By Jacob Passy
Airlines have started to provide consumers with flight-change fee waivers and refunds for flights to the Dominican Republic as concerns have mounted following a string of tourist deaths in the Caribbean nation.
But how each airline is handling this situation varies, with some offering waivers to all travelers to the Dominican Republic and others handling the concerns on a case-by-case basis.
There’s still a lot of ambiguity around these cancelations. “We expect more clarity in the coming days — and more airlines to follow suit,” said Tracy Stewart, content editor at travel website Airfarewatchdog.com /zigman2/quotes/206118480/composite TRIP +0.03% .
Since April, nine American tourists have died after falling ill while vacationing at resorts in the Dominican Republic, and many more have reported becoming gravely sick during their trips. The State Department has said that it has not noted an unusual uptick in deaths in the Caribbean country.
Nevertheless, there were similarities in the circumstances around some of the deaths, leading some to think that the individuals may have been poisoned. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has sent agents to the island to investigate these claims.
‘Fear of traveling to a destination is never a covered reason under a travel insurance policy to cancel your trip.’
—Jenna Hummer, director of public relations at Squaremouth
Delta Air Lines /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL -0.39% is waiving flight-change fees for consumers looking to reschedule itineraries to Punta Cana. The original travel dates must be between June 21 and Aug. 15, and the ticket must be reissued for travel on or before Nov. 20 to the Dominican Republic. Only customers who had originally booked their flights on or before June 21 are eligible.
That said, they may face additional charges due to differences in fares.
Consumers also have the option to cancel their trip and use the value of the ticket toward the purchase of a new fare up to one year after they initially booked their travel. However, they will be expected to pay change fees and the difference in fares if they choose this option.
A spokesman for Spirit Airlines /zigman2/quotes/205782179/composite SAVE -1.57% said the company is working with customers looking to adjust travel plans to the Dominican Republic by providing a “credit shell,” or voucher, which can be used for future travel. The airline also isn’t charging change fees.
American Airlines /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL -2.96% United Airlines /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL -1.78% , and Sun Country Airlines /zigman2/quotes/203829595/composite APO -0.17% will review customer requests to change or cancel Dominican Republic itineraries on a case-by-case basis. A spokesperson for Sun Country said that if the airline decides to allow consumers to switch their flight to another destination it will waive change fees, but differences in fares would still apply.
A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -0.97% noted that while the company does not have a specific policy regarding travel to the Dominican Republic, it will work with consumers to address their concerns.
Southwest passengers are always free “to cancel, move, change their plans” within a year of their original booking, the spokeswoman said.
Don’t expect trip insurance to cover a canceled trip to the Dominican Republic
Those who are unable to obtain a fee waiver or refund shouldn’t necessarily expect travel insurance to be of assistance in this case.
While the U.S. government has issued an advisory regarding travel to the Dominican Republic, that is not a qualifying event for cancelling trips under standard travel insurance policies, said Jenna Hummer, director of public relations at Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison website.
“Most travel insurance policies do not cover trip cancellations in response to a travel alert or travel warning, unless they are related to a specific policy benefit, such as terrorism or inclement weather,” Hummer said. “Additionally, fear of traveling to a destination is never a covered reason under a travel insurance policy to cancel your trip.”
However, an upgrade policy allows cancellations for any reason. Squaremouth has seen a 113% increase in the number of travelers purchasing this upgrade for upcoming trips to the Dominican Republic since tourist deaths began attracting headlines in April.
Consumers may also want to consider buying a travel insurance policy that comes with emergency medical coverage to prevent against exorbitant out-of-cost expenses.
Consumers should change their travel plans ASAP
Consumers looking to cancel or reschedule trips to the Dominican Republic should consider doing so as soon as possible, said Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and travel writer.
Airlines are inclined to assist passengers, Elliott said, because they want to avoid the negative publicity.
However, Elliott argued that traveling to the Dominican Republic is generally safe regardless of the high-profile instances of travelers dying or falling ill while on vacation.
Consequently, airlines may stop issuing refunds or fee waivers once the situation has moved out of the public.
“If you think you want to cancel, do it now,” he said. “These waivers don’t last forever.”
The Dow Jones U.S. Airlines Index /zigman2/quotes/210598990/realtime XX:DJUSAR -1.14% is up 8.30% over the last three months. Comparatively, the Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA -0.09% and the S&P 500 /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +0.18% are only up 3.26% and 3.93% respectively.