5 steps I'm taking to plan a trip during the ongoing pandemic
The safest place to be during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is at home. But, for better (and worse) an increasing number of people are traveling. Almost 800,000 people flew within the U.S. in just one day this past week, which doesn't even factor in all of those who are taking to the roads to get away from home for a bit before school starts in the coming weeks.
Over the summer, we've successfully taken a few carefully planned nearcation road trips to mostly socially distanced destinations. My oldest daughter and I even took one set of flights to cover the reopening of Disney World -- complete with masks and, yes, even face shields. But as we look forward to the fall and winter months, all of our original plans have been wiped out, just as they were in the spring in summer. Even still, we have some hope that we'll be able to extend our exploration radius outward a bit and perhaps enjoy some national parks as a family out west.
But predicting the future has proven to be all but impossible this year, so there is no guarantee that this trip will be feasible or realistic when its tentative date arrives. So, how do you plan a future trip when it's impossible to know what the future will hold in terms of pandemics, quarantines, travel restrictions and more? In short: carefully.
If you are ready to pencil in a future trip, here's how we are going about it so we have something to look forward to. At the same time, we'll plan to maximize savings and minimize our losses in case it doesn't pan out.
Related: Here's what it's like to fly in the US right now
Using double Delta Companion Certificates
Thanks to having the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, I am awarded one Delta Companion Certificate each year I have the card and pay the annual fee. My renewal date is in August, so I was just given a fresh companion voucher valid for 12 months. However, the unused certificate I've had since last August that would normally expire this August has been extended six months, through Feb. 2021.
Related: Some Amex cardholders receiving statement credits to offset annual fees
Since we will have two valid certificates, when we usually only have one at a time, it means my family can get four seats on eligible Delta flights for the price of two. (Though the purchases will have to be done in two transactions.) It just so happens that I wanted my next flight to be on Delta as it generally is considered to be best in class when it comes to blocking middle seats, cleaning between flights, etc.
According to the rules, normally a "Companion Certificate will be deemed fully used once tickets have been issued and will not be returned or replaced."
But right now, there is more flexibility than normal due to continued uncertainty related to the pandemic. For tickets purchased right now, Delta's coronavirus page states that you can change or cancel your travel without a change fee or award redeposit fee, and specifically states that the same rules apply whether a flight is booked with cash, miles or using a companion certificate. Various online reports also indicate this to be the case, though the travelers originally booked to use the certificates likely need to be the ones who continue to be on the ticket even if the travel dates change.
Related: Do kids need to wear face masks on the plane?
If we proceed with purchasing Delta tickets using Companion Certificates, we will not get our money back on the paid portion of the tickets if we decide not to travel, but we will have a credit to use on future Delta flight. An alternative to having money potentially tied up with Delta would be to use Delta SkyMiles that could simply be redeposited in the event the trip didn't work out at all.
Related: What to pack when flying during the pandemic
Leaning into hotel flexibility
While I've favored whole-home rentals over hotel rooms during the last few months, the type of national park trip we want to take in a few months lends itself better to hotel stays this time around. For me, it helps that most major hotel chains now require mask-wearing in the hotel's public spaces. While you will be around more people than in a home rental, the good news when looking into hotels instead of home rentals is that you've generally got a lot more flexibility with backing out of a hotel stay than a home rental.
The exact cancellation terms will vary by brand and the specific property, but each of the hotels we have tentatively booked allows for full cancellation without a penalty until one day before arrival.
Related: How to use points for vacation home rental
Saving more with Amex Offers
In recent days, we've seen several travel-related deals and offers reappear after several months of relative quiet. For example, there are now Amex Offers available that can help you save money on stays at Marriott, Kimpton and more. There's at least one Marriott property on my radar and using a new Amex Offer I can save $50 off $200 spent (valid through the end of 2020), which is a better play than spending Marriott points right now as the cash rates are really low.
Related: How to use points at hotels near national parks
Make advance national park reservations
If you are also eyeballing a potential national park trip, know that things are probably different than the last time you visited. While some campgrounds have reopened, others are still closed or have reduced capacity so be sure and do that research before assuming you'll be able to snag a spot.
Select national parks, such as Rocky Mountain National Park are operating on a timed reservation system, even for just daily use. At RMNP, dates for the following month are all released on the first day or the previous month. So while it's still early August as of this writing, some September weekend dates at the popular park are already booked full.
It's not just one park, there are many requiring reservations of some sort. For example, Yosemite National Park is also requiring reservations for day use, though a single reservation there gets you seven days of use. There's a $2 reservation fee on top of the regular access fees for those without an annual pass.
Related: Best national parks to visit in winter
If you decide you are going to travel, it's entirely possible to plan a trip like this one with low to minimal financial risk, depending on how you make your reservations.
Our car rental and hotel reservations won't cost us anything out-of-pocket, and we can back out of them right up until it's time to travel with no penalty. We will spend some cash on the two purchased Delta flights to use the two companion certificates. There is some risk there, but Delta is an airline I feel comfortable flying right now due to its cleaning and distancing standards, and I trust that we will be able to make use of the credit even if this specific trip has to change.
Traveling for at least the rest of 2020 won't be a zero-risk scenario.
For some, probably for many, sticking close to home is the best strategy for at least the remainder of the year. But if you have decided to explore a bit, there are ways to lower your health and financial risk. Along with our Lysol wipes and face masks, we'll be armed with cancellable and changeable reservations and an outdoor, distanced destination that we've been itching to visit for a long time.