Food, Travel and Tech

Airfares plummet amid coronavirus outbreak, but here's what you should know before you buy

Family walking on the beach in Bali, Indonesia.
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U.S. airfares dropped an average of 14% the first week of March, according to travel app Hopper. Some routes saw discounted prices of up to 70%, prompting many Americans to cash in on the opportunity to travel on the cheap. 

The typical U.S. traveler could score a flight to Tampa, Florida, for an average cost of $170, a savings of about 25%, according to Hopper. Or fly to Honolulu for under $300. And the coronavirus outbreak — which as of writing has over 1,700 confirmed cases in the U.S. according to Johns Hopkins University — isn't stopping some Americans from planning a getaway. 

That's the case with Justin Houstoun, a Nebraska-based firefighter. Houston, 42, is taking his family on a five-day getaway next weekend after scoring flights to Fort Myers, Florida, for less than $120 per person. "We want to go on living like things are normal and give the kids experiences and not make them sit at home and be fearful of current world events," Houstoun tells CNBC Make It.

It's not just domestic flights that are seeing major discounts. Ashley Schnell, 35, took advantage of deal alerts from Scott's Cheap Flights to buy roundtrip tickets for two upcoming trips to Bali and London, she tells CNBC Make It. The San Jose, California-based physician's assistant says she paid about $345 to fly to London in August and $600 per ticket for her airfares to Bali in November.

"I had two trips I wanted to take — one to Bali and one to Italy," Schnell says. "So not doing Italy." But when she saw the sale price for Bali, she couldn't help but purchase the tickets. 

The London ticket prices was a bonus for Schnell, since she's planning to visit her partner's parents who live in the UK. In fact, the London prices were as low as $246 roundtrip during the summer months (depending on departing city and dates), according to Scott's Cheap Flights. Normally, the site reports summer flights to London costing around $1,000. 

"There's never been a better time to get a great travel deal," Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer's Guidebooks, tells CNBC Make It. Especially, she says, if you're thinking of going in a couple of months because "most prices are in the toilet and almost everything has money-back guarantees." 

What you need to know before you book

Travelers should not just jump for the deals, but make sure they do their homework and get as many assurance as they can, Frommer says.

It's also worth noting the CDC has issued warnings that the risk of a severe coronavirus infection is higher for older Americans and those with serious chronic health conditions, including heart and lung disease and diabetes. If you are considering booking a last-minute trip, consider who you may be in contact with, even if you're not personally at risk. 

Here's five things experts say travelers need to understand before they book their next trip. 

1. Flight prices have been cheap for a while now

"While flights have been incredibly cheap for the past 12 months, the outbreak of coronavirus has pushed many fares even cheaper," Scott Keyes, flight expert and founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, tells CNBC Make It. 

For years, we've been living in the "Golden Age of Cheap Flights," Keyes says, adding that it's never been cheaper to travel internationally. But that was true even before the coronavirus outbreak, which means that it's more than likely that you'll still be able to find good deals even after the pandemic wanes. If your budget is tight right now, or your nervous about traveling, don't rush to simply snag a deal. 

2. There are misconceptions about the available flight deals 

Some people are assuming that the deals on travel are only good for this month and only to destinations with confirmed cases. But as Schell's experience bears out, that's simply not true. 

In the past week alone, Scott's Cheap Flights has reported round-trip fares to Colombia as low as $190, New Zealand for $566 and Bali for $436. "It's not just that fares have been slashed, but that it's been true even for summer fares, which are typically the most expensive flights of the year," Keyes says.

Additionally, some of the deals are for travel dates months from now. The New Zealand deal, for example, was through December 2020, Keyes says. And while booking these cheap fares is a personal decision, many airlines are also offering to waive change or cancellation fees for tickets booked in the next month. 

3. Do your due diligence 

Many U.S. and foreign airlines are waiving cancellation and change fees and offering refunds on certain flights, but it pays to read the fine print around these policies — and make sure you double check those rules are still in place before you purchase any tickets. 

"More and more travel businesses are allowing people to get their money back, but they're changing the rules hour by hour," Frommer says. 

It's also crucial to research what travel restrictions are in place and how that might impact your trip. This week, Israel declared a mandatory quarantine for all arriving visitors, and Saudi Arabia put in place entry restrictions. The U.S. restricted foreign travelers from 26 European countries from entering the country. And more countries may follow suit.

If you are planning an international trip, you should also check out the latest travel advisories from the U.S. State Department before booking. This is a good idea to do even when traveling without the threat of coronavirus.  

"We haven't had an outbreak like this since the bubonic plague in terms of the disruption," Frommer says, adding that she was a travel editor during the SARS outbreak and the panic after 9/11 and neither came close to the global impact that coronavirus has inflicted. "We're in uncharted territory," she says, adding that travelers should take that into consideration.  

4. Travel insurance may not cover you

Many travelers are looking for more travel protections during these uncertain times, but experts say if you want to insure your travels against coronavirus, the best option is to buy a "Cancel For Any Reason" policy. Yet insurance marketplace Squaremouth reports that these must be purchased within 21 days of booking your trip and typically cost 40% more than standard travel insurance. These types of policies generally reimburse travelers 75% of their trip cost if they opt to pull the plug on their trip for any reason not otherwise covered by the policy.

In a situation like this, you may also want to get traveler's health insurance if you're traveling internationally.  Many U.S.-based health insurance policies may not cover you abroad, Frommer says. But the problem is that most of these policies don't cover epidemics. Allianz just changed its policies, Frommer says, but you'll need to read the fine print on any other travel insurance policies you may have purchased or plan to buy.

5. An outdoor destination may be your best bet

If you really want to travel right now, Frommer recommends planning a trip to a nature destination, such as visiting a U.S. national park or taking a trek in a South American country such as Peru. 

"You'll be away from crowds, so you're not putting yourself at any risk," Frommer says, adding it's not like you'd be going to crowded restaurants and tourist attractions. Plus, depending on your destination and traveling style, a nature trip could be less expensive than an urban adventure. 

"Fewer people are traveling right now, so you'll have some of the most glorious places on earth to yourself," she adds. "This could be an incredible opportunity to be in front of El Capitan alone or looking over the Grand Canyon without the throngs with you."

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