How to change or cancel travel to China due to the coronavirus

Even if you've made non-refundable bookings, you may be able to get your money back on unused flights and hotels: here's how.

By Chris Chamberlin, February 5 2020
How to change or cancel travel to China due to the coronavirus

The impact of the coronavirus has seen airlines cancelling flights, countries closing their borders to some travellers, and an outright warning of “do not travel” now in place for China from the Australian Government.

While this on its own is having a significant impact on business travel, it's also making many people rethink their near-future plans to visit China.

For example, if you're booked on a flight some months away that's not been cancelled, what are your options for changing your Chinese business trip, or abandoning it completely in the hope of a refund? And, what about journeys to Hong Kong – a Special Administrative Region of China – where the Australian Government’s travel warning hasn’t changed, at least at the time of writing?

Here’s what you need to know, and the steps you can follow, if you decide to change or cancel your upcoming trip to mainland China or Hong Kong.

DFAT’s “do not travel” warning for China

“Do not travel” is the highest and most severe travel warning that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) can issue, reserved only for the countries which present the highest risk.

For example, countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen have long been classified “do not travel”, whereas most parts of China maintained DFAT’s lowest level of caution – “exercise normal safety precautions” – until the coronavirus outbreak.

Initially, the recent escalation of China to “do not travel” applied only to the country’s Hubei province, home to Wuhan where the coronavirus is believed to have originated, but this advice has since been extended to cover all of mainland China.

Do not travel to China, warns Smartraveller.. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia
Do not travel to China, warns Smartraveller.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

China’s Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, however, maintain less severe Smartraveller warning levels.

Hong Kong remains at “exercise a high degree of caution” – a level which has been in place since protests in the city intensified in 2019 – while Macau continues to have the most favourable Smartraveller advice level of “exercise normal safety precautions”.

If, after taking the government’s advice into account, you decide to abandon travel to mainland China or Hong Kong even if your flights haven’t been cancelled, here are the four steps you should follow to nix those plans and get your money or frequent flyer points back: and what you can do if that’s not currently an option.

Change or cancel your flights without penalty, if possible

Most major airlines have policies in place allowing for free changes, cancellations and refunds on flights to, from, via or within China, while some extend that favour to Hong Kong flights as well.

Flight changes and cancellations for mainland China

For flights from Australia to China, as well as connecting itineraries which include China – such as to Hong Kong with an onward flight to the mainland – here are your current options for changing and cancelling flights that remain scheduled to operate.

Airline

Booking date

Travel dates

Change flights?

Cancel flights?

Qantas

On or before January 24 2020.

January 24 to March 31 2020, inclusive.

Yes, no penalty.

Yes, no fees. Choice of full refund or travel credit.

Virgin Australia

Any

Any

Yes, for travel to the same or different destination within 30 days of the original travel date.

Yes, no fees. Choice of full refund or Travel Bank credit.

Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon

On or before February 3 2020.

February 3 to March 31 2020, inclusive.

Yes. New travel dates must be on/before June 30 2020. Fare and tax difference may apply with destination change.

Yes, with any usual cancellation and refund fees waived.

Air China, Beijing Capital, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan, Shanghai Airlines, Sichuan, Tianjin, XiamenAir

On or before January 28 2020.

On or after January 28 2020.

Yes, without penalty.

Refund without penalty, but must be requested before the flight’s scheduled departure time.

Virgin Australia's policy for mainland China applies equally to connecting flights via Hong Kong where the leg between Australia and Hong Kong is operated by Virgin Australia, as well as codeshare flights operated by its Chinese partners, such as Brisbane-Shenzhen on Hainan.

The policy for all mainland Chinese airlines is the same as the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has ordered all local airlines to offer fee-free refunds to passengers who booked flights on or before January 28 2020, regardless of travel date.

As many airlines have also cancelled flights to and from China – limiting the number of seats available – the CAAC also asks that passengers “apply for a refund before the flight departure to avoid wasting seats and ensure that passengers who really need it can travel” (statement translated from Chinese).

Passengers wishing to change or cancel their flights should contact their airline or travel agent. To avoid long wait times on the phone, check first to see whether a booking can be amended or cancelled online or via an airline’s app, as some airlines have unlocked these self-serve options for affected passengers.

Passengers with travel plans not covered by the above should try one of the other steps below.

Flight changes and cancellations for Hong Kong

As Hong Kong isn’t subject to the same “do not travel” warning as mainland China, some airlines are adopting different policies with regards to voluntary flight changes and cancellations.

Qantas, for example, has no current fee waiver in place for bookings solely to and from Hong Kong.

Airline

Booking date

Travel dates

Change flights?

Cancel flights?

