As massive political demonstrations throughout Egypt turned violent last week in an attempt to oust longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, travel companies scrambled to get tourists safely out of a country that within a matter of days had descended into chaos.
A State Department warning, issued Feb. 1, ordered nonemergency U.S. government personnel to leave Egypt and said that “U.S. citizens should consider leaving Egypt as soon as they can safely do so, due to ongoing political and social unrest.”
Mubarak’s statement the same day that he would not run for re-election in September, after three decades in power, did not quell the demonstrations, and by some news accounts further fueled frustration from opposition protesters who want a change of government immediately.
“Demonstrations have degenerated on several occasions into violent clashes between police and protesters, resulting in injuries and extensive property damage,” the State Department reported last week.
As concerns mounted about the safety and security of U.S. citizens, the State Department arranged evacuation charter flights for U.S. citizens and eligible dependents who wanted to leave Egypt for safe havens in Larnaca, Cyprus; Istanbul; Frankfurt; and Athens.
According to news reports, Cairo’s international airport was a scene of chaos all week, as travelers tried to find flights out of the country.
Operators working overtime
The travel industry was working overtime to move travelers out of the country during what is usually Egypt’s high travel season, which runs from November through the end of February.
Many tour operators had dozens of travelers in Egypt when the protests unfolded and worked around the clock to facilitate their timely exit, a feat further complicated by canceled flights going into and coming out of Egypt.
Travel companies were also working around an Egyptian government-enforced curfew that as of last week was in effect between 3 p.m. and 8 a.m. To compound matters, Internet and mobile phone service had been at times cut off by the Egyptian government, creating further challenges in communication.
On Jan. 28, for example, Lindblad Expeditions had 62 guests in Cairo.
By then, according to Sven Lindblad, the founder of the company, the situation in Egypt “was deteriorating fast.”
“We decided that getting our guests out of Egypt as soon as possible was the sole option,” he wrote in a letter to his staff. “As you can imagine, shifting flights for this number of people can be difficult at any time, and certainly exponentially greater as chaos was developing.”
Delta had canceled its flight out of Cairo that evening, and Lufthansa had canceled its Jan. 29 morning flight. The company considered chartering a plane but “were concerned that the infrastructure and paperwork could easily result in a disaster,” wrote Lindblad.
Instead, it managed to secure seats on a Swissair flight with a planned departure at 4:07 p.m. on Jan. 29, outside the government-imposed curfew times for that day.
Lindblad’s U.S. team and their colleagues in Cairo convened by phone at 3:30 a.m. Eastern time that morning to assess the situation. The Swissair flight had departed Zurich on time, and the team in Cairo felt it was safe to transport the guests to the airport.
All guests arrived at the airport and took off for Zurich at 4:07 p.m. local time, just seven minutes after a new curfew of 4 p.m. had been imposed.
Tours and cruises canceled
As soon as the State Department released its initial travel alert to Egypt on Jan. 28, tour operators and cruise lines began canceling their Egypt departures for February.
Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations, Cosmos, Avalon Waterways, Central Holidays, Travcoa, Abercrombie & Kent, Ritz Tours, General Tours World Traveler, Uniworld River Cruises and Viking River Cruises are among those operators that have canceled departures this month.
Most are offering guests either a refund or the option to rebook.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which calls in Alexandria on the Norwegian Jade, last week said on its site that it was “closely monitoring” the situation and would substitute calls in Istanbul on its next two cruises, in February and March, if the State Department warning remained in effect.
MSC Cruises canceled all upcoming calls to Alexandria for the remainder of the cruise season. The MSC Magnifica and MSC Splendida will instead spend an extra day in Haifa, Israel, on those itineraries.
Costa Cruises canceled all of its cruise calls in Egypt and modified the itineraries on its ships sailing in both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Cruises that included a call in Alexandria will now stop in either Greece or Israel.
Both MSC and Costa said they would resume calls to Egypt once the situation stabilized.
Delta, which has daily nonstop flights from New York’s Kennedy to Cairo, issued a civil unrest advisory for the city, stating that customers on flights to Cairo through Feb. 13 could make a one-time change to their ticket without a fee; customers are also entitled to a refund if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed.
Insurance and ‘civil unrest’
Travel insurance providers were also keeping a close watch on the situation and taking the opportunity to remind travelers about their policies and how they apply.
According to an informal member poll conducted by the U.S. Travel Insurance Association on Jan. 28, most travel insurance policies do not cover “civil unrest,” which is how most travel insurance providers would classify the situation in Egypt.
A “cancel for any reason” policy could cover civil unrest, but it would depend on the company and the policy, the association said.
Some travel insurance policies also cover political or medical evacuation, it said.
Carol Mueller of travel insurance provider Travel Guard said that customers who wanted to cancel an upcoming trip to Egypt wouldn’t be covered unless a customer had opted for Travel Guard’s “cancel for any reason” policy.
Access America had 195 customers traveling in Egypt when the uprising started, and according to Access America’s policy, those who are traveling to, from or inside Egypt might be covered if their travel is delayed for six or more hours due to the unrest, if their policy includes the “travel delay” benefit.
If it does, customers can be reimbursed for meals, accommodations and additional transportation expenses, up to the coverage limit of their policy, explained Daniel Durazzo of Access America.
Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.