7 mistakes you don’t want to make when booking holiday flights this year

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A big helping of stress almost always comes with planning holiday travel … even in a normal year. In 2020, it’s probably an oversized helping of stress and uncertainty.

But it doesn’t have to be completely awful or insurmountable. TPG is here to offer tips on how to make holiday travel a bit easier or cheaper, point toward the best times to book travel for Thanksgiving or Christmas and offer advice so you avoid making mistakes when booking.

And, of course, the threat of coronavirus will still be very real around the holidays, so we’ll walk you through those realities too as we look forward to making travel plans for the winter holidays.

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In This Post

Talk about testing and gathering

First things first, what the government and airlines will let you do plays second fiddle to what you and your family are comfortable doing. Don’t assume Aunt Ethel is hosting the 27 family members in her home this Christmas Eve as she always does without talking it through first.

Before you book travel is the time to have an honest conversation with your family about how to manage — or skip — 2020 family holiday gatherings. Some families may lean into testing or self-quarantining before all gathering together, others may enjoy holiday meals outdoors and stay in separate hotel rooms at night, while others will maintain a more business as usual approach.

It’s better to begin these conversations now rather than wait until some family members have already booked travel.

(Photo by valentinrussanov/Getty Images)
(Photo by valentinrussanov/Getty Images)

Brace for the possibility of a quarantine

When coronavirus became a worldwide threat, certain countries went on lockdown and others instituted quarantines for anyone that wished to visit.

Even now, many months into this pandemic, locations are opening or closing to visitors from different areas on an almost daily basis. Many U.S. states have also instituted mandatory quarantines for travelers entering and visiting their states. Places like New York, Maine, Connecticut and Hawaii have quarantine or testing requirements.

Wherever you plan to spend the holidays, keep in mind that quarantine measures may still be in place by the time your travel dates roll around. Or, if the state you plan to visit doesn’t have a quarantine or testing mandate now, it might by the time your flight lands since those restrictions seem to be tied to ever-changing levels of the virus from incoming states.

Visit the interactive map at TPG’s state-by-state reopening guide to find each state’s current quarantine rules and, before embarking on any travel, consult that state’s department of health for the most up-to-date rules and regulations.

Cancellation policies

Because we don’t have a crystal ball telling us what the state-by-state or international quarantine, testing rules and caseloads will be by the time the holidays roll around, it’s wise to book flights that have reasonable change and cancellation policies.

Southwest Airlines has always had the best policies of any U.S. airline. It doesn’t charge a fee to change or cancel a flight — ever.

However, in recent weeks, other airlines have also tweaked their policies to try to ease the burden on travelers that may need to change or cancel a flight. TPG maintains a list of airline change and cancellation policies for paid and award tickets. So, before booking flights for the holidays, review the airline’s change/cancel policies to make sure you’re comfortable with them in case you have to change your plans.

Get ready for full flights

Even though many medical professionals continue to reinforce the value of social distancing, it’s not always possible to do that on full aircraft.

Several airlines, including American Airlines, United and most of the low-cost carriers, are not capping passenger capacity in ways that would make it easier to maintain space between you and your fellow travelers.

However, some airlines continue to block middle seats into the holiday season. Delta will continue to block seats and cap capacity until at least Jan. 6, 2021, Southwest until at least Nov. 30, JetBlue at least until Oct. 15 and Alaska Airlines until at least Nov. 30.

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)

And, while airlines like America and United will let you change flights if yours is booked beyond a certain threshold, it doesn’t mean other flights will offer much more room. This strategy could be a gamble during the holidays when we do expect a pickup in the number of passengers passing through airports across the country.

But if you’re very concerned about keeping the seat next to yours empty, here’s how to buy a second seat for on U.S. airlines.

Related: What’s it like to fly during a pandemic? We compared 4 different US airlines

Using points and miles

While 2020 is fraught with new challenges and decisions when it comes to travel, we have seen travel deals begin to return.

