Pre-pandemic to now: 8 ways I'm booking travel differently
As travel returns in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic remains a concern in much of the world and international travel to many destinations is still tricky. After all, some of the destinations that are open to tourists without quarantine have confusing entry requirements, while others use stoplight systems that could change restrictions overnight. Plus, some destinations are still completely closed to tourists.
My husband and I have rebooked international trips repeatedly during the pandemic as schedule changes and border closures made the trips impossible to take as planned. We've also thrown in the towel on a few trips, opting to cancel and get a refund. But, we've hung on to some trips due to their lucrative elite status earning rates and low cost.
Managing and booking a few new trips has highlighted that we need to change how we book trips amidst the pandemic. So, today I'll discuss eight ways we're booking travel differently now.
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How we booked travel pre-pandemic
Before the pandemic, my husband and I lived out of hotels full-time as global digital nomads. We chased airline elite status with multiple airlines, including Executive Platinum status with American Airlines and Diamond status with Asiana. In 2019 alone, we each flew more than 250,000 miles.
We booked most of our trips for one or more of the following reasons:
- To fly on a lucrative mileage or elite-earning itinerary
- To try our a new airline product
- To visit a particular destination
- To take advantage of an excellent mileage or paid fare, including mistake fares
We frequently lined up trips, putting just a night or two between them. Sometimes we nested trips, meaning we'd start a new round-trip itinerary in the middle of another itinerary. We'd also book itineraries with many segments and non-direct routings to maximize mileage earnings. Other times we'd book overnight layovers in third countries to sleep better or see a new city.
We still have several lucrative mileage-earning trips on the books. We booked some pre-pandemic and others early on. when we still expected global travel would return quickly. But, flying these complex itineraries isn't easy (or, in some cases, feasible) due to ongoing entry restrictions and reduced airline routes and schedules.
Related: 11 ways earning and burning points and miles could change this year
Trending toward simple one-off trips
Before the pandemic, we rarely booked one-off trips. After all, we didn't have a home base and we'd sometimes nest one or more other trips within a trip to snag inexpensive fares. But now, some positioning flights aren't feasible due to border closures and nested trips can be easily wrecked by an airline dropping a route or a single country on the itinerary not allowing entry. So, we're not booking many heavily nested trips right now, instead preferring simpler one-off trips from the U.S.
We'll still book positioning flights within the U.S. to snag less expensive awards or paid fares. But we're avoiding positioning flights across borders, including between the U.S. and Canada. After all, the more flights and countries you add to a trip, the more likely something will go wrong. Plus, by keeping each trip discrete, we can easily cancel or reschedule trips that aren't feasible.
Related: Why I (almost) always book one-way flights
More focus on change and cancellation policies
Speaking of which, we're focusing a lot more on change and cancellation policies for airlines and hotels.
Whenever possible, I've made refundable hotel bookings. For flights, we didn't put much weight on change and cancellation policies. When we needed flexibility, we'd book with Southwest Airlines or book an award with American Airlines. After all, one perk of American Airlines Executive Platinum elite status was free award cancellation, until AAdvantage opened this benefit to all members.
However, now we're paying a lot more attention to change and cancellation policies when we book. Sure, the trips we're booking for early 2022 will likely be changed by the airline before we fly (which will allow us to request a refund if we decide to cancel). But, we're still trying to book with programs that offer changes and cancellations for no fee or minimal fees to maximize our flexibility.
Related: Low fees, stopovers and open jaws: The best airline miles for flexible travelers
Every trip should have a compelling reason
When it became clear last summer that we wouldn't be able to return to our globe-trotting ways quickly, we bought an RV. Unlike our first two and a half years living as digital nomads, now we have a home base in the form of our RV. As such, we find ourselves being more selective about the trips we book. In particular, we find ourselves focusing on trips that have a compelling reason for us.
Of course, compelling reasons will be different for each person. But for us, we're focusing on trips that allow us to get lucrative elite earnings on American Airlines (and to a lesser extent, on Asiana or Delta) or take us to destinations we want to visit. We're also prioritizing some high-value redemptions we expect may be ripe for devaluation.
