Michelle Hu had her European vacation all planned out: she, her husband Peter, and their two music-loving daughters, ages 10 and 15, would fly to Vienna on March 6, where they’d soak in the city and try to get tickets to see an opera.
From there, they’d go to Budapest, Bratislava, and Salzburg — where some scenes of “The Sound of Music” were filmed — and take a day-trip to Hallstatt, Austria, before flying back from Munich to Toronto.
But after monitoring Twitter and an online map of global coronavirus cases, which showed a growing number of cases in Europe, Hu decided to cancel her family’s trip.
WATCH: What you should know about traveling and COVID-19. Story continues below.
“I’m not planning to go to a foreign country to isolate [myself] in a hotel for 14 days,” Hu, a Toronto-based accountant, told HuffPost Canada.
Hu was able to cancel hotels and car rentals, but lost $3,000 because she only got a partial refund from her plane tickets. She had travel insurance through her credit card, but it didn’t include a cancellation policy.
Hu said she made the decision out of concern for her family’s safety — and fear of discrimination as an Asian family also played a factor.
The Canadian government recommends Canadians avoid non-essential travel to China, Iran, and northern Italy. It also has travel notices in place for Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
The government’s COVID-19 travel advice website recommends that travellers check with the foreign diplomatic mission of their destination to see if they have implemented any restrictions, such as entry requirements, border closures, or flight suspensions.
The site also warns that COVID-19 can spread quickly on cruise ships.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says Canadians should avoid travelling on all cruise ships to protect themselves and others from spreading the virus. Dr. Tam says ships could travel to areas with confirmed or unknown cases of the novel coronavirus.
WATCH: What Canadians need in a coronavirus emergency kit. Story continues below.
Air Canada has cancelled all flights between Canada and China until April 10 and has also cancelled daily non-stop flights between Toronto and Hong Kong until April 30 because of reduced demand. Many U.S. carriers have also suspended flights to China until late April.
Air Canada has also implemented a one-time change fee waive for tickets purchased between March 4 and March 31, within 12 months.
What is the health risk of travelling right now?
Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, says people should be more worried right now about getting caught in a quarantine or travel restriction as opposed to getting the novel coronavirus.
“You have to balance the need for going away and having some nice weather and a vacation with your family versus … some of the risks that might happen,” she told HuffPost Canada.
She noted that organizations and institutions — like the University of Toronto, University of Manitoba, and University of Calgary — are asking employees to cancel non-mandatory work-related travel.
School boards across the country are also making or weighing cancellations for school-sanctioned trips.
Older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions are at more risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that coronavirus patients over the age of 80 had a 14.8 per cent chance of dying, the highest of any of the demographics.
But Dr. Banerji said although healthy children don’t seem to be affected as much, they could come home from a vacation and infect their grandparents or other older adults.
Dr. Banerji said with no widespread travel restriction right now, the decision on whether to cancel travel plans is up to the individual. If people decide to travel, she suggests minimizing risk by avoiding large groups of people or crowded areas like large swimming pools.
She also suggests travellers wash their hands frequently and try not to touch their face.
WATCH: Here’s exactly how to wash your hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Story continues below.
She also recommends that before people travel they take time to consider whether they can afford to take time off work if they are stuck in a quarantine, if they have sick leave, and if they can afford staying in a hotel abroad longer than planned.
The WHO says to only wear a face mask if you have COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing or if you are taking care of someone who has COVID-19. The organization also suggests keeping up-to-date on COVID-19 hotspots and “avoiding travel to places” especially if you are older or have diabetes, heart, or lung disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a plane is low because the air circulation prevents germs and viruses from spreading easily. Cruises, on the other hand, include conditions that can make respiratory viruses such as COVID-19 spread.
Upon returning home from a trip, travellers should monitor their health, the Canadian government advises. If a traveller becomes sick while away, they should call a health professional to explain their symptoms. If they become sick upon returning to Canada, they should call their local public health authority.
Is it too late to cancel my March Break trip?
A standard travel insurance policy will not cover travellers if they cancel because of fear of an epidemic, according to Liam Lahey, the editor of rates.ca.
However, if the federal government issues a level three or four travel health advisory for the region someone is visiting, and that person has cancellation as part of their insurance policy, then they could cancel their plans and get reimbursed for flights and accommodations.
A level three travel health advisory means Canadians should avoid non-essential travel to that region, and level four means to avoid all travel.
If someone has cancel-for-any-reason coverage, they could get up to 75 per cent of travel expenses back, Lahey said.
Lahey said if people have an upcoming trip they’re not sure about, they should call their insurance company and ask if they can add cancel-for-any-reason coverage.
Two Canadian insurance companies, Tugo and Manulife, will no longer provide coverage for trips booked on or after March 4 and 5, respectively. Tugo’s alert said COVID-19 is considered a known circumstance, meaning they believe travellers would be aware of it when booking vacations.
Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses on the airline industry, said we’ll likely be seeing more cancellations from airlines as more people decide not to travel.
In 2019, the Canadian government implemented new guidelines for air passenger protection regulations, including rules for what happens if flights are delayed, cancelled or if passengers are not able to board a plane.
The new rules dictate that passengers must be compensated for delays on airlines — but this leaves a grey area if airlines say they are cancelling flights in accordance with the government’s recommendations, Chandra said.
“It’s very hard to anticipate events like this and certainly something like this was not understood by the rules of practice,” Chandra said. “So we’ll see how it plays out.”
Hu’s daughters were upset when they learned their vacation was cancelled — but they also understood the severity of the situation.
As for how they’ll spend their March Break or whether they’ll reschedule their trip for another time, Hu isn’t sure yet.
“We’ll just take vacations in the backyard,” she said.
With files from the Canadian Press.