Qantas

N/A

N/A

Only if permitted by fare rules: no fees waived.

Only if permitted by fare rules: no fees waived.

Virgin Australia

Any

Any

Yes, for travel to the same or different destination within 30 days of the original travel date.

Yes, no fees. Choice of full refund or Travel Bank credit.

Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon

On or before February 4 2020.

February 4 to March 31 2020, inclusive.

Yes. New travel dates must be on/before September 30 2020. Fare and tax difference may apply with destination change.

No: unlike mainland China bookings, cancellation and refund charges are not waived on Hong Kong-only flights.

A Qantas spokesperson confirmed to Executive Traveller that its policy on flight changes and cancellations for Hong Kong has not changed primarily because DFAT’s advice level for Hong Kong has not been heightened since the spread of the coronavirus.

Virgin Australia, on the other hand, confirmed that the same commercial policy as applies for mainland China flights "also applies for guest bound to, from or through Hong Kong," including those flying solely between Sydney and Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific’s policy for Hong Kong includes all flights to, from and via Hong Kong on both Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon, such as Sydney-Hong Kong, Melbourne-Hong Kong-London and more.

Again, passengers not covered by the above should explore all their other options.

Update: Since this article was first published, Cathay Pacific has extended its Hong Kong change waiver through until the end of March, and Qantas has temporarily reduced flights from both Melbourne and Brisbane to Hong Kong, impacting some journeys.

Affected passengers can choose to fly via another Australian city to maintain their originally-booked travel dates, or can choose to change their travel dates onto another Qantas-operated non-stop flight to Hong Kong.

Read: Qantas cuts Hong Kong flights as coronavirus takes hold

Change or cancel your hotel bookings, if possible

Similar to the flexibility shown by airlines for travellers hoping to change their immediate plans, most hotel chains are also waiving fees for those changing or cancelling their bookings across not only mainland China, but Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as well.

Here’s how five major chains in the region are making things easier for travellers changing their plans.

Hotel chain

Destinations covered

Travel dates

Change or cancel?

Accor

Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, plus Taiwan.

Stays on or before February 29 2020.

All change and cancellation costs waived.

Hilton

Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, plus Taiwan.

Stays on or before February 29 2020.

No charges to cancel or rebook.

IHG

Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, plus Taiwan.

Stays on or before February 29 2020.

Change or cancellation permitted without penalty.

Marriott

Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, plus Taiwan.

Stays on or before February 29 2020.

All cancellation fees waived.

Shangri-La

Mainland China and Hong Kong, plus Taiwan.

Stays on or before February 29 2020.

All cancellation charges waived.

In addition to the above, Hilton, IHG and Marriott are also currently waiving change and cancellation fees for guests travelling from Greater China to other destinations.

Changes and cancellations can be made by calling a hotel’s public reservations number, if the cancellation cannot be actioned for free online. Waivers on fees for stays after February 29 2020 are not currently offered by the companies above.

If your trip falls after that date and you’re not otherwise able to cancel the booking, read on.

Check your paid travel insurance policy

If you’re unable to change or cancel your flight and hotel reservations, the next port of call is your travel insurer.

It’s worth noting that what’s covered – and by extension, what isn’t – will vary from one insurer to the next: particularly for ‘change of mind’ cancellations, or where a traveller follows the Australian Government’s “do not travel” advice for China, even if flights aren’t otherwise cancelled.

As well, many policies don’t pay insurance benefits where a disruption is the result of an epidemic or pandemic, or may impose restrictions.

Is the coronavirus an epidemic or a pandemic?

Insurers that exclude or limit cover for epidemics and pandemics will usually define those terms as part of their policies and the circumstances around them.

Travel Insurance Direct (TID), for example, defines ‘epidemic’ as “a sudden development and rapid spreading of a contagious disease in a region where it developed in a simply endemic state or within a previously unscathed community.”

Similarly, ‘pandemic’ “means a form of an epidemic that extends throughout an entire continent, even the entire human race.”

In the same policy documents, TID explains that claims are not paid for "a loss that arises because you did not follow advice in the mass media of a government or other official body’s warning:

  1. against travel to a particular country; or
  2. of a strike, riot, bad weather, civil commotion or contagious disease; or
  3. of a likely or actual epidemic or pandemic; or
  4. of a threat of an epidemic or pandemic that requires the closure of a country’s borders; or
  5. of an epidemic or pandemic that results in you being quarantined;"

Other insurers may apply different definitions and exclusions, so check your policy.

Implications of “do not travel”

Most general travel insurance policies don’t offer cover on trips to destinations zoned as “do not travel” by the Australian Government.

This means that if you choose to travel to China despite the current warning, your travel insurance policy may not cover you, even if your travel arrangements were made before that warning level changed.

