If you've booked a trip to a country where the Zika virus is rife and are pregnant or travelling with someone who is, you should be able to get your money back or at least rearrange your trip. But policies differ by holiday company and insurer, MoneySavingExpert.com has found – and most other travellers are unlikely to be able to cancel their trip without losing money.
The Zika virus, which was declared a global health emergency last month, first spread from Brazil into other countries in South and Central America, and has now taken hold in parts of Southeast Asia and Africa. There are also concerns it may soon find its way into Europe via the Mediterranean.
Transmitted by mosquitoes, the virus can often be symptomless (though it may cause fever, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, and headaches). It can, however, be potentially devastating for pregnant women, as it's been linked by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) with a big rise in the number of children born with brain defects and abnormally small heads.
If you're concerned and planning to travel to a country that's been affected, here's what you need to know. See our Cheap Travel Insurance guide for full info on insurance options and top picks.
Should I avoid travelling to a country with Zika?
The latest advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) states: "Pregnant women should be advised not to travel to areas of ongoing Zika virus outbreaks". The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also recommends that pregnant women "postpone non-essential travel to countries affected by the virus".
There's currently no official advice stating that women who aren't pregnant should not travel to destinations where the Zika virus has been identified. According to the NHS Choices website, "for most people [Zika] is a very mild infection and isn't harmful".
A full list of the countries where the Zika virus is present is available via the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) website – this includes much of Central and South America, as well as several countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam. The WHO also reported recently that Zika had been detected in Africa for the first time.
It's important to understand these are countries where there's active local transmission of the virus, and therefore a potential risk to travellers. People who've picked up the virus while travelling have been treated in many more countries, including the UK – but that doesn't mean there's a risk when visiting those countries currently.
Experts including the WHO say there's a "low to moderate" risk of a Zika outbreak occurring in southern Europe and especially around the Mediterranean coast this summer, but there hasn't been an outbreak reported in Europe so far.
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I've booked a package holiday to a country affected by the virus – can I rebook or get a refund?
We've asked a number of the UK's major holiday companies what their policies are if travellers are going to somewhere on the ECDPC's list of affected countries and they want to cancel.
Thomson and First Choice
- If a doctor advises you not to travel (eg, if you're pregnant), you can rebook. You must provide a doctor's note confirming you've been advised not to travel to rearrange your trip without paying an amendment fee. If you're able to do so, other people booked on the trip will also be able to rearrange free of charge.
- You have a month to rearrange your trip. You can book an alternative holiday to any Thomson or First Choice destination currently on sale. If the alternative holiday is cheaper than the original holiday, you'll be refunded the difference – if it's more expensive you'll have to cover the difference.
- You can't get a refund. A Thomson and First Choice spokesperson told us that pregnant travellers are being advised "to approach their insurance company" (there's more about what to expect from your insurance company below).
- You may not be able to rebook or get a refund. Previously pregnant travellers and those trying for a baby (plus those travelling with them) were able to rearrange their trip or get a refund – but not any longer. Thomas Cook says it's "not necessary to have the policy in place now, as Zika is well known about and anyone who is pregnant or wanting to be can choose another destination".
- You may still be able to argue your case. Thomas Cook says it's offering information and advice about Zika at the time of booking. But if you've already booked and want to cancel, give them a call – the firm says it'll work with customers "on a case-by-case basis to offer assistance".
- You can rebook or get a refund. Pregnant women, those trying for a baby and their travel companions can get a full refund or rebook.
- If you're rebooking, you can choose to go elsewhere – or go later. You can opt for a different destination (without a change fee) or just rebook your holiday to the same destination for a later date up to 12 months after you had booked to travel.
- If you're pregnant you can rebook, but refunds aren't guaranteed. A Kuoni spokesperson told us all pregnant holidaymakers and anyone else on the same booking can rearrange their trip. But refunds will only be offered on a "case-by-case basis".
- Travellers who aren't pregnant may also be able to rebook. Kuoni says other concerned travellers may be able to rearrange their trip, but again it's on a case-by-case basis.
If you booked flights, accommodation or car hire independently you should speak to your travel insurer.
The Association of British Insurers says some policies will cover you if you're cancelling a trip on official Government or medical advice (which would be the case for pregnant women planning to travel to a region with a recent Zika outbreak).
Meanwhile, the Association of Travel Insurance Intermediaries told us that travel insurers are dealing with claims related to Zika concerns on a case-by-case basis. The best way of getting your claim accepted is to provide the claims handler at your insurance company with information that proves you're pregnant (such as a doctor's note).
However, if you're not pregnant you're unlikely to be successful with a claim. As a general rule of thumb, a travel insurance policy won't cover you against a 'disinclination to travel' (ie, you don't want to go to Brazil anymore because you're worried about the Zika virus).
It's also worth noting you won't be covered if the country you're travelling to was on the list of affected areas at the point you took out the policy.
What can I do to protect myself against Zika?
- Wearing clothes (preferably light-coloured) that cover as much of your body as possible.
- Using insect repellent that ideally contains DEET (diethyltoluamide), IR3535 or Icaridin.
- Using physical barriers such as mesh screens or insecticide-treated netting materials on doors and windows.
- Sleeping under mosquito nets.
- Identifying and eliminating potential mosquito breeding sites, by emptying, cleaning or covering containers that can hold even small amounts of water (such as buckets, vases, flower pots and tyres).
If you do end up getting bitten while abroad, you may want to check in with your GP when you get home, though as above, pregnant women are those most at risk.
Zika can be sexually transmitted, so men are advised to wear a condom if they think they've been exposed to the virus.