Pandemics and Travel Disruptions: Which companies have your back?

By Charleen - March 14, 2020

The past five days has been crazy. With colleges sending their students home (plus Daylight Saving time, full moons and Friday the 13th), we've spent long hours on hold cancelling Spring Break family vacation plans while driving a 28 h round trip to get our freshman home. Having to deal with 4 airlines, 10 flights (both kids had circle trips involving different cities), rental minivan, two hotels, and round trip tickets to two cancelled work meetings, it has become very clear which airlines we will be using in the future!

The airline winner: Delta Airlines.

Over the years, we had already found ourselves leaning towards Delta Airlines. This was partly because of the ease of searching for flights using dollars, frequent flier miles or a combination of miles + dollars on their website. We also liked the Delta app with its ability to follow the progress of your checked luggage to see if it made the airplane on tight connections.  It is nicer to have time to be mentally prepared in the event of a luggage separation, or reassured that things will go smoothly in baggage claim at the other end. 

Despite having bought all non-refundable tickets, we were able to get 100% of the price paid as a refund in the case of one round trip ticket, or a credit that can be used within one year by May 31, 2022 in the case of 5 other one way flight segments. All it took was about an hour on hold, and the agent was willing to work on our adult kids' itineraries in the same phone call. When we explained the trip was canceled due to coronavirus-related college closures, they took care of it and sent email confirmations with instructions on how to use the credits in the future.

To get the change fee waived, we will have to call the reservation in, as opposed to doing it online.

UPDATE: On April 3, 2020, Delta sent out an email informing us that we will have until May 31, 2022 to use the credit, and they are updating their website to show this extended expiration date.

The airline runner up: Spirit Airlines.

Spirit Airlines is designed for bare bones travel. They do not offer as many flights as other airlines, but do offer particularly useful non-stop flights that include mid-sized destinations. You have to pay for your overhead storage space separately, as only a small backpack or laptop bag is included. Moreover, you get the best rates for planning ahead and buying this space at the time of the online booking. For regular cancellations, the fee is $90/ticket if you do it online, and $100 if you call it in or cancel at the airport. Checking in online and getting your boarding pass using their app is free, with a small charge if you want to print it at the airport. 

With that background, and the poor response I had already received from American (see below), I was not expecting much. Of all the companies we had to deal with, it was the hardest to get through to speak to an agent (or even to text or chat). So I was very pleasantly surprised, when I did get through after holding for 35-40 minutes from 7:15 am, to get the entire price paid as a credit, including the overhead bin space and advance seat assignment fees.  This credit has to be reticketed within six 12 months, but you can fly up to a year afterwards.
While the time is shorter, any one of the three of us in the itinerary would be able to use the credit. Moreover, we can enter a code and view or use the credit online.  

To top it off, after realizing their phone and text systems were both overwhelmed on Weds evening, they developed a mechanism to prioritize those with flights occurring within 24 h, followed by a special website to handle corona-virus related changes and credits for the rest of us.  And yes, they did get back to me by text to let me know about the new link on Friday morning.

UPDATE: In January 2021, I checked to see if there was any chance my credit was still there. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had extended the ticketing deadline to March 2021, with the flight having to be completed by May 31, 2021.

Not recommended: American Airlines, United Airlines, Avis

These three companies all sent out very misleading emails designed to give the impression they were making special provisions to accommodate passengers for COVID-19 related changes. But after sitting on hold for over an hour with each one, we were stuck with the usual cancellation/change fees due to narrow and technical interpretations of what type of changes are related to COVID-19.

In short, American and United said that COVID-related waivers are not applicable because: 1) the US government has not banned domestic travel to the US city in question, 2) we bought our tickets before March 5 at 9 am, and 3) university closures and meeting cancellations don't count as situations out of our control. To make things worse, their policies are to issue full credit, and then charge the change fee of $200 for American or $100 for United at the time the new ticket is purchased rather than deducting it at the time of cancellation.

Avis charged a $50 cancellation fee, again indicating the fee waivers will only apply if the US government bans domestic flights.

On March 31, 2021 I received an email from American with a link to their revised COVID policy indicating:
If you:
  • Bought your ticket before March 1, 2020, for travel through May 31, 2020, you can rebook without change fees.
  • Booked your trip March 1 – April 30, 2020, for all future travel, you can also change your reservation at a later date without change fees.
    Although United did not send a message, I checked their COVID policy page and noted:
  • If you're scheduled to travel March 10 – April 30, 2020 and would like to change your plans, there is no fee to do so, regardless of when you purchased your ticket or where you're traveling. This is in addition to our previous waiver, which waives all change fees – domestic and international – for tickets purchased March 3 – March 31, 2020.
  • For more information visit
Interestingly, this was dated March 10, prior to when we called to cancel our tickets on March 13, but the agents did not seem to know about the policy and informed us usual change fees would apply.

UPDATE 2: In March 2022, I received an email from American that they had extended my unused flight credit to be valid for ticketing until Sept. 30, 2022 for travel through December 2022. This was a smart strategy, as I had resigned myself to losing that money as I did not plan to fly American anymore. The process of using the flight credit in July 2022 was very straightforward on their website, but I ended up calling the agent, because I was booking flights for both myself and my husband and the flight credit could only be used to support my travel. I was pleasantly surprised when the balance (my new flight was less expensive than the flight affected by COVID), was issued as a new flight credit expiring in July 2023, and the agent automatically applied that second credit to my husband's flight. 

Travel insurance?  Useless.

I have always been suspicious of travel insurance, because if you read the fine print, so many situations that might come up are excluded. One of my flights was bought with a credit card that offered Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance.  After sitting on hold with the credit card number, the first agent heard my situation and confirmed that the cancellation fee losses should be covered. She transferred me to a second agent, after an even longer hold, who asked a few more screening questions and also thought it was clearly a covered cancellation for a situation that I had no control over. He tried to transfer me to a third person for filing the claim, but I ended up in a phone tag situation over 3 days. When I finally got through to her, she said, "We don't cover any coronavirus-related interruptions." I asked her how they could have possibly known about the coronavirus at the time the policy was issued to cardholders. She replied, "We don't cover anything related to viruses."  Yet, the policy clearly states that interruptions due to illness, which may certainly be viral in nature, are covered.

🐾 Quick reference. Delta Customer Service 800-221-1212. Listen to recording for the number to call for cancellations.
🐾 Calling early in the morning was key to getting through to Spirit Airlines. The airline has now set up an online option for coronavirus-related changes, which should speed things up dramatically.  801-401-2222 (phone or WhatsApp); text 487-63. 
🐾 With American, you can put your preferred flights on a 24 h hold, which saves the price and seat assignments. Then you can call them if you want to pay through a mixture of flight credits and other mechanisms.


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