Related: Here’s how a last-minute award trip to Italy got me halfway to Delta Silver status
A larger buffer between trips
Since there are always more flights we want to fly and destinations we want to visit than our time allows, we've typically booked trips back-to-back. The origin or destination for many of our trips is often a U.S. hub such as New York City and Los Angeles.
Hotels in these destinations usually aren't inexpensive regardless of whether you're using points or cash. So, we've typically only given ourselves a day or two between tickets, depending on flight frequency and route.
However, now we're scheduling more time between trips whenever possible. This extra time will allow us to get a COVID-19 PCR test if needed for our upcoming travel. Plus, we can handle any schedule or routing changes from the airline more easily between trips.
Related: Battle of the premium travel rewards cards: Which is the best?
Avoiding overnight layovers in transit countries
We typically haven't avoided overnight layovers in transit countries. Instead, we'd sometimes even seek out overnight layovers. After all, I'd rather stay awake during flights and sleep in an airport hotel between flights. In some parts of the world, I can work East Coast hours during an overnight layover -- which is much less frustrating than working on inflight Wi-Fi.
However, transiting a third country now is often much more complex. After all, many countries still have stringent entry requirements that exclude tourists or require quarantine or testing. So, you might end up needing to sleep in the airport. Some countries even look back at the countries you've visited within the last 14 days when determining whether you can enter without quarantine. So, a quick overnight layover could prevent you from entering a subsequent destination.
Related: Everything you need to know about transiting through European airports during the pandemic
More attention to routing
As the previous section discussed, routing matters. After all, some countries even consider places you've transited when determining whether you can enter without quarantine. And in the case of COVID-tested flights to Italy, how you get between your origin and Italy determines whether you can enter without quarantine.
So, we're paying a lot of attention to routing when booking trips now. Of course, it's impossible to say what transit and entry requirements will look like for a particular country next week, much less next month or next year. But, some countries are moving toward reopening -- at least to fully vaccinated tourists -- quicker than others.
Related: How airline route maps may continue to change in 2021 and beyond
Booking liberally when there's free cancellation
We're booking hotels and flights more liberally than ever when we can cancel free of charge. For example, I snagged many Hilton Honors award nights and IHG Rewards award stays earlier this year to lock in inexpensive award pricing while demand was low. And I also booked several Marriott Bonvoy stays with cash instead of points to utilize low paid rates.
We're also booking award flights liberally in programs that allow free cancellation and for which we already have miles. But, I don't typically recommend buying miles or transferring points into a program to make bookings you aren't confident you'll be able to fly. After all, if you cancel your award, you'll be left with miles in a program you don't use much. And, the program may devalue before you're able to use your miles.
As we're booking new flights, I'm snagging refundable hotel reservations to lock in current prices. But, many trips we've booked during the pandemic haven't ended up happening as planned due to schedule changes and entry requirements. So, I'm no longer spending time planning other trip details until I feel confident a trip will happen as planned.
Related: My approach to hotel loyalty and why I’ve mostly ignored Hyatt, Hilton and Wyndham
Avoiding trips that require a rental car
Finally, you've likely read about or experienced the rental car shortage. We rarely rent cars, so this shortage isn't affecting us as much as many travelers. But even so, I didn't book a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine this summer due to expensive rental car prices. And another trip where I assumed we'd get a one-way car rental from Fairbanks, Alaska to Anchorage proved infeasible when multiple searches returned no rental cars.
Related: Can’t find a car rental? Here are 7 secrets that may help
Our experience rebooking existing travel during the pandemic has been exhausting. And, while researching Italy's entry requirements for my recent COVID-tested flights and writing about Denmark reopening, I've discovered just how difficult it is to understand entry requirements now. For many reasons, we've needed to change how we book travel.
Many travelers are booking last-minute trips now. After all, constantly changing entry and testing requirements make it challenging to plan. But, last-minute trips often don't feature fares that are both inexpensive and good for earning airline elite status. Plus, sometimes, it can be challenging to get away for a last-minute trip. So, we'll continue to book most of our trips well in advance when we can snag low fares. We're just booking these trips differently now.