In all cases, contact your travel insurer for advice, and to confirm what your specific policy does and doesn’t cover.

Check your credit card travel insurance

Can’t get your money back from an airline or hotel, and can’t make a claim on your standalone travel insurance policy? If you booked your journey using a credit card or charge card, it’s worth checking to see if you’re covered by any travel insurance provided by that card.

For example, when an American Express Platinum Charge Card holder uses that card to book round-trip travel – or spends Membership Rewards points, frequent flyer points or an AMEX Travel Credit – they may be covered by American Express’ travel insurance, underwritten by Chubb.

Consider this a backup to any paid insurance policy, as different policies and insurers cover different things.

AMEX’s policy on journey cancellations, for instance, lists one of the valid reasons for abandoning a trip as being when the Australian Government “advises against all travel to the area you were intending to travel, and this was unforeseen at the time of booking.”

While exclusions and other conditions still apply, claims approved for such a ‘Travel Disruption’ may include reimbursement of non-refundable deposits, unused flight and hotel bookings, travel agent fees and more: but again, contact your insurer to confirm whether you meet a policy’s eligibility criteria, and if so, what that policy does and doesn’t cover relevant to your trip and circumstances.

Still searching for options?

If changing or cancelling your itinerary isn’t covered by any of the current waivers or travel insurance, minimising your losses instead falls to strategy.

For example, let’s say you’d booked flights to Hong Kong for travel in April 2020 with Qantas or Cathay Pacific. After spending some time in Hong Kong, you’d planned to take the High Speed Rail onward to Guangzhou to attend the Canton Fair, and had made non-refundable hotel bookings in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou as part of that trip.

At present, neither Qantas nor Cathay Pacific would grant a free change or refund on those flights, and nor would any of the major hotel brands (unless originally permitted by the booking or fare type), leaving you stuck with bookings you’d perhaps rather cancel.

If you were to cancel them now, you’d be subject to the policies as would usually apply, meaning non-refundable bookings are just that, and any flights purchased on lower-priced inflexible tickets retain those strict terms.

You may also have difficulty claiming that cost on travel insurance – at least, for now – as there’s no guarantee that China will remain a “do not travel” destination on the dates you’d planned to visit, as the current situation may have eased by then.

Rushing to cancel your trip?

Rather than jumping to action and cancelling everything anyway, waiting could instead be a better bet.

If airlines extend their fee waivers to cover your travel dates, and hotels extend their own flexibility for the same, you may then be able to cancel those bookings free-of-charge as part of those waivers, avoiding the significant cost of losing pre-paid deposits, as may happen if you cancel before then.

Similarly, if your travel insurance policy provides cover when a destination is upgraded to “do not travel”, and that advice remains in place closer to departure, you may then be able to claim for any out-of-pocket costs for that trip, which may not have otherwise been payable on bookings many months into the future.

In any case, always contact your travel insurer for advice in advance of any possible claim: they may ask you to cancel your bookings on a certain date if the situation hasn’t improved, and to then recover as much as possible from airlines and hotels before submitting an insurance claim.

As at February 18 2020, the Australian Government continues to advise against all travel to mainland China.

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!

I've found most organisations have been accommodating and happy to amend bookings. Both Qantas booked flights and accommodation in HK have been refunded for no fee, with Qantas even redesigning my itinerary to travel via SIN.

05 Feb 2020

Total posts 1

Hi Chris,

You didn't mention China Airlines - unless I missed it! I cancelled a May Taiwan to Beijing booking with them last night on-line and the system nominated that I will be charged a TWD 3000 fee. It will be interesting to see what eventually appears back on my CC.

Hi Nick, China Airlines wasn't mentioned as it's based in Taiwan rather than mainland China or a Chinese SAR (such as Hong Kong).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Oct 2016

Total posts 114

For what it is worth to the readership I had a Round the World for two of us booked on Qantas Points for May/June, the service centre let me re-book the whole lot without any charges or points penalties excluding an extra $140 for taxes. Now doing RTW Business is hard in the first place but to do it 100 days out through Qantas was the next level of impossible, it took 4 hours on the phone and that was after 6 hours of research (where half the flights that showed up were not available anyway) and includes a nightmare MEL-SYD-HKG-DAC-DOH to start. Still I managed to snag a Q-suite, so can't compalin about that!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Dec 2014

Total posts 151

My dad is booked very early April on China Eastern to London via China; through Qantas on reward points.

They have refused to waive the change fee, or assist in finding new flights. They told me (via Twitter DM) that the are only waiving fees up until 29 February 2020. Presumably the March date above only applies to their own flights, which they have cancelled.

