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Coronavirus Travel Q&A: What countries are closing down? How can I get home?

As the global COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, Pól Ó Conghaile keeps you up to speed on travel developments.

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Passengers arriving from Italy at Vnukovo International Airport. Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

Passengers arriving from Italy at Vnukovo International Airport. Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

Sergei Bobylev/TASS

Sky Princess, one of the 18 ships in Princess Cruises' fleet, sends a WeWillBeBack message via its balcony cabins. Last week, Princess stated it was voluntarily pausing its global operations for 60 days in response to COVID-19.

Sky Princess, one of the 18 ships in Princess Cruises' fleet, sends a WeWillBeBack message via its balcony cabins. Last week, Princess stated it was voluntarily pausing its global operations for 60 days in response to COVID-19.

A tourist travels through an airport this January. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

A tourist travels through an airport this January. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

Travelers queue at a departures terminal in Barcelona on March 14, 2020. Photo by Adria Salido Zarco/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Travelers queue at a departures terminal in Barcelona on March 14, 2020. Photo by Adria Salido Zarco/NurPhoto via Getty Images

NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Irish government's unprecedented travel advice, issued March 16, 2020.

The Irish government's unprecedented travel advice, issued March 16, 2020.

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Passengers arriving from Italy at Vnukovo International Airport. Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

One by one, countries and continents are closing as coronavirus outbreaks around the world throw travel into disarray.

This is a fluid situation, with new developments by the hour - let alone day - so check with your airline, tour operator and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) travel advisories before travelling.

What's the latest?

The Irish Government is now advising against all non-essential travel overseas at least until March 29. This includes Great Britain but does not apply to Northern Ireland. It also includes all cruise ship travel.

“Flight restrictions and route cancellations are happening on a daily basis worldwide and there is no guarantee that air routes will continue to operate for the coming weeks," Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.

"For this reason, where commercial flights are still an option, we recommend that people who wish to do so make arrangements to return to Ireland as soon as possible."

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The Irish government's unprecedented travel advice, issued March 16, 2020.

The Irish government's unprecedented travel advice, issued March 16, 2020.

The Irish government's unprecedented travel advice, issued March 16, 2020.

Anyone coming into Ireland, apart from Northern Ireland, should restrict their movements for 14 days, the HSE says. This includes Irish residents. Essential supply chain services such as hauliers, pilots and maritime staff are exempt.

For now, "this advisory overrides all other travel alerts and security status notifications, with the exception of countries with a “do not travel” security status, which remain unchanged", it says.

It follows a temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU, set to be imposed for a period of 30 days, announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

"The less travel, the more we can contain the virus," she said.

The DFA's list of countries closing their borders or introducing travel restrictions is changing by the hour, and now includes dozens of destinations (see below).

Are Irish airports still open?

Yes, Irish airports and airspace remain open at this time.

As chaos continues however, the Irish Travel Agents Association has asked the Tánaiste "to look at the repatriation of Irish travellers from other countries in the EU and across the world, especially the US.”

What's happening in Spain?

A repatriation effort has been taking place, seeing the Irish government liaise with Ryanair and Aer Lingus to bring home an estimated 20,000 people from Spain, the Balearic and Canary Islands.

Both airlines are severely reducing flights.

"Customers that were already checked-in for their return flight may have experienced difficulties to change their booking," Ryanair said. "Today we are unchecking all customers booked on flights exiting Spain from 21 Mar to 28 Mar and advising them to apply for a free move on an alternative date via our online service."

Aer Lingus passengers should us the Manage My Trip page to re-book travel.

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A tourist travels through an airport this January. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

A tourist travels through an airport this January. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

A tourist travels through an airport this January. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Irish citizens can also ring a dedicated DFA helpline on +353 (0)1 613 1733.

What is the latest travel advice?

The Irish Government is advising against all non-essential travel overseas at least until March 29. This includes Great Britain but does not apply to Northern Ireland. It also includes all cruise ship travel.

It follows a wave of travel restrictions in responses to the Covid-19 crisis, the DFA says - with travel advised against either due to virus outbreaks, or lockdowns and closed borders aimed at containing it.

Citizens are advised not to travel at all to Italy.

In Europe, the DFA had earlier advised against non-essential travel to Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Malta and Slovakia (click links for country advice) as coronavirus-related travel restrictions mount.

