Karshni Kharbanda, based in Prague, capital city of the Czech Republic, sums up the problem that has hit travellers around the globe following the outbreak of Covid-19 or Coronavirus. Her family had planned a ski trip to the Alps and were scheduled to visit Budapest and Italy. “With the number of cases skyrocketing in Europe, we decided to cancel the trip,” said Karshni. “We cannot afford to chill when our lives and that of others around us are at stake.” Although they lost the money paid for the airline tickets, they thought it prudent to cancel. “We are under nation-wide quarantine with heavy fines (and even jail) if found to be loitering in public spaces. We are all staying at home."
With health and travel advisories being issued by governments at home and abroad, with cities under lock down, non-essential travel being discouraged, borders closing, airline companies cancelling flights indefinitely, travelling for leisure or business has been affected badly. The travel industry is still in deep waters trying to figure out how to deal with this extraordinary situation.
We spoke to a few travellers who were midway into their bookings or had to cancel their trips after spending money on airline tickets, visa, travel insurance, and accommodation.
Travellers such as Kolkata-based chartered accountant Anirban Ganguly, are in limbo. He had paid the first instalment to MakeMyTrip for a scheduled tour in early May to Holland, France and Switzerland. But after taking into account all the travel advisories issued at home and abroad and without any sign of the virus being contained, Anirban is not sure whether to reschedule the trip or cancel it.
For Mumbai-based Gazanfar Ibrahim, travel industry member as well as enthusiast, the problem is that of time and monetary loss. “We (Gazanfar, his wife and two children) were scheduled to travel to the UK for a week starting April 2,” he said. “We were looking forward to this family trip as after this, my daughter will take up an assignment post and my son will start college. So family trips will become rare. We booked the air tickets in January. Got the visas about 10 days back (around March 7).” But with the Indian government issuing restrictions on passengers travelling from UK to India, the family has finally decided to cancel the trip rather than take risks. They are yet to hear from their travel agent about the tickets booked on Etihad Airways. “Perhaps we will not get a full refund,” fears Gazanfar. While they stand to forfeit the visa and travel agency fees, they are hopeful that with the visa remaining valid for the next six months, they may be able to travel sometime soon, provided things return to normal.
Long before the outbreak, Kolkata-based lawyer Amrita Mukherjee and her husband had planned a vacation in Italy. They were scheduled to travel on March 28. When the news of the virus broke, they decided to postpone the trip to June. But with the health situation worsening in Italy and the rest of the world, they refrained from postponing, and decided to cancel it. They had already paid for the visa, airlines tickets and hotel accommodation. With a few things working in their favour, Amrita could cut down on her losses.
“A prompt decision in the first week of March helped us cancel the hotels well within time and so we did not lose our money there,” said Amrita. “Then MakeMyTrip informed us that Kuwait Airways had cancelled the flight that we were to take and therefore we would get a full refund. But it would take a minimum of 15 days. But we lost out on the amount paid for the visa and the travel insurance.”
“MakeMyTrip has advised us to postpone the trip to later in the year and has promised to hold the booking amount for us,” he said. “But without any clarity on the containment of the viral outbreak, we are not able to plan further. The travel agency has cancelled its April bookings, in which case they are providing a full refund. But at the moment there is no such facility available for us.”
Not everybone has been as lucky as Amrita.
Kirti Poonia, who runs an ethical fashion brand called Okhai, was scheduled to visit South Africa with her husband for a close friend’s wedding and then take a trip down the Garden Route, said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. They had paid for the air tickets, visas, the car, and two Airbnb accommodation options. But following the coronavirus outbreak and health and travel advisories, they decided to cancel the trip.
“We checked on the refund we would get and realised we would lose a lot of money,” said Kirti. However, considering the situation, they felt it was the most responsible thing to do.
“We are not afraid of the virus itself. We are both healthy. But we are afraid of being carriers and impacting those who are immuno-compromised. We wanted to do our bit for the community and country. It was our responsibility to cancel and stay in,” she added.
“Airbnb was easy to cancel, in a click of a button I got 100 per cent money back, even though that was not the policy when I booked the places. Their act of kindness will forever be appreciated,” said Kirti.
But they faced problems while cancelling the air tickets. “I am still trying,” said Kirti. “They are Emirates tickets booked on MakeMyTrip. They have not adjusted the policies to the coronavirus situation yet (as of March 16). I can understand they are overloaded with calls right now and I have not even been able to reach them to cancel.”
Kirti and her husband have cancelled their trip but not dumped their dream. They expect to travel to South Africa in the near future when the ‘weather is nice’, and, given a chance, spend New Year’s Eve atop Table Mountain.
Aniruddha Sen Gupta, Goa-based writer and graphic designer, too had a similar story to tell. Aniruddha, his wife Anjali, and four of their friends were scheduled to travel to Vietnam on March 16 this year for a fortnight. They had been planning and looking forward to the trip for several months. “I am a little obsessive when planning trips,” he said, “so I had booked accommodation in five locations across the country, as well as train and flight tickets for travel within Vietnam.” But as news of the virus spread across the world and the number of people affected increased, they had to take a final call.
