Swine flu and you: The travel industry chokes

It's odd. Not a single person I know is concerned about the swine flu. In fact, they're annoyed by the endless and terrifying TV coverage of it. The bald facts may bear out their attitudes: The "regular" flu kills an estimated 36,000 Americans each year, but so far, not a single American has died of the swine flu. "How do I feel about the swine flu?" a friend said when I asked her. "I feel like it's just the flu."

Nonetheless, some people allowed it to scare them into staying indoors. The European press is particularly hyper about this story (remembering 1918, perhaps). Newspaper articles say one thing -- the harshest warning a doctor writing for Britain's Daily Telegraph could come up with was "for those of a nervous disposition it won't be much fun" -- but the photos of travelers in medical masks on half-empty planes tell a different, and more gripping, tale of fear.

Yesterday, workers at Heathrow airport in London reported relative quiet in the terminals, so apparently someone out there is terrified, despite the fact the Mexican health minister says the outbreak has "passed its peak" and the World Travel & Tourism Council has pronounced it "no cause for panic."

Responding to the hubbub, many airlines have reduced or canceled travel to Mexico, acting much faster than they usually do during outbreaks. Even during SARS, it took weeks for them to scale back their schedules, but then again, those were different economic times. Such is the power of this particular story's traction in the news cycle (and of Joe Biden's wimpitude, I guess) that Delta and AirTran have made cancellations, but American Airlines, which runs 42 flights a day, has so far stood firm. If you were scheduled to fly to Mexico in the coming weeks, give a call to make sure your flight's still going and that you haven't been rescheduled.

Although most big Mexican resorts are allowing customers to reschedule without big penalties, you might as well not go if you're traveling to see ruins, because all archaeological sites and museums have been closed until further notice. That includes the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancún, is, despite the fact there has not been a single documented case of H1N1 virus there. The effect of stuff like this is causing economists to predict that the flu may cause the Mexican economy to contract by another quarter to a half percentage point. That's massive.

Mexicans are getting shafted even outside the main epidemic area. Tuesday's Cinqo de Mayo celebrations have been scaled down or scrapped, even in place that are nowhere near Mexico. Party planners in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and Milwaukee have all junked their party plans.

"We have decided for prudence," said the rep for the one in Queens, New York City. "We are not saying that the outbreak is something out of the ordinary, but given the circumstances it is better to have solidarity, as much with the community here as with Mexico." In other words, the swine flu scare is nothing to be truly scared about, but we want to honor Mexico by not having a Mexican celebration. Yeah, makes no sense to me, either.

If you have trip insurance, says MSNBC.com, your insurer may not let you off the hook so easily. Read your fine print (you should have done that when you bought the policy anyway) to see if you're entitled to a refund in case of pandemics or government actions, because many policies exclude those But if you're canceling just because you're afraid of traveling, that's probably not going to be good enough for a claim.

Similarly, when you buy a ticket on a cruise, you have already agreed to put up with any itinerary changes the cruise line sees fit. Last week, almost all the cruise lines chickened out of going to Mexico, and travelers who thought they'd be in Cabo next week are finding themselves on Catalina instead. (On the East Coast, the Caribbean has found itself the unexpected beneficiary of Mexico's tourism miseries.)

Some cruises, such as Royal Caribbean's trips out of Long Beach, California, are even heading north instead of south, hitting ports in Canada. Travel columnist Christopher Elliott failed to secure one reader the refund she wanted from Princess based on the changes, which delivered a totally different vacation experience. So Princess has now decided that as "a goodwill gesture," it will offer passengers on those cruises a 50% credit on another cruise taken within two years.
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