General Education

Study Abroad Program Canceled Due to Coronavirus? Here’s What to Do

Study Abroad Program Canceled Due to Coronavirus? Here’s What to Do
If you want to recoup your losses, you're going to have to do some digging. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly April 6, 2020

For many undergraduates, study abroad is the highlight of their education experience. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted worldwide travel, bringing many students home prematurely. Here's what organizations like CIEE are doing about refunds—and what students can do, too.

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When COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) in late January 2020, hundreds of U.S. college students watched their plans for illuminating, life-changing study abroad experiences in South Korea and Italy—countries sustaining spikes in COVID-19 cases—quickly change.

By early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance to colleges and universities to “consider postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs” in all countries, not just those currently experiencing outbreaks. With that, study abroad programs for thousands more students came to an abrupt halt. Others who had planned summer programs abroad saw their upcoming travel plans canceled as well.

Meanwhile, many U.S. institutions with international campuses decided to close their overseas academic programs and assist students in returning home. McDaniel College, for instance, ordered a mandatory return of all students studying abroad, including those at its Budapest campus. The school announced arrangements to deliver its overseas courses online when students returned home.

Now, with colleges and universities closed for the remainder of the spring semester, it’s certain that U.S. study abroad students won’t be traveling internationally any time soon. So, what can they do to recoup their losses? Let’s take a look.

How your school can help

Like many schools, University of Georgia has a longstanding tradition of study abroad. During the 2016-2017 academic year alone, nearly 2,700 UGA students enrolled in overseas programs, with Italy the second-most popular destination for Bulldogs.

Georgia students have now returned early from their spring programs, and summer study abroad programs have been canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The university, like many others, is scrambling to support students whose study abroad plans unexpectedly changed.

In a newsletter sent in late March, members of UGA’s study abroad team notified students to make advising appointments through its Office of Global Engagements website. The purpose of those meetings was to address the transition to online classes and any unresolved academic and financial concerns resulting from curtailed study abroad programs.

Some (but not all) schools will refund some university-related charges related to study overseas. However, it’s unlikely that your school will be able to refund anything paid to a third party, including airlines, accommodations, and tour operators. This means that you’ll need to follow the guidance of program organizers and other organizations as they relate to your travel plans.


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What to do about independently booked flights

It’s typical for study abroad students to visit destinations outside of their base country while overseas. For students studying abroad in Europe, for example, it’s highly likely that their travel itineraries highlight plans to see as much of the continent as possible.

But what happens when flights are canceled, or sagely avoided due to the pandemic? In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, many airlines have allowed travelers to cancel their flights and set aside that money to use on a flight at a later date. In some instances, this policy has been implemented only recently. Students whose flight dates have passed should reach out to airlines to see whether they are willing to honor the policy retroactively.

It’s also helpful to know that many main carriers currently offer this flexibility for flights that are scheduled to depart through the end of May—and better still, don’t require you to make immediate future travel plans. When it comes to actual refunds, policies vary by carrier. Check with your specific airline.

What are tour operators’ policies for travel changes and refunds?

Given the global health crisis that the coronavirus pandemic presents, most reputable tour operators have announced policies regarding upcoming programs.

Currently, all summer and fall 2020 programs arranged through the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES)—except for internship programs—are running as planned. However, the organization has agreed to issue full refunds to students who decide to withdraw up to one day before their program’s official arrival date.

Additionally, because of the exceptional circumstances, IES will permit students enrolled in spring 2020 study abroad programs to withdraw from one or more online courses or take one or more courses on a Pass/Fail basis, with approval from their home school. Unfortunately, no refunds will be offered to these students, and withdrawing could impact students’ financial aid status (if their course load drops below the minimum number of credits as a result). Yes, you might dodge a low grade you don’t want, but it could be at a high cost. Consider that Pass/Fail option.

The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) suspended all of its spring 2020 study abroad programs on March 15. Recently, the organization announced that if a student is provided the means to complete their courses online or through another distance learning method and has the opportunity to earn their originally anticipated academic credit, they won’t receive a refund.

However, when a student is unable to obtain credits due to an inability to complete their courses online or lack of distance learning option, CIEE will determine refunds on a case-by-case basis.

On their site, the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) highlights that it is still in the process of determining partial refunds for students whose spring 2020 study abroad programs ended prematurely. The organization also notes that several of its summer 2020 programs have been canceled. Students have the option to receive a refund on their deposits or transfer them to an AIFS fall 2020 or spring 2021 program.

What about independently booked accommodations?

Unfortunately, for lodgings booked for students traveling outside their study destination, terms and conditions vary from hotel chain to hotel chain and also from country to country. In Germany, for instance, even nonrefundable stays at a hotel are worth canceling since you will get back about 10 percent, which is typically the cost of servicing and cleaning a room.

Hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott are also loosening their cancellation policies. Hilton, for example, is waiving change and cancellation fees on all existing reservations made before April 30—even those booked as “non-cancellable.” All new bookings made before April 30 can be changed or canceled for no charge up to 24 hours before check-in.

Students who planned their stays using Airbnb also have options. Guests who booked stays on the platform with a check-in date between March 14th and May 31st are eligible for full refunds under the company’s “extenuating circumstances” policy.

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