Anyone coming into Ireland will be asked to restrict their movement for 14 days..

The US has extended an original travel ban for 26 countries in the Schengen Area to the UK and Ireland. The ban won't apply to US citizens, green card holders or their immediate family members.

Irish citizens should also "avoid non-essential travel" to China, Iran and Morocco, the DFA says, and a wave of new advisories has now been issued for Latin and Central America as countries there move to curb travel from Europe.

You should now avoid non-essential travel to the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Peru among other countries.

In Asia, avoid non-essential travel to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

In other news, Norway closed all borders, airports and ports, while Malta has said that all passengers arriving by air or by sea are obliged to undertake a 14 day period of mandatory quarantine, including fines of €1,000 for every breach.

New Zealand and Australia are requiring almost all travellers entering the country to self-isolate for 14 days. Cruise ships from foreign ports have been banned from docking for at least 30 days.

In India, the government has announced that visas for all nationalities would be suspended until April 15, due to the coronavirus. All non-Indian citizens will not be allowed entry.

The DFA has already advised travellers to "exercise a high degree of caution" in South Korea, which is also battling an outbreak, and advises against "all but essential travel" in affected zones Daegu and Cheongdo.

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Travelers queue at a departures terminal in Barcelona on March 14, 2020. Photo by Adria Salido Zarco/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Travelers queue at a departures terminal in Barcelona on March 14, 2020. Photo by Adria Salido Zarco/NurPhoto via Getty Images

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Travelers queue at a departures terminal in Barcelona on March 14, 2020. Photo by Adria Salido Zarco/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ireland's list of at-risk countries also includes Singapore and Hong Kong.

This advice is changing rapidly as the virus spreads.

Are flights operating as normal?

No. Airlines are now under siege.

Ryanair expects to ground most of its 450+ planes by March 24, and Michael O'Leary has warned that a full grounding of the fleet “cannot be ruled out”.

Disruption to US and European schedules is unfolding as airlines scramble to deal with the coronavirus carnage.

SAS has suspended operations, American Airlines grounded 75pc of international routes until May, and IAG will reduce capacity "by at least 75 per cent" in April and May. Talk of multi-billion euro bailouts has begun... and that's just the latest news.

“We expect demand to remain weak until well into the summer", IAG chief Willie Walsh has said.

In the meantime, Aer Lingus and Ryanair have moved to waive their flight change fees for certain bookings (fare differences may apply). See a list of airlines waiving change fees here. Aer Lingus has also now requested that only customers due to fly with the airline within the next 72 hours contact its call centre, due to unprecedented demand.

Both airlines say they will contact affected passengers, continue to monitor the situation, and liaise with the DFA, other governments, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and EASA.

I'm nervous. Should I travel?

Following government advice, not until March 29 at the earliest - unless it is essential.

As The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, made clear in an address to the nation on St Patrick's Day, the Covid-19 crisis will go on long beyond that date, possibly into the summer months.

Beyond this stark new reality, there's no one-size-fits-all answer.

If the DFA advises against travel to your destination, then you should consider cancelling your trip. Otherwise, there is no official advice not to go, but the situation is changing extremely quickly.

Decisions like this come down to individual comfort levels. It's natural to feel a bit worried... but stay calm and don't rush a decision. If you still have time before your trip, wait and see how events unfold.

The Irish Travel Agents' Association (ITAA) has called for the public to "be pragmatic" about their holiday bookings.

“Our advice is to speak to your travel agent and get good advice from the experts," says John Spollen, ITAA President. "Members are monitoring what is a fluid situation on behalf of their clients on a day to day, hour by hour basis."

Remember that travel agents and airline staff are under extreme stress, and are anxious about their families too. If you are not due to travel in the coming days, consider waiting a while before making contact.

You can download TravelWise, the DFA's free smartphone app, on the Apple or Google Play stores, and set an alert for the country you are visiting to receive significant updates direct to your phone.

If coronavirus affects my trip, can I get a refund?

If the DFA issues a warning to "avoid non-essential travel" to an area (as it has done for Spain, for instance), or a "do not travel" alert, then you should be eligible for refunds or re-bookings.

In the first instance, contact your travel provider (i.e. airline or tour operator) to see what costs you can reclaim for trips that have been cancelled or curtailed.