The call centre also told my dad that if he tried to change his outgoing flights, they would also cancel his return leg, which is via Doha.

Incredibly disappointed in Qantas, even more so that China Eastern itself is waiving fees for direct bookings. In comparison, last year I was travelling to London via Hong Kong on Velocity points; Virgin assisted in changing to Etihad to avoid the protests and disruption in Hong Kong.

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

20 Dec 2013

Total posts 31

Norwegian Cruise Line emailed me this morning to advise that the Asia cruise departing HKG and finishing in SIN has been changed. It will now start and finish in SIN. Hmmm! NCL will refund costs associated with the flight changes to SIN but not hotel cancellations which meant I would not be getting a refund on my prepaid two nights in HK. I will call the hotel and plead my case. The good news? I get a 10% refund on the cost of the cruise (excluding taxes which sucks) as well as 25% off a future NCL cruise.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2018

Total posts 13

I'm booked to travel to Kaohsiung, Taiwan in April. Qantas to Hong Kong then Cathay Dragon. Last night Smartraveller advised that the Taiwan border has been closed to all travellers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau excepted holders or Taiwan residency certificates. It is outside the waiver period, so I just have to wait and see what happens. My Qantas travel insurance doesn't not cover this.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Mar 2014

Total posts 121

I believe this does not apply to passengers transiting through HK

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2018

Total posts 13

Due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, foreigners without a valid Taiwan residence permit who have visited mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macau in the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter or transit Taiwan.”

I can't see any exemption for transit passengers.

My trip is still too far off at the moment, and things will probably change many times in the next 8 weeks.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Mar 2014

Total posts 121

"Anyone who is transiting through Hong Kong to Taiwan, or transiting through Taiwan to other countries, are not affected – they can be accepted to travel."

As per the CX website

11 Dec 2018

Total posts 7

We have not had a good experience with this. We had (biz class) flights booked MEL<>HK with Cathay Pacific and then return flights from HK<>Nha Trang (HKExpress) - as most of trip is in Vietnam (end of March/April). HKExpress cancelled our outbound flight (HK-NHA) apparently due to coronavirus (even though not mainland china) + basically meant we had to cancel everything HK related and purchased new tickets into Nha Trang via Vietnam Airlines.

HKExpress - didn't even bother to email us to tell us outbound flight was cancelled - truely unacceptable & they have single handedly ruined entire planned trip. I thought I'd double check booking today and noticed it was gone. Via automatic forms on website they have only offered refund on outbound flight - but no such thing for return flight in April. Have tried their live chat several times + they simply don't respond. Of course, return flight is basically useless without being able to get there in first place.

Cathay Pacific : on hold for over 45 mins waiting to talk to operator (no wait/queue times mentioned at all) - after they were told situation, straight up refused to waive cancellation fees because they have only announced stuff up to end of Feb. Now will be out of pocket over $1600. Not acceptable. Operator suggested I 'could' wait until March to officially cancel online in case they made some waiver offer in a few weeks beyond Feb - going to try my luck there.

Novotel (Accor) : have 3 x night 'non-flexible' booking in Novotel HK (in March) as part of stopover. Unfortunately again there's no information beyond end of February - hoping they will do the right thing and extend dates so we can get full refund.

Anyhow, overall a very poor and unsympathetic effort from airlines/hotels. If we waited until March before rebooking things, there will be hardly any seats left/alt accomodation. We grabbed last remaining seats on Vietnam Airlines flights too - almost certainly would have been sold out if I waited a few more weeks. I don't think its fair or realistic for them to only address travel in over next 4 weeks.

On a good note, we are however somewhat relieved to be avoiding HK altogether now (particularly travelling with a 6yo) - we booked prior to protests & coronavirus so probably a dodget a bullet or at least a lot of potential stress.

11 Dec 2018

Total posts 7

Oh and just read HKExpress is 100% owned by Cathay Pacific - so basically CP is cause of all of these cancellations & they are refusing to waive the fees. Pretty poor effort - don't think we'll trust them again with our travel. Meanwhile - still unable to raise HKE via live chat and confirm if I can even get those tickets refunded.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 Nov 2019

Total posts 19

Good info thanks Chris.

As you said Qantas are not at this stage allowing non refundable HK fares to be changed, as I have purchased, for the Canton Fair, which as you may know has now been officially cancelled in March. This is the CIFF fair. I also usually take HSR into Canton for HK but at this stage looks like a $400 cancellation fee on a $700 Mel to HK fare, or a week in HK!! Note to self, purchase flexi fare.

12 Apr 2017

Total posts 18

Hi All

Are Qantas allowing re schedule for flights from Singapore. : more precise wish to change Singapore / Melb to later in the year

Anyone had any info

Mike


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