Here’s what to consider if you’re thinking about booking future travel now
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If you’ve had to cancel a trip, or several, due to the threat of coronavirus — or even due to the unprecedented ban on travel from Europe to the U.S. — you’re no doubt disappointed.
I know I’ve personally been moping around after nixing a much-anticipated cruise at the end of March. Of course, I wouldn’t have had a choice since many cruise lines including Viking, Disney and Virgin Voyages (the one I was booked on), have voluntarily suspended operations temporarily.
If you’re like me, you don’t feel complete unless you’re always planning your next trip. So, you may be wondering: “With all of this uncertainty, travel bans and event cancellations, should I even think about booking a trip for a future date right now?”
That’s a great question.
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We at TPG say “yes” — but with a few caveats. Sure, we’re living through history, but we’ll come out on the other side of this. Your travel plans might be on hold for the immediate future, but your dreams don’t have to be.
Let’s talk about whether now is the right time to book a trip for the future and what safeguards you can put in place to make sure your vacation goes off without a hitch — or can easily be canceled, if need be, with the least financial loss.
Dreaming up a new trip can ease the disappointment of dashed plans
If you’re crying in your beer over a canceled vacation, it can help mitigate the disappointment if you start planning a new one right away. You don’t necessarily need to know when you plan to travel. Just pick a place you’ve always wanted to go and begin the research process.
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Look into the best award or paid flights; what hotels are a perfect match for your travel party; and what sights and restaurants are a must. Now that you have more time to plan, you can also seek out the best tour operators and travel advisors. You’ll even have time to make customized Google maps that showcase the spots you plan to visit. (I explain how to do just that in this post about the six things I do before every trip.)
The gift of time will help you craft incredible itineraries — no matter where or when you want to travel.
Another advantage of planning is that you now may have time to earn enough miles or points to drastically reduce the out-of-pocket costs on your upcoming trip. Not only that, but award availability may be better for your travel dates than it has historically been in the past.
Don’t worry if you’re not ready to make reservations today. You can research now and just be ready to pull the trigger when the time is right.
In my house, we’re working toward earning the welcome bonus for the United℠ Explorer Card so we’ll have those miles on hand when we’re ready to book something. The current bonus offer is 60,000 United miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of opening the card.
We flew United’s Polaris class for the first time last year, and when we make our next trip to Europe, we’d love to reprise the experience.
We may also pick up the Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®, because when life goes back to normal after the coronavirus outbreak, we want to return to the islands. The airline is currently emailing offers that will allow you to receive 60,000 bonus miles when you spend $2,000 in the first three months of holding the card. (The information for the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.)
Booking policies are more flexible than ever
Many airlines, hotels and cruise lines understand it’s difficult to commit to a trip in the age of this new coronavirus. There are just too many unknowns. So, booking policies are evolving to be more flexible — and consumer-friendly — than ever before.
Airlines say book now and you can change the flight for free later
Many airlines have shifted to temporary policies that allow you to book new flights now through a certain date, and can cancel for a full refund later, often with the ability to make changes within the next year.
For example, United’s new policy says that any ticket purchased between March 3 and March 31, 2020, for a future date can be changed for free to a flight of equal or lesser value for the next 12 months (from the original ticket date). United is also waiving change fees for tickets bought on or before March 2 with travel dates between March 9 and April 30.
American says it will waive change fees on bookings for travel through April 30, as long as the new ticket is issued on or before Dec. 31 and travel occurs within 12 months of the originally booked travel dates. That applies to paid and award tickets.
Of course, Southwest didn’t have to change its policy since it always allowed for last-minute (up to 10 minutes before your flight), refundable cancellations.
Cruise change and cancellation policies have been relaxed
The cruise industry is reeling with several lines voluntarily suspending sailings (including Viking and Princess) for the next few weeks and even months. If you have your heart set on a cruise but don’t want to lose your shirt if you cancel at the last minute, there’s now good news on that front: Cruise lines around the world are loosening change and cancellation policies to make it safer for you to book a cruise for later this year, or even a 2021 or 2022 sailing.
For example, river cruise company AmaWaterways is lifting restrictions on its cancel-for-any-reason Travel Waiver Plus so cruisers can add it to their booking for around $80 to $175. With that coverage, you can cancel a voyage up to 24 hours before embarkation.
Mainstream ocean cruise lines like Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line and more are allowing passengers to postpone trips from one to three days before departure for voyages departing on or before certain dates (ranging from April through Sept. 30). You’ll receive a future cruise credit if you do cancel.
Here’s everything you need to know about the latest cruise line change cancellation policies.
Incorporate what you learned from canceling your last trip
When we had to cancel our upcoming Celebrity Cruises voyage, we were expecting to lose 50% of our cruise fare since we were canceling close to the sail date. However, Celebrity extended its cancellation waiver time periods for European sailings. This meant we were able to cancel and lose only our deposit, which was just a few hundred dollars.
