Why you should book travel even if you aren’t sure you’ll go
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I’m still kicking myself for not booking award tickets a month ago.
The perfect flights became available — business-class awards to Cape Town, South Africa. The itinerary had easy connections and was on a date that worked for me — using up my stash of Delta SkyMiles, no less. But I hesitated just long enough for award space to disappear. The thoughts in my mind: Would South Africa be open and accessible then? Would it be safe to travel? Would somewhere “better” open by winter when we intend to travel?
Like many of you, I’ve lived in indecision for the past year and a half.
Every fork in the road led to me weighing every single possibility just to end up as unresolved as I started. I’ve always been a deliberate decision-maker, carefully researching facts and analyzing choices to feel confident with my final decision. Now, that same amount of research and analysis ends in paralysis thanks to a giant question mark. Instead of making the best-informed choice, I end up booking nothing at all.
It’s illogical and irrational, and I know I’m not alone. It’s also not really the best current strategy when it comes to booking travel.
We’ve all had the best-laid plans erased in the last 18 months and it can be hard to want to gather the energy to try again. But the reality is that if you enjoy travel and want to get back out there, it’s much better to book something and change your mind later, than to miss your window and be stuck at home.
Here’s why you should be booking trips — or at least flights — even if you aren’t sure you’ll actually go.
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Airlines offer free changes and cancellations
One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that airline travel waivers have stuck around and, in some cases, have led to permanent customer-friendly policy changes.
New airline bookings frequently allow free changes and cancellations, although voluntary changes will result in a voucher or travel credit rather than a cash refund. It’s understandable if you don’t want to make a cash purchase if you’re not confident that you’ll be able to take that trip (or use your voucher for other travel).
But if you are sitting on existing credits, you may as well use them.
You can usually redeposit your miles for free
Award travel can be even better right now and takes away basically all the downsides.
Mileage redeposits previously cost $100 or more per ticket for general members but now they’re often penalty-free for everyone in many cases. If circumstances change, it only takes a few clicks on the airline website to get your miles back in your account and you’ll end up exactly where you started.
These are customer-friendly policies that make it easy to plan now without potential hassles or costs hanging over your head. You don’t even have to make a decision until the last minute so you can factor in the most current information.
For once, the worst-case scenario is nothing to lose sleep over. Better yet, you might actually be able to take that trip at the solid award price you locked in. In many cases, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by locking in a well-priced award trip you hope to take.
Redeposit fees at a glance
- Alaska Airlines: Awards can be canceled for free with all miles redeposited and taxes refunded.
- American Airlines: Awards can be canceled for free with all miles redeposited and taxes refunded.
- Delta Air Lines: Awards can be canceled for free for travel originating in the United States in Main Cabin or higher (basic economy is excluded, except when other, temporary waivers are in place).
- Hawaiian Airlines: Hawaiian is no longer charging change or redeposit fees for canceled award flights.
- JetBlue Airlines: There are no fees to change or cancel a Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra or Mint fare. Fees may apply for Blue Basic flights except when other waivers apply.
- Southwest Airlines: Southwest has never charged redeposit fees on award tickets.
- United Airlines: Changes for award flights that originate in the U.S. are free for all, redeposits are free for all until 30 days before departure
International airlines can still be more stringent, though many have temporary waivers in place. Check with the issuing airline before booking a reservation.
There is one major consideration to keep in mind, though: Miles are refunded to the frequent flyer program even if they began as transferable bank points.
If you convert credit card points from Chase or American Express into airline miles and then later need to cancel the trip, the balance will be stored with the applicable airline’s frequent flyer program. There’s no way to return those miles as flexible credit card points, so you’ll want to use airline miles you already have for speculative bookings or be prepared to use new miles for an alternate redemption in the future.
Hotels offer flexibility if you’re smart about it
As always, hotels continue to offer flexible, refundable rates but you’ll have to purposely choose the right rate.
Prepaid, nonrefundable rooms still mean exactly that: There’s zero sympathy if you change your mind later so read the fine print closely before entering your payment information. Although refundable rates often cost 10%-20% more than a nonrefundable rate, the extra surcharge can buy you valuable peace of mind.
Like with flights, using points to cover the cost of your stay can be an awesome workaround.
Reward stays offer refundable bookings at no extra cost in most cases. Do keep an eye on property policies, though. I’ve noticed numerous hotels making their refundable rates slightly less flexible this year than they were in 2020. You may need to cancel two or three days in advance rather than one. Note the deadlines in your calendar so you don’t inadvertently miss any.
Rental cars are a challenge this year
Although rental cars used to be a mere blip on my mental planning radar, finding an affordable reservation this year can be close to impossible. Booking a refundable reservation far in advance can help you lock in a lower rate and still take advantage of discounts if prices change in the future.
More importantly, as rental cars literally sell out in some popular areas, booking early can secure your transportation instead of leaving you in a lurch.
With sky-high prices, you may be tempted to book the cheapest rates offered to you but be careful. Unsurprisingly, companies are steering you into reservations that come with change or cancel fees. If your plans aren’t 100% solid, double-check to ensure you’re choosing a refundable rate. Hint: Most refundable car rentals don’t even require a credit card number.
Don’t forget your travel insurance
Savvy travelers know that some credit cards include travel protection when you use your card to pay for your trip (yes, award taxes and fees sometimes count). That’s an amazing, valuable perk to help protect you from unexpected expenses before or during your travels.
However, the included coverage varies by card and in some cases, it might not be enough in the age of COVID-19. Independent travel insurance may offer stronger protection and premium “cancel for any reason” insurance offers freedom you won’t find in your card benefits. However, you can usually only purchase the “cancel for any reason” coverage around the time you begin booking your trip, so factor that into any plans if you want that level of protection.
Debating what level of insurance you need will require studying policies and considering your own circumstances. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution since it will depend on your own personal circumstances as well as the trip you’re hoping to take. However, all travelers should look for coverage of some sort, especially since in some cases it won’t cost you a dime just by using the right card in your wallet.
As always, be a responsible traveler
If you’re booking reservations that you’re not certain you’ll be able to take, cancel whatever you can’t use as soon as you realize you aren’t taking the trip. This frees up airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars for other travelers who might be looking for that opening. Capacity restrictions and/or supply limitations mean that your unused reservation could go to someone else who needs it.
Time is the one cost you can’t avoid
Although travel policies make it easy to get your miles and points back if you need to cancel later, the time you spend planning a trip can never be returned.
Finding award flights can be a tedious process and planning a day-to-day itinerary with corresponding hotels can take a significant chunk of time, depending on your level of obsession.
Here it’s all about your attitude and perspective. You can sigh or harumph over time wasted or you can delight in the opportunity. Booking a trip adds hope back to your life. In a world of too much doom and gloom, I think you should choose optimism.
Make the planning fun: read reviews, watch videos and keep a guidebook on your coffee table.
You don’t have to fine-tune all your trip details at the very beginning but it’s okay (and encouraged) to get the major components in place and then fill in the gaps or make changes as the trip gets closer and you’re more certain it will occur. You may even have plans from canceled trips that are still relevant so all you need to do is change a few dates.
As for me, I missed out on those original award flights to Cape Town but hope’s not lost.
I checked back until I found similar flights that work almost as well. This time, I didn’t hesitate. With a few clicks of a button, I claimed those seats. Best of all, I still reserve the right to later change my mind and put the miles right back where they came from.
Featured photo by Chiara Salvadori/Getty Images.
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