Now may be the time to book future travel
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If you like to travel, the odds are high you've had to cancel or postpone a trip, or several, due to the risks and travel restrictions imposed due to coronavirus -- you're no doubt disappointed.
I also nixed several much-anticipated trips, including two spring cruises. While it was a tough call at the time, I ultimately wouldn't have had a choice even if I had wanted to sail since cruise operations have been suspended well into the summer months.
But now, as we move from one chapter in this pandemic to the next, many are looking forward to the summer months and beyond and are wondering, "Should I think about booking a trip for a future date right now?"
That's a great question. We at TPG say "yes," now is the time to start booking future travel -- but there are caveats.
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We are living through history, but we'll come out on the other side of this. Your travel plans have probably been on hold, but your dreams and plans certainly don't have to be.
Let's talk about the types of trips that may be OK to book now 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 if things don't go the way we all hope.
Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates
Planning a new trip can ease the disappointment of dashed plans
If you are dealing with the disappointment of a canceled trip, it can help mitigate the disappointment and introduce new hope if you start planning a new one. You don't necessarily need to know yet when you plan to travel. You can 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 or home rentals are a perfect match for your travel party; and what sights and foods 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 and resetting priorities 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, though note that some destinations may experience surging demand around certain dates as many travelers work to rebook their trips.
Related: The joy of booking new summer trips
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. However, if you know where you want to go, rebooking now may be a good idea -- assuming the chance and cancelation penalties are within your risk tolerance.
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 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Many cards are even giving new customers a longer period to meet spending bonuses and temporary category bonuses at the types of retailers people are using the most.
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 and the mandatory 14-day quarantine is over for Hawaii, we want to return to the islands. Hawaiian Airlines is currently emailing offers that will allow you to receive 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first 90 days 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.)
Related: 5 reasons to fly Hawaiian Airlines to Hawaii
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 so many unknowns even as the country moves into a phased reopening. So, booking policies are 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.
Related: Guide to airline change and cancellation policies
For example, United's policy is that those with plans to travel between June 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, can also cancel or change their itineraries for no fee for a 24-month travel credit, so long as the change is made by May 31, and the new itinerary commences within 24 months of the original.
Delta is allowing any tickets purchased through May 31, 2020, to be canceled or changed for up to a year from the date of purchase without any additional fees.
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.
Related: What it's like to fly in the U.S. right now
Cruise change and cancellation policies have been relaxed
Cruises have temporarily come to a halt, but there are signs that cruise lines are actively working on a plan to resume sailing, potentially as soon as late summer. There is a CDC “no-sail” order that blocks cruise ships from operating in U.S. waters through July 24, but Carnival has announced plans to resume some sailings shortly thereafter in August.
While exactly when cruising will resume and what it will look like are still evolving situations, TPG's CEO, Brian Kelly is very bullish on the future of cruising. In fact, some types of cruising are seeing relatively strong (all things considered) 2021 bookings.
Here's everything you need to know about the latest cruise line change and cancellation policies, as well as why you should think twice before taking that lucrative cruise credit instead of a refund.
Incorporate what you learned from canceling your last trip
When we had to cancel our upcoming Celebrity Cruises voyage back in March, 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 periods for European sailings which meant we were able to cancel and lose only our deposit, which was just a few hundred dollars.
Related: The extreme measures cruise lines are taking as coronavirus concerns spread
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.
Related: How to avoid cancellation fees when you book an award flight
How to make savvy booking choices
If you're interested in locking in trip reservations right now, there are things you can do to mitigate the impact to you if things don't work out to travel the way you hope.
Related: The latest coronavirus-related airline change and cancellation policy changes
Book flexible flights
Right now is 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 May, 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. 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.
Related: Coronavirus hotel change and cancellation policies -- What to know
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. There's a wide range of cancellation rules when it comes to home bookings, so be sure to only choose rules you are comfortable with.
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. Keep in mind countless travelers are all replanning and recreating postponed trips just like you.
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 it is safe and possible to do so. In fact, we are already seeing a ramp-up of marking to locals interesting in taking close-in getaways. Expect to see some deals pop up for flights, hotel accommodations, rental homes, cruises and more, especially during the offseason or as things begin an initial ramp-up period. When the time is right, be ready to lock in that ideal vacation.
Don't be afraid to start over
Maybe you just needed to postpone a trip for a bit and can now start replanning the same trip at a later date. But, maybe the trips you originally had planned for 2020 are no longer the ones that fit your interests, budget or the current realities of the world. That cruise to Europe might be off the table, but perhaps a road trip to a private summer home rental within your state is a realistic, but still rewarding option. TPG has seen many staffers scrap far-flung plans in exchange for some more back to basics and closer to home summer plans.
So far, what they have found is that after two months at home, a trip to a quaint cabin on a river a few hours from home now sounds just as exciting as that trip to Europe once did.
Related: Will we be able to travel this summer
If you're one of the many Americans that put travel on hold in favor of a wait-and-see approach, we are right there with you. But, there's no reason you should continue to 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. Depending on your situation and intended destination, perhaps the time to rebook has already arrived
Are you booking future trips now? Where will you go, and when are you traveling? Sound off in the comments below.
Additional reporting by Summer Hull