The world is a pretty big place, and there is always something bad going on somewhere. From hurricanes and snowstorms to civil conflict and terrorism, travelers have to be constantly on alert for any changes that might affect their travel plans. As wheelchair users, we’re more vulnerable than the average traveler to many of these situations. It can be heartbreaking to cancel or postpone travel plans we’ve been anticipating, especially if it means losing money in the process. However, our personal safety should always come first. Here are some examples of situations in which I believe wheelchair users should seriously consider canceling or postponing travel.
There’s no way to predict what the weather will be like for a cruise or land-based vacation six months in the future. However, there are some cases where you may be faced with an extreme weather situation happening right at the same time will be arriving at a destination.
Depending on your mode of transportation, the decision may be made for you. If you are going on a cruise and a hurricane is in your ship’s path, the cruise line will either cancel the cruise out right or detour the ship to another port of call. You may or may not receive compensation from the cruise line for any changes, depending on your cruise contract. The captain and the cruise line will always put passenger safety first.
In the case of land-based travel, airlines will cancel flights if they are affected by snowstorms or hurricanes once they make landfall. However, in these cases, you have to think beyond the passing of the storm itself. Even if you’re able to take a flight one or two days later, what will the conditions on the ground be for you and your wheelchair? Can you maneuver if there are 18 inches of fresh snow on the ground? If flooding remains after a major storm system, will you be able to deal with deep puddles or standing water?
Some natural disasters go hand-in-hand with extreme weather, so it’s kind of a natural segue. Many travel plans are impacted after hurricanes pass through the Caribbean. Several islands, including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, etc., are still recovering from hurricanes that passed through more than a year ago. Travel to islands in the Pacific can be affected by volcanic eruptions, and to travel to South America can be impacted by earthquakes.
Your decision on whether or not to cancel or postpone the trip to a destination that has been affected by natural disaster largely depends on the timing. Developing countries can take much longer to recover from a natural disaster than a developed country. That being said, countries that are highly dependent on tourism dollars are highly motivated to recover as quickly as possible. Stay in close contact with your accessible travel agent to get regular updates on recovery efforts, and if your destination will be a safe place for you to visit after the disaster has occurred.
External Health Concerns
Parts of China are in crisis mode right now due to an outbreak of the coronavirus, one category of respiratory viruses in the same family as SARS and MERS. The virus has already spread to other continents through air travel, and China is attempting to quarantine several parts of the country where outbreaks have occurred.
This is not the only time that a viral outbreak has caused people to reconsider their travel plans. The Zika virus made headlines several years ago, especially with concerns for travel by pregnant women to affected areas, and is still having an impact today. Other viruses like Ebola, tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever can pose problems for travelers.
Many illnesses can be prevented through vaccines or the proper use of insect repellent and mosquito netting. However, when there is a viral outbreak in a particular country, it may be worth postponing travel until after the virus has either been eradicated or significantly controlled. It’s one thing as a disabled traveler to become ill or hospitalized when in your home country. It’s another thing to develop a serious illness as part of a viral outbreak in a foreign country where medical care may be substandard.
Personal Health Concerns
To piggyback on the issue of medical care abroad, it’s a good idea to take detailed stock of your personal health before going on a trip. Depending on your disability or personal health situation, something as simple as the sniffles can easily turn into bronchitis or pneumonia for some people. A sprain can turn into a tear with repeated use, and a nagging concern that seems minor at the time and turn into something major under the added stress of foreign travel.
Many travelers have to weigh the cost of losing money against suffering through a health concern. at that point, you have to ask yourself if you would truly enjoy a vacation if you spent part for most of the trip either in a lot of discomfort or pain. If you have any doubts, go and see your doctor and get his or her opinion on whether or not you should travel.
There are many parts around the world that are experiencing civil unrest at any given time of the year. Currently, there are riots and protests going on in places like Lebanon and Hong Kong. Regular protests occur in major European cities like Paris, and protests in some parts of South America can easily turn deadly.
Civil unrest in a capital city or one part of the country doesn’t necessarily bleed over into tourist areas or other parts of the country. However, you still have to get into and out of that country, and get to where you need to go. Civil unrest can easily start affecting transportation hubs like airports and train stations. Strikes can affect airlines, taxi companies, metro systems, and train service.
