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Coming and Going: Swine Flu FAQ

Sunday, May 3, 2009

SWINE FLU
A Q&A for Travelers

The government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising people to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico, but at press time Thursday night, flights were still operating, the borders remained open and vacationers were left to decide whether to cancel that long-awaited trip. The call is still yours, but the path may seem simpler with CoGo's examination of the issues.

Are there parts of Mexico that are safe? For example, I understand that no residents of the Cancun area have been infected with the swine flu virus, yet young people from the United States who were there on spring break are infected. How could that be, and should I go?

Mexico's most popular tourism spots have had relatively few cases of swine flu.

Several have been reported in Veracruz, Acapulco and Baja California, near San Diego. As of April 30, the state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun, Riviera Maya and Cozumel and is more than 1,000 miles from the flu's epicenter in Mexico City, had had no reported cases of the disease. But several U.S. residents who recently visited the region have come down with swine flu.

Daniel Hoffman, co-director of the Emerging Infections Diseases program at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, said it's possible that the U.S. travelers picked up the illness on airplanes.

"Traveling is the bigger risk," Hoffman said. "The U.S. cases involved air travel, so speculation is that the illness was picked up during flights."

Hoffman said he would not cancel a trip to Cancun or Cozumel, but he would pack antiviral medicine, alcohol sanitizers and masks. (Antiviral medications must be prescribed by a physician.)

"This is an exercise in risk management," Hoffman said. "I would not go to Mexico City and ride the subway right now. If I had a vacation to Cancun, I would go, but I would take precautions."

Mexico's Ministry of Health has set up checkpoints at airports, cruise and bus terminals and hotels to identify those who show signs of illness.

I have decided that I don't want to go under any circumstances. Will I have to pay a penalty fee when I cancel my trip?

Probably not. Most airlines, including American, Continental, US Airways and United, have waived their strict penalty fees. But each one has different restrictions and requirements. For example, on American, you must have bought your ticket on or before April 24 to qualify, while on US Airways, you are being given only a month-long window around your travel dates to change your flight arrangements.

Most major hotels, including Hyatt, Marriott and Intercontinental, and many travel agencies, including Apple Vacations, Funjet Vacations and GoGo Worldwide Vacations, are also waiving penalties. But again, restrictions vary, so you need to check with your travel provider.

It's common for airlines and travel agencies to extend dates as the crisis continues. For example, we received a frantic e-mail from a reader who wanted to cancel a trip scheduled to depart May 10 but was told he would have to pay a $250 fee because the penalty waiver applied only to travel through May 6. But within a few hours, the travel date was extended through May 13, so he was off the hook. Be patient. Unless the crisis passes, dates probably will be extended.

I bought travel insurance for my trip, but my brother didn't. Am I covered in case I cancel or get sick there? Can my brother buy insurance now?

Basic trip coverage won't cover a cancellation. The possibility that you will get sick is not a covered reason. Also, some companies exclude epidemics from coverage.

You might be covered if you bought a policy that includes a "cancel for any reason" clause. But read the fine print. Co-payments are often required when you use such a clause. And you might have to cancel at least two days before departure.

If you get sick while traveling, travel insurance probably will cover your care. However, John W. Cook, president of Quotewright.com, a travel insurance company, warned in an e-mail that "the plans that exclude epidemic would probably not provide coverage if it could be proved that it was the result of an epidemic." Read your policy's fine print.

As for whether your brother can now buy a policy, he has missed that opportunity. Chris Harvey, chief executive of Squaremouth.com, another travel insurance store, said in an e-mail that most policies purchased after April 24 exclude swine flu. "After that date, forget it," Harvey said. "The swine flu was already deemed a 'known event,' so claims related directly or indirectly to outbreaks in Mexico or anywhere else will be denied."

I'm leaving on a cruise that is supposed to stop in Mexico. Are we still going there? Can I cancel if the cruise line changes my itinerary?

