Swine flu and you: Airlines and hotels get flexible for swine flu-phobic travelers

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The Business Travel Coalition has assembled a long, constantly updated list of links of everything you need to know about swine flu, including news about what the airlines are doing, what civic authorities are instructing airports to do, and word about what the effects on the hotel industry are. Consider it your one-stop shopping source for swine flu updates.

Right now, the general situation is this: Airlines that fly to Mexico are not canceling flights, but they are granting ticketed passengers the right to change flight arrangements with no fee. Delta, Continental, American, U.S. Airways, Aeromexico, Mexicana, United, and AirTran are among the major flyers that will let you change for free as long as you were scheduled to travel to Mexico.

For most airlines, your original flight must have left by May 6, but that date may be extended if the outbreak continues. The same story goes for most vacation packagers, including for one of the country's largest, Apple Vacations, and for all self-respecting hotel and resort chains, although they claim no one's canceling in numbers worth worrying about.

So you can change the date of your flight or hotel reservation for free, but canceling outright will incur penalties.

Get ready to be asked a few light questions about your health when you get your passport stamped at Immigration. Most airport workers aren't even putting on rubber gloves unless they're dealing with someone who feels sick. In some places, such as Hong Kong, incoming passengers are scanned by overhead heat-detecting cameras that determine if they've got a fever, which is a primary symptom of the flu. Bummer for those with the regular flu (even Jay Leno had a 103-degree fever last week), but it beats an iron curtain at the Customs desk.

Do I think you should cancel your trip to Mexico? No. I wouldn't. Even the Centers for Disease Control aren't recommending that -- it suggests "regular flu precautions," which include washing your hands and not sticking your fingers in your mouth if they're dirty (nail-biters, be warned). Our CDC said it expected the outbreak to be faster and worse. In fact, where governments are cautioning against travel, they're doing it in case the epidemic gets deadly serious, not because it has proved to be so yet. But some people, particularly those who have seen more than one Stephen King mini-series, aren't comfortable traveling, and for them, there's a temporary loophole to avoid change fees.

The airlines themselves are still flying there, which means they feel confident that their employees will be safe and that their seats will be full enough to make it worthwhile. The last time something like this happened was six years ago, during the SARS outbreak in Asia. Then, it took a few weeks of airplanes flying empty before the airline were willing to start canceling flights.

The cruise lines are nervously cancelling some Mexican ports of call. They're used to handling outbreaks on board and they've seen it all, and all of them already sail with plenty of antibacterial hand wash dispensers installed all over the ship.

If you want to go to Mexico, you'll still be allowed to, but some travel agents aren't selling trips there simply to avoid the hassle of possibly having to cancel later. Sorry, Mexico. That's gotta hurt.

It's almost like somebody Up There is hell-bent on destroying tourism to Mexico. In March Bill O'Reilly launched an impotent push to demonize Cancún as an unsafe place for to go on vacation (he was schooled both by experts on his show and by the utter lack of incidents over Spring Break). Then comes swine flu. Then, this morning, a good-sized earthquake hit near Acapulco.

Strangely, no American has died of this flu, although some people have gotten sick with, well, a mild flu. The story in Mexico is different. Clearly, there's some missing component -- be it environmental, behavioral or something else -- to Mexican swine flu that scientists have not figured out yet. Back during SARS, some experts theorized that Asians were getting sickest because there, it's more culturally acceptable to spit in public, which spreads disease more easily. So far, no one has made the correct epidemiological link for Mexico.

I was down at my city's voter registration office today, and the workers there were gossiping about why swine flu was killing Mexicans and not Americans. There must be a difference, one clerk said. "They probably know but they don't want to tell us," she said. It's never encouraging when people in your own government warn of official misdeeds. But her next quip perhaps summed up another uncomfortable government point of view: "As long as it's them and not us," she said.
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