If there is a civil unrest at your destination, keep a close eye on the State Department’s travel website for that country to stay abreast of any travel alerts or warnings. Social media groups with a travel theme are also a great way to chat with people who live in that area, and can provide updated on the ground information. Angry crowds can form on a moment’s notice in some places, and that’s the last place you want to find yourself as a wheelchair user.
Terrorism and Armed Conflict
I think this is one of the toughest variables when it comes to decision-making for travel. A terrorist attack can happen pretty much anywhere, and are often highly unpredictable. We’ve seen terrorist attacks happen in many major cities in Europe at markets, nightclubs, and concerts. It doesn’t make much sense to say, avoid all travel to XYZ because something might happen.
However, there are some parts of the world where the risk of terrorism or armed conflict — and thus potentially getting caught in the middle of it — is higher. These situations can change from day-to-day or month-to-month, often depending on the actions of combatants and relationships between countries. What may seem okay and peaceful now can be completely different in just a few weeks’ time. Sadly, any danger posed to you as a traveler might hinge on something as simple as your nationality.
As is the case with civil unrest, keep a close eye on the State Department’s travel website for that country to stay abreast of any travel alerts or warnings. Also, follow any news reports on your destination, preferably from a reputable source within the country to stay up on current developments.
How to Prevent Cancellation Penalties
One of the biggest reasons that travelers soldier on and go on a trip they’re feeling anxious about is because they don’t want to lose money they paid for that trip – potentially thousands of dollars. While it’s not always possible to get all or even most of your money back, there are some measures you can take to prevent a major financial loss should you change your mind about travel.
Travel Insurance. I tell absolutely all of my clients that they need to purchase a travel insurance policy. Some people refuse because they can’t imagine what might happen to them, or are mistakenly under the impression that there personal medical insurance policies will cover them abroad. If you do purchase a trip protection policy, read the fine print very carefully. Many policies don’t cover some of the situations I listed above.
However, many policies also offer what’s called “cancel anytime” or “cancel for any reason” policies. These are more expensive than standard coverage policies, but will allow you to get much of your money back if you just have a bad feeling about a trip and decide that you want to change your plans. I would recommend this type of policy particularly for a region at higher risk of civil unrest.
Air Carrier or Cruise Line Compensation. There are very specific situations in which an air carrier will either refund your ticket or provide you with some sort of compensation due to cancellations or changes. Please keep in mind that if a delay or cancellation is due to something out of the airline’s control, such as weather, they don’t have to do anything for you. However, they will generally rebook you on the next available flight at no extra charge.
If you decide to cancel flights on your own and you purchased a nonrefundable ticket, your options will be very limited. Those options will also be dependent on the airline. For example, if you cancel a “Wanna Get Away?” fare flight on Southwest airlines, they will provide you with a credit for the amount of money you paid for your ticket, and you can use that credit towards the purchase of another ticket. Delta will also provide you with a credit, minus a $200 rebooking fee.
Purchasing Refundable Options. This is challenging for many travelers because refundable options for things like plane tickets can be very expensive. It’s much easier with hotels, especially in the United States, since usually you don’t have to pay until you check out. You can also cancel or modify your plans without penalty typically between 24 to 48 hours prior to your arrival. You can save a good amount of money with advanced purchase rates at hotels, but those rates are nonrefundable.
Also make sure you take a look at the rules regarding deposits for cruises. Many times, cruise lines will run big sales where you save overall on the cruise fare, but they will charge you a large nonrefundable deposit. The best sales offer significantly reduced deposits that will hurt your pocketbook less if you have to cancel down the road.
If you can’t afford a fare that is completely nonrefundable, some travel companies offer fares that are flexible, meaning they won’t charge you extra to make changes. This is very helpful for travelers who still want to visit the destination and don’t want to cancel outright, and also have the flexibility to make the same trip on a different date.
Listen to Your Gut
I love the feeling of anticipation that comes with an upcoming trip! However, I know that something’s not right if I have a sinking feeling instead. Sometimes I can attribute this to something very tangible, and sometimes I can’t. That’s the hardest situation for me, but I have canceled expensive trips on more than one occasion just because something didn’t feel right. I have no regrets about this.
Only you can be the judge in this situation. If anything about your travel plan, itinerary, or destination makes you nervous or anxious, pay attention to those feelings. Ask yourself why you’re not feeling 100 percent about your trip. Don’t rely just on advice from friends and family members, who may just reassure you that things will be fine without addressing your specific concerns. I know it can be a very difficult decision to make, but having peace of mind at home is just as important as having a peaceful vacation.