Ask a Points Nerd: When Will It Make Sense to Travel Again?

Mar 17, 2020

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Disclaimer: I’m not a medical or epidemiological expert. All of these opinions are based on my own travel preferences and risk tolerance. They are not recommendations.

As a travel writer and compulsive face-toucher, this has been a stressful time. A few weeks ago, everyone was asking, “Should I use points to book summer travel?” Now they’re asking,”Will I ever be able to get on an airplane again?”

How long must we hunker down? When will it be safe to travel again? And why does trying not to touch one’s face seemingly make one do it ever more?

At this point, we don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and we probably won’t for some time. Does that mean we should all cancel our plans for the year? Not necessarily.

The Hunker Games

The Trump administration’s ban on travel from Europe has made one thing clear to everyone: It’s really not a good idea to travel right now. Not just because air travel increases the risk of exposure, which it certainly does, but because you might get stuck far away from home if another ban takes effect.

That said, it is (paradoxically) an excellent time to plan travel. Most major airlines and hotel brands have announced generous flexible travel policies on new bookings. So you can (generally) book a hotel or flight now knowing that you can change or cancel it for free in the future.

For example, I recently booked two flights in April, one in May, and another in July. I have no idea which (if any) of these flights I will actually be able or willing to take, but the stakes are low because I can cancel them for a full refund.

However, make sure to do your research before following suit.

Read the fine print

Keep in mind that these flexible travel policies do not