation.

In Cambodia, we reserved spots on a few local tours and activities including our trip to the Angkor temples, Kompong Khleang floating village, cooking class, and Kulen Waterfall. Same for our cooking class and bike tour in Hoi An, Vietnam. For these, I specifically chose companies that allowed for payment on arrival, so there was no need to request any refunds.

Thoughts on travel insurance

In general, I do not purchase travel insurance beyond emergency medical coverage that is already included with my extended health plan. Usually, my thinking has been that I would probably go ahead with a trip in most circumstances and if I did have to cancel in an exceptional case, my losses would be self-insured. I would not embark on any major travel without adequate personal funds to get myself home in an urgent situation.

I did briefly look into signing up for trip cancellation and interruption insurance, and ultimately decided that it was not worth it for me. From what I gather, you typically need to sign up for the insurance during a narrow time period after booking your trip in order to fully qualify for all of its coverage. Processing the claim can also be a hassle, with some insurance companies being notoriously difficult to deal with.

In sum, my opinion is that the best way to protect against major financial losses while travelling or planning a trip is to do the following:

Book direct. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: book your flights and accommodations directly with the airlines and hotels, rather than a third party agent. It is considerably easier to correspond with the airlines and hotels, as there are more regulations obligating them to assist you with change requests. Case in point, you only need to do a quick Google search to read about the many cases of people struggling to obtain refunds from online travel agencies.

Pay extra for the refundable option. Choosing the refundable hotel bookings was well worth it for me, as it gave me peace of mind and would have allowed me to recoup hundreds of dollars in the case that I had to cancel my trip. These options also allowed for payment on arrival, so nothing was charged until I was physically checked in.

Choose tour companies with good cancellation policies. The vast majority of well-reputed tour companies will have reasonable cancellation policies which allow you a full refund if you cancel within 1-2 days of departure. Otherwise, many smaller local companies will allow for payment (usually in cash) at the end of the tour. If I wasn’t able to guarantee an easy cancellation procedure, I would have deferred making any tour reservations until my arrival at the destination.

Check the coverage on your credit card. Many credit cards include some kind of travel insurance. On my World Elite MasterCard and Cobalt American Express, there is trip interruption and travel medical insurance included as long as you have charged the trip on that card. You do need to look through the fine print though; there are some very specific conditions to qualify for the insurance coverage.

Do you have any other suggestions for managing a trip interruption or cancellation?