If you booked separate accommodation yourself (i.e. not through a licensed and bonded travel agent) then you will need to check the T&Cs, or look to your travel insurance (see below) to recover money.

If I cancel my holiday, can I get a refund?

If you cancel or cut short a trip because you feel uncomfortable about travelling to an area, and the DFA has not issued a warning about that area, then you are likely to lose your deposit or payment.

If you are worried about travel, contact your tour operator or travel agent and ask if you can change or defer your plans - they are not obliged to, but Irish agents have a history of being helpful in stressful situations and airlines, cruise lines and tour operators are offering unprecedented levels of flexibility on bookings at the moment.

Airlines have also waived change fees.

If you are not due to travel in the ban periods now in place for Covid-19, my advice is to wait for now. The ban periods are likely to be extended, which may give you more rights and eligibility for refunds if you cancel at that point.

What if my airline cancels the flight?

If your flight is cancelled for any reason, and regardless of when you are notified, your airline must offer you the choice between:

1) Re-routing as soon as possible, subject to availability, free of charge.

2) Re-routing at a later date.

3) A full refund.

You may also have certain assistance and compensation rights. See here for a full list, or check flightrights.ie.

What will my travel insurance cover?

If the DFA declares a no-go area, or advises against "non-essential travel" to a destination, your first recourse for refunds or re-bookings should be your airline or travel agent.

Travel insurers may provide compensation for money lost on hotels or other bookings, but only if you cancel or cut short travel plans to areas the DFA advises against. They will not provide cover if you simply don't want to travel.

As a general rule, it's a good idea to check that government travel advice changes are included in your policy, and that you have 'Travel Disruption' cover to help recoup from cancellations in events like this (as well as strikes and terror attacks etc.).

"Travel Disruption is an additional cover and must be purchased in advance of any public announcement prohibiting travel to the area you are travelling to," explains Ciaran Mulligan of Blue Insurance and MultiTrip.com.

Note that there is a moratorium (typically around seven days) on this additional cover from the date you add it. If you buy it today, for example, it will only kick in a week down the line.

Is this a good time to buy travel insurance?

Yes - if you don't have an annual, multi-trip policy, take the opportunity to get one.

Even if your summer holiday is unaffected now, it may not remain so. There is also a strong likelihood that Covid-19 may be excluded on future policies.

One Irish insurer, Blue Insurance, reported a jump of 425pc in new policy purchases on one day in late February, compared with the same day last year, as a result of the outbreak.

It also saw a rise of 1,400pc in people adding Travel Disruption Cover to their policy.

Bear moratoriums in mind, however, read T&Cs, and make sure there is a “Government Travel Advice” benefit on the policy (which allows cancellation cover if DFA travel advisories change), and remember that travel insurance will most likely NOT cover you if you go to a destination to which the government has advised against travel.

Also, check that you have up-to-date European Health Insurance (EHIC) cards for your family.

Can my credit card help?

If you booked your flights or holiday using a card, you may be able to have pre-paid purchases reimbursed, but terms & conditions will apply.

As a rule, credit cards tend to offer more protections than debit cards.

Will travel insurance cover me for medical expenses if I contract coronavirus overseas?

"Providing the customer is not travelling to an area where the FCO/DFA have advised against “All but Essential travel”, then the customer would have cover for medical expenses if they were to travel and contract coronavirus while abroad," Ciaran Mulligan says.

"If the customer decides to travel against the advice of the FCO/DFA, there will be no cover in place as the policy would exclude any travel to an area where the DFA have advised against all but essential travel."

"In all instances, customers should contact their airline and/or booking agent if they have any concerns around the area they are travelling to, as if travel advice changes then it is likely that the airline or agent will offer to reschedule/refund their trip."

"All customers would need to go down this route before a claim will be considered."

What other precautions can I take?

Travellers can reduce the risk of respiratory infections by:

  • Avoiding close contact (2m) with people suffering from acute respiratory infections
  • Frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment
  • Practicing good cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands)

  • Avoiding close contact with live or dead farm or wild animals

Find the HSE's health-related information on the coronavirus here.

The DFA's dedicated coronavirus help line is on +353 (0)1 613 1733.

NB: This story is being updated as events unfold.

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