“We had the conversation among ourselves on Thursday, the 12th, the day the government announced its new policy, which included the possibility of quarantines for returning travellers. It was a decision taken with heavy hearts -- we had got our visas only a couple of days earlier, and organised foreign exchange just the day before,” said Aniruddha.
“Vietnam, in fact, has been internationally praised for the quality of its response to Covid-19,” he said. “We had been tracking the course of the disease there ever since the crisis began, and knew that it was being handled really well. But about 10 days ago, it had a sudden spike in cases (it went up from 16 cases, all of which had been closed, to 30). All because of one person who returned from a trip to Europe with the virus, from whom it had been passed on to family members, her domestic staff, and other passengers on the flight she took. A friend of ours was, coincidentally, travelling in Vietnam at the time, and he told us that after the new lot of cases, the country had started shutting down many of its tourist-oriented shows and sites. That was also a disincentive that played a role in our decision to scrap our trip.”
The decision to cancel the trip meant cancelling or trying to cancel the various bookings. Although people such as Aniruddha are aware of the dilemma faced by the travel industry, lack of clarity has also left them in a quandary about some of the refunds.
“We live in Goa, and were due to fly to Hanoi through Kolkata. This involved SpiceJet flights (via Mumbai) to Kolkata, Indigo from Kolkata to Hanoi and back, and GoAir on the way back from Kolkata to Goa. SpiceJet has said they will levy cancellation charges, which can be quite substantial. Indigo has promised a full refund. With GoAir, we were lucky that they had themselves cancelled the flight, so we are getting a full refund there as well. Even with the Indian airlines, it was quite difficult to get through to their customer service to request full refunds, which at least Indigo had announced. But it's understandable, given that they must have had a massive burden of cancellations and rescheduling once the government advisory was released."
Within Vietnam, they had booked a couple of flights on VietJet Airlines, which were non-refundable. "We have not been able to get through to them at all, and their site doesn't even allow for cancelling bookings, so that's a total write-off. Two rail journeys within Vietnam have also entailed regular cancellation fees that are quite significant (20+ per cent of ticket costs)."
Regarding accommodation, Airbnb offered them full refunds, barring some minor fees in a couple of cases. Three reservations made through Booking.com were on a pay-when-you-stay basis, so there were no charges for cancelling those. "Our potential hosts in all those cases have been very gracious and understanding, and we have received messages of commiseration and invites to return whenever the going is good. Two bookings made through Agoda.com have not been as flexible. While one has offered most of the money back (some of it however in 'Agoda cash', redeemable only on their site), one -- the Ambassador Saigon Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City -- has stuck to its guns on its no-cancellation policy, which means a complete loss on that one.”
While the group is sure that they will undertake the trip, it was heartrending to find their months of preparation coming to nought. So Aniruddha, Anjali and a few friends decided to drive to a nearby beach resort in Vengurla across the Maharashtra border, with their pet dogs, trying to downplay their sadness by romping in the sea with the dogs and watching the sun go down.
People are not only cancelling trips abroad but within the country too. Even business travel has been affected.
Pramit Gangh, from Karimganj in Assam, is a businessman handling manufacturing, marketing and trading of tea and safety matches. “I was planning on travelling to Delhi to complete some paper work for some expansion plans for my tea trading business there,” said Pramit. “But due to the outbreak and the subsequent panic, I had to cancel the plan. Most of my business plans are stuck as a result and the worst part is that nobody knows when this outbreak will be contained."
He also said that though markets remain open, not many customers are around. Hence he expects sales and financial commitments to be affected, including unwarranted changes in plans. “It is like a domino effect on the business, if one block falls, the rest will fall one after one,” he said.
New Delhi based Anisha Joneja, a student, loves to explore new places and ideas and you'll often find her bingeing either on shows or food. An intrepid traveller like her had to cancel her upcoming trip to Pushkar in Rajasthan scheduled for the Holi weekend.
“We were a large group, consisting of 15 university students,” said Anisha, “We decided to book a bus to travel instead of flying as we wanted to save costs.” They had made all travel arrangements through an agency. So initially the students thought they would be safe as they were not passing through any airport. But eventually, realising the gravity of the situation, they decided to cancel the trip. “We were going via Jaipur and Ajmer and the growing paranoia about the increasing cases of Covid-19 made us reconsider travelling,” she said.
“We were told a refund of 30-40 per cent would be given but that hasn't happened yet,” said Anisha. “But we were also assured that if we plan a trip with them in the future, then we would be offered a discounted rate. To be fair, the trip guidelines did say we would not get a refund if we cancel a week/10 days before the commencement o journey and we cancelled just a few days before the trip,” she said.
Probably Aniruddha summed up the situation best. “This is such an unprecedented situation that it's impossible to envisage what the future might hold,” he concluded. “The scale of the ramifications is becoming clearer and clearer every day. Hollywood-style post-apocalyptic scenarios loom large in the imagination. One wonders when, and even if, life will return to 'business as usual' after this situation eases off. Let's see when international travel becomes possible again.”