What To Do If You've Booked Flights To China

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Novel coronavirus has broken out in China and has spread to other countries around the world. With the virus' rising potential as a global pandemic, Australian authorities are now urging anyone with travel plans to the country to reconsider the need to visit. Here's what you need to know.

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Why should I change travel plans?

While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has resisted calls to issue travel advisories for people heading to the Wuhan region, the epicentre of novel coronavirus, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Travel (DFAT) has now updated its advice.

On 29 January, the Foreign Minister Marise Payne tweeted that DFAT had changed its advice for Australians wishing to travel to China in the foreseeable future. DFAT's Smartraveller now advises Australians to reconsider the need to travel.

"Due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus we now advise you 'reconsider your need to travel' to China overall and 'do not travel' to Hubei Province," Smartraveller's travel advice for China reads.

"Chinese authorities have restricted travel for parts of the country and may extend these restrictions at short notice. Travellers may be quarantined, due to their health condition or previous location. If you or someone you know is in China and needs assistance, contact +61 2 6261 3305 from overseas or 1300 555 135 from within Australia."

So, can I get a refund for my flights?

Qantas is the only airline to operate flights to cities in China's mainland while Virgin Australia offer flights to Hong Kong.

"We have a waiver in place for customers who are able to re-book to an alternative Qantas services, retain the value of their ticket in credit or apply for a full refund of the ticket cost," a Qantas spokesperson told Lifehacker Australia.

"These options are available to Qantas customers holding a valid (081) ticket issued on/before 24 January 2020 for travel to/from China and for domestic Australia and trans-Tasman travel for passengers travelling to/originating from China on/after 24 January 2020 and on/before 29 February 2020."

Virgin Australia doesn't operate direct flights to China's mainland but has a single daily flight to Hong Kong, where eight cases have been confirmed. It told us no flights have been cancelled but a commercial policy applies to any customers affected.

"Virgin Australia operates one daily flight between Sydney and Hong Kong. Since the initial detection of the 2019 novel coronavirus, no Virgin Australia-operated flights have been cancelled as a result. We have a commercial policy in place for any guest travelling to and from, or transiting through mainland China including informal connectors on other airlines, as well as our codeshare partners who operate to and from mainland China," a Virgin spokesperson said to us.

"We are closely following all advice received from Australian medical authorities, as well as the World Health Organisation, regarding precautions that are needed to minimise risks concerned with the 2019 novel coronavirus. We are regularly reviewing the information provided to us from health authorities and will update procedures as needed."

This commercial policy allows customers to adjust their bookings to a later date within 30 days of the original flight with fare differences waived or instead receive a full refund.

As for other airlines, like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern and China Southern, it really comes down to policy. It's best to get in contact with your flight operator to see what your options are and whether you'll be able to delay your flights to a later date or get a refund.

What does my travel insurance cover my costs?

While it seems like something that should probably be covered, not all travel insurance options offer coverage for pandemics. According to a CHOICE guide on Smartraveller's site, pandemics are often one of the things excluded in plans and you're unlikely to notice because, well, they're not that common. If you've already bought your travel insurance for an upcoming trip to China, read your travel documents and check for what your options are in the cases of a pandemic or disease breaking out. There may be differences between if the pandemic breaks out before you arrive forcing you to change plans or what happens if it breaks out while you're there.

If you haven't gotten travel insurance yet, it's a good thing to look out for. If China is your destination, consider whether you need to go right now and if you do, make sure your travel insurance option covers it. If you're going elsewhere in the world, it's still a good idea to make sure it's included given the spread of the virus is expected to continue rising.

Should I just delay my plans?

As mentioned above, Qantas is giving affected customers the option to get credit, which can be put toward flights later in the year. If you still need to travel to the region but the visit isn't urgent, it's best to delay your plans as the severity of the situation is still unfolding. With areas of China being completely locked down, a trip at this time, especially if it's just for leisure, isn't advised.

Correction: The original article wrote stated Tigerair Australia operated flights to China. This is incorrect and we've updated the article to reflect this.

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