In fact, if you decide to fly for the holidays, it may cost fewer miles than it has over the past few years. For example, if you want to fly from Newark (EWR) down to Miami (MIA) for Thanksgiving, it’ll cost you 5,500 miles one-way to fly the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. As things stand now, you wouldn’t have a mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Florida, though you would have one coming back to New Jersey.

Screenshot courtesy of United
Screenshot courtesy of United

It’s not just United, those with American Airlines miles can also find bargains. For example, through much of November and December, you can fly from Houston (IAH) to Jackson Hole (JAC) for just 10,000 AAdvantage miles each way or 20,000 miles in first class, including on dates during peak holiday weeks.

Related: Best national parks in the U.S.

Most airline loyalty programs are now being more flexible with award changes and redeposits than in previous times, but to avoid all fees, you often need to make your changes at least 30 or 60 days in advance, depending on the program.

If you want to use the most flexible points out there, turn to Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards points which can always be redeposited without penalty, or to Delta SkyMiles which now permit fee-free changes or redeposits.

Booking with companion certificates

You may have some travel companion certificates burning a hole in your pocket since you probably haven’t been traveling much over the last several months.

The Southwest Companion Pass is always a winner to use for holiday travel as it simply requires a second seat to be available for sale on the flight to bring your designated companion for just the cost of taxes.

The Alaska Airlines Companion Fare voucher available with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is also relatively easy to use, so it’s a good option if you are flying on Alaska this holiday season.

However, the Delta Companion certificates that come with the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card or Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card can be harder to use during peak holiday travel times as they rely on specific fare classes to be available for booking.

Based on some searches this year, we are seeing more potential holiday uses for those Delta certificates this year around the holidays than in a regular year, be sure and put those to use if you are buying tickets on Delta. Also, remember that the certificates have been getting extended expiration dates into 2021, so you may find yourself with several you can put to use.

Related: 5 steps I’m taking when planning a trip during the pandemic

Buy travel insurance

As you’ve probably gathered at this point, the future remains incredibly uncertain and it’s hard to say what travel will look like by the time you’re basting the turkey or breaking out the string of lights.

Even though many airlines are offering unprecedented flexibility, it still never hurts to consider protecting your holiday flights with travel insurance — specifically, a comprehensive cancel-for-any-reason (CFAR) trip insurance policy.

This may be especially relevant now that travelers can no longer rely on safety net services such as Freebird, which has told customers it’s discontinuing its much-loved trip protection coverage for the “foreseeable future” due to “profound changes in the travel industry” caused by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Freebird was a great tool that protected domestic itineraries in the event of flight cancellations, severe delays and missed connections for just $19 per leg.

Though standard travel insurance — or the kind of trip protections you may have through a premium credit card — might apply if you fall ill and are unable to travel, there are a lot of gaps in coverage. For example, an outbreak at your destination that makes you personally just not want to travel there wouldn’t be covered by most policies.

A plan you can cancel for any reason will come in handy if local quarantine restrictions derail your trip, or you simply decide you don’t feel comfortable flying home for the holidays. Just remember, these policies generally only cover up to 50% to 75% of your total trip cost. Check the insurance policy terms carefully before purchasing this type of coverage, which can be pricey.

Bottom line

Typically, travelers all over the world would be preparing to purchase their Thanksgiving and December holiday flights right about now. But we all know this holiday season will be a far cry from normal.

If you’re planning to fly home for the holidays, or are still hoping to take your annual holiday season vacation, know that you’ll need to do way more research than you normally would — and take more risks. The good news, at least with flights, is that policies are generally more lenient now than before.

Booking flights during the holidays can be complicated even in a good year. You need to think carefully about the day you fly to avoid the worst crowds; you can easily book too soon and too late; winter storms can disrupt even the best plans — and this year, holiday travel will almost certainly be even more complex than usual.

At the very least, you’ll probably need to add a face mask and maybe even a coronavirus test to your packing list.

Featured image by Tyler Olson/Shutterstock.com

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