The most flexible airline and hotel loyalty programs for pandemic (and post-pandemic) travel
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Travel flexibility is more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. Country by country and even state by state restrictions can change on a dime, so being able to cancel or change your award flight or hotel night is a huge benefit. Thankfully, most travel companies have already modified change policies in response to the pandemic, but some are still better than others.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the most flexible loyalty programs. For this article, we’ll define “flexible” as programs that let you cancel tickets at the last minute without pay a fee. Here, I’ll focus on travel companies that have the best ongoing change and cancellation policies, but I’ll mention their coronavirus policies too. Use this information to find the best miles to use for your next redemption.
Let’s get started!
The most flexible airline miles
Airlines have had a long history of charging huge change fees on award travel — thankfully, that’s starting to change. Here’s a quick look at the most flexible airline miles. Each of these has pros and cons, so read through each option to find which is best for your travel needs. We’re focusing on standard (i.e., not coronavirus) cancellation policies. All of these airlines have extended coronavirus cancellation policies as well.
Southwest Rapid Rewards — the best of the best
Travel flexibility and Southwest go hand in hand. For years, the airline has boasted no change or cancelation fees on all paid and award tickets.
Award tickets can be canceled up to 10 minutes before departure. If you pay with points, they are refunded to your Rapid Rewards account when you cancel. This is especially useful if a flight’s cost goes down — change to the lower-priced flight and you’ll get the price difference back. Check your Southwest bookings regularly to see if you’re eligible for a partial refund.
The same goes for cash bookings. You can change or cancel your flight at any time. If you cancel a flight, the cost is returned to you as Southwest travel credit. Alternatively, you’re only liable for paying the fare difference if you move to a more expensive flight.
United MileagePlus — waived fees for domestic flights
United was the first of the Big 3 to remove change fees permanently. Even after the coronavirus pandemic is over, United will continue to allow customers to change or cancel domestic flights (both paid and award) for free. This includes flights to Peurto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This applies to both paid and award tickets. When you cancel an award flight, the miles are redeposited into your account.
Additionally, the airline will waive redeposit fees on international award flights canceled more than 30 days before departure. A $125 fee will apply to international award flights canceled within this 30-day window.
That said, you can change or cancel all award United flights through Dec. 31, 2020, free of charge, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This applies to all domestic and international flights, so there’s no risk in preemptively booking holiday travel during the pandemic.
Delta SkyMiles — no change fees (for the most part)
Delta recently revamped its loyalty program to remove almost all change fees for award tickets. You won’t pay change fees for canceling and changing award tickets before departure. The only exclusion is basic economy tickets (including awards) — these are still not eligible for changes or cancelations. This permanent change applies to all domestic U.S. flights, including flights to Peurto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Like United, Delta waives all change fees through the end of the year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
American Airlines — no change fees for domestic and short-haul international
Like Delta and United, American got rid of change fees for U.S. domestic flights and flights to and from Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico. As you’d expect, “domestic” also includes flights to and from Peurto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Again, these are permanent changes that aren’t restricted to coronavirus travel dates. After the pandemic, long-haul flights can be changed for free when changing at least 60 days out from the departure date.
Web Special awards aren’t included in this change policy. Instead, they’re covered by the policy that governs changing or canceling long-haul international awards. This is fine if you’re canceling far out, but not great for last-minute changes. Likewise, basic economy flights are not eligible for free changes once the airline’s coronavirus waiver expires.
As you’d expect, all American flights can be changed or canceled for free through the end of the year due to the pandemic.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan — waived fees on all flights
Following the industry trend, Alaska Airlines is getting rid of change and cancellation fees on all flights, excluding Saver fares. This applies to both international and domestic flights and will continue indefinitely. The airline is also waiving change and cancellation fees on all flights — including Saver fares — through the end of the year due to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, it’s not yet confirmed if this new change policy covers partner award tickets. That said, the coronavirus travel waiver covers them. I expect Alaska to announce more information related to this once travel resumes.
British Airways Avios — book flexible American flights on the cheap
British Airways Avios offers excellent deals on flights and a great cancellation policy. While the airline lists a $55 refund and redeposit fee online, it’s only charged if you paid more than $55 in taxes and fees on a ticket.
All American Airlines domestic tickets booked with Avios are charged just $5.60 in taxes and fees. With that in mind, you’ll only forfeit the taxes charged and have your Avios refunded. Note that all changes must be made at least 24 hours before departure.
Unfortunately, these refunds take some time. I’ve personally waited almost a week for a refund to hit my British Airways account, so it can be frustrating. That said, I think it’s worth booking short American flights with British Airways if there’s a chance you’ll cancel. British Airways Avios are super easy to earn and the airline has incredible redemption rates for American domestic flights. British Airways’ American award pricing is often better than what you’ll find with AAdvantage for short flights.
The most flexible hotel points
Unlike airlines, none of the major hotel chains have made permanent changes to their change and cancellation policies. That said, most are already pretty flexible, but policies are inconsistent across hotels. We’ll focus on the hotel’s standard award night cancellation policy and make a note of the coronavirus cancellation policies as well.
World of Hyatt — most properties let you cancel 48 hours out
Most Hyatt properties let you cancel award nights for free so long as you give 48 hours notice during normal travel times. After this, you’re liable to pay one day’s worth of World of Hyatt points to cancel your stay. Unfortunately, the hotel doesn’t have a standard policy, so this may vary by hotel. With that in mind, always check the cancelation policy of the hotel you book with. You can view this at the top of the booking page when you pay with points.
It’s worth noting that the hotel group is offering 24-hour cancellation through July 31, 2021. There are limited exceptions to this rule, so still double-check with your hotel before booking. However, all of the properties we’ve checked are offering the 24-hour cancellation policy through July 2021.
Hilton Honors — also varies by hotel
Like Hyatt, Hilton doesn’t have a set policy for its hotels to follow for Hilton Honors points cancellations. However, in my research, most hotels allow free cancellation for points stays so long as reservations are canceled 24 hours before arrival. You can view each hotel’s cancellation policy on the booking page — you can find this at the bottom of the booking screen.
It’s worth noting that Hilton originally allowed all reservations — regardless of the hotel — to be canceled for free 24 hours before arrival due to the pandemic. This policy ended for new reservations on Oct. 1, 2020. Thankfully, reservations made before this date are still eligible for this blanket cancellation policy.
Marriott Bonvoy — most hotels offer 24-hour cancellation
Marriott Bonvoy doesn’t have a set cancellation policy either, but we’ve found that most properties offer 24-hour or 48-hour free cancellation for Marriott Bonvoy award stays. You can view each hotel’s cancellation policy at the bottom of the checkout screen when you book a hotel stay. Additionally, the company guarantees 24-hour cancellation for most stays starting on or before Dec. 30, 2020. Note that this excludes prepaid cash stays.
If you don’t cancel within the hotel’s cancellation policy, you may forfeit your points and be assessed an undisclosed fee.
I’d like to see hotels change this
As you can see, the Big 3 hotel groups we’ve discussed — along with other groups like IHG, Wyndham and Best Western — don’t publish set cancellation policies for award nights. I’d like to see hotels change this as we move through the pandemic. Flexibility is key for boosting travelers’ confidence. Likewise, hotel groups need to implement a set cancellation policy to streamline. Otherwise, consumers may be confused and opt to stay at an independent hotel with more flexible cancellation policies.
On top of this, many hotel companies have prematurely ended their blanket coronavirus cancellation waivers. To me, this is a bad move given the pandemic is speeding up in some parts of the world and the future of travel is uncertain. Hotels should adjust their cancellation policies accordingly as a show of goodwill to customers considering pandemic travel.
It’s great to see airlines permanently make tickets — both award and paid — more flexible. I think this is a key part of making travelers confident in getting back on a plane once the pandemic is behind us. Again, I’d like to see hotels follow their lead and make similar changes for award night cancellation. In doing this, hotels will also benefit from added travel confidence and make a better booking experience.
Feature photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images
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