Invest in trip insurance
For the Celebrity cruise, we had purchased a trip insurance policy, but not one with cancel for any reason coverage (which generally only covers 50% to 75% of your trip costs). Going forward, for expensive vacations, we’ll be more apt to purchase trip insurance with this kind of cancel for any reason upgrade — even when it’s pricey — as you just never know what surprises are around the corner.
Consider self-insuring for cheap trips
For less expensive trips, we’ll probably still self-insure and eat the costs if we have to cancel and the travel company won’t allow a date change or future credit.
Use miles to book your flights for easier cancellations
Having to cancel a few trips also proved it can be much easier to cancel an award ticket than a paid one. Many airlines allow free or inexpensive change fees for top elite members. That makes speculatively booking award flights a better bet. Otherwise, you may need to pay higher prices to purchase refundable airline fares.
How to make savvy booking choices
So, if you’re interested in locking in trip reservations right now, what are some things you can do to mitigate any potential financial impacts if you have to cancel? Let’s take a look at flights, accommodations and more.
Book flexible flights
Right now is actually a good time to make future flight reservations. You may find better award availability than usual or very appealing cash fares. If paying cash, check the price for refundable or changeable tickets. That way, you give yourself an escape hatch if you do need to cancel or change your trip down the line.
And, as mentioned, airlines are more flexible right now when it comes to purchasing airfare. For example, if you purchase a ticket on Delta during March, you can change that ticket, one time, with no change fee applied. (However, if the new flight is more expensive than the old one, you will pay the fare difference.)
If you’re booking award flights right now, you have quite a bit of flexibility built-in. Many airlines are also waiving mile redeposit fees because of the current crisis.
Pick the right accommodations
Booking a hotel for your upcoming trip is relatively easy since many properties have very fair cancellation policies — you can often cancel up to 24 to 48 hours before check-in. And, hotels have met the challenge of coronavirus by updating their change and cancellation policies to be as consumer-friendly as possible. Just be sure to carefully read the cancellation information for the reservation before booking.
If you prefer booking an Airbnb or other vacation rental, carefully check cancellation policies. On March 13, Airbnb updated its “extenuating circumstances” policy for cancellations, and that opens up full refunds for affected travelers. See the policy for full details.
Before booking a vacation rental, read the cancellation policy and talk with the booking agent. If you’re not comfortable with the policy, look elsewhere for your lodging.
If you don’t mind waiting to reserve certain parts of your trip, you could lock in your plane tickets — especially if there’s a terrific award deal, like some of Delta’s recent flash sales — and then book lodging at a later date. Just be sure to research your options and have a Plan B and C if your first hotel preference is full when you do decide to book.
Select the right tour packages and guides
One of the challenging things about booking cruises and tour packages is the deposit and payment cycles. Often, you’ll pay for much — or all — of your trip in advance, and there are steep cancellation penalties depending on when you pull the plug on your trip. You can lose plenty of money when canceling within those date ranges unless you have a travel insurance policy with cancel for any reason add-on coverage.
Before booking any tour package, read the cancellation language and decide if you’re comfortable with the financial penalties. Or, look into insurance. Remember that, right now, travel policies are changing quickly to address issues due to the new coronavirus. Read the latest details at the travel supplier’s website and give the company a call to get the most up-to-date information.
Atlas Obscura — which offers trips around the globe — is reassuring clients about upcoming travel options. Mike Parker, general manager of Trips, recently sent out an email to clients that said, in part, “When you join one of our trips, we want you to have peace of mind. We want you to know that, if circumstances change, we’ve got your back. If you join a 2020 departure and ultimately decide that it’s not the right time or place to travel, we’ll help you update your plans by transferring your reservation to a future date, or to another trip, without cancellation penalties. In the unlikely event we need to cancel a departure, we’ll refund everything you’ve paid us for it.”
TPG applauds companies like Atlas Obscura for doing what they can to help travelers feel comfortable with their booking options for future trips. If you’re worried about booking terms, look for companies that are greatly expanding the choices for bookings, changes and cancellations.
Watch for deals
There’s no doubt that coronavirus is putting a strain on the travel industry. While capacity is being cut on airline routes in the short term, destinations will want to welcome travelers back as soon as possible. Expect to see deals across the board for flights, hotel accommodations, rental homes, cruises and more. When the time is right, be ready to lock in that ideal vacation.
If you’re one of the many Americans putting a hold on travel for now and are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new coronavirus, that’s OK. But, there’s no reason you should put a hold on vacation planning. Now is the best time to start researching those dream trips, watching flight award availability and banking those points so you can book a spectacular resort when the time comes.
Are you booking future trips now? Where will you go, and when are you traveling? Sound off in the comments below.
Featured image by Levente Bodo/Getty Images
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