Most of the major lines, including Carnival, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean, have changed their itineraries to avoid Mexican ports. Carnival, the hardest hit of the cruise lines, is offering extra days on some cruises, canceling others and changing itineraries. For example, Carnival cruises departing out of Miami substitute Nassau, Belize, Honduras or Key West, Fla., for Cozumel.

At press time, Carnival was the only line offering a generous policy on cancellation. According to a statement on its Web site, passengers scheduled to depart on any cruise through May 4 that included a call at a Mexican port "may opt to receive a refund in the form of a future cruise credit equal to the full amount paid for the voyage." The credit may be applied to any sailing through 2010. Carnival is also urging passengers who are sailing on cruises after May 4 to check back for updates.

Royal Caribbean told passengers on upcoming Mariner of the Seas cruises from Los Angeles to contact the cruise line or their travel agent for rebooking and compensation options. No compensation or rebooking options were being offered for other ships.

SPORTING NEWS
Ready for the World Cup?

At a news conference Monday, South African Ambassador Welile Nhlapo, soccer star Lucas "The Chief" Radebe, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati and South Africa Tourism official Sthu Zungu all had the same message: South Africa will be ready to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

And the country is getting plenty of trial runs before the soccer fans descend. In June, South Africa will host the FIFA Confederations Cup, which will use five of the 10 stadiums being built or renovated for the 2010 games.

As for whether South Africa's persistent crime problems might affect soccer-loving tourists, Nhlapo pointed out that after the Indian government declined to provide security for this year's Indian Premier League cricket tournament, the games were moved to South Africa. Nhlapo said Monday that the cricket tournament and Confederations Cup "will give us the chance to deal with all sorts of situations, give us time to correct anything that might be needed and provide a secure World Cup."

The World Cup, which is played every four years in different countries, has never before been held in Africa. On the heels of the 15th anniversary of the fall of apartheid, the soccer extravaganza will be a major boost to South Africa's tourism industry, because 350,000 to 400,000 people are expected to make the trip next summer.

The first phase of ticketing ended in mid-April, but the second one begins Monday. Visit http://www.fifa.com for more information.

DEPT. OF EMERGING MARKETS
Moonlight Madness

We might be entering mountain-out-of-molehill territory here, but the travel industry, sorely in need of good news these days, apparently has identified one new source of revenue: gay honeymoons.

"Gay and lesbian newlyweds are saying, 'This is my time,' " says Jeffrey Ward, owner and founder of Savvy Navigator (http://www.savvynavigator.com), a D.C.-based travel agency specializing in a niche market that's growing by the day, thanks to the recent easing of restrictions on gay marriage in states such as Iowa and Vermont.

"Straight couples might spend a lot on that big dress," he says. "But among my people, we see smaller weddings and more spending on honeymoons." And ready to meet their needs is Ward, whose company helps couples and others plan trips to gay-friendly destinations around the globe, among them, well, South Africa (where Ward and his partner spent their honeymoon, in 2004).

"There's such a diversity of offerings," Ward says, "and when they wrote their new constitution, they actually codified equal rights for gays."

Ward says he personally inspects all the properties he books, ensuring that the amenities are customized for his clientele (his and his bathrobes, etc.), and he clearly loves being in the honeymoon business. "That's the one time that couples are willing to completely splurge," he says. "It's an interesting trend, and I'm excited to be a part of it."

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

Delta is offering sale fares on summer flights to Europe. Sale is out of New York's JFK, but tickets from Washington are also lower. For example, round-trip fare from BWI Marshall to Zurich, connecting in New York, starts at $546, including taxes; fare is $440 from New York. Other airlines are charging at least $731 out of Washington and $597 from New York. Travel dates and blackouts vary by city. Book by May 4 at http://www.delta.com, or pay $20 more by calling 800-221-1212.

Reporting: Carol Sottili, Christina Talcott, Scott Vogel

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news and road reports to: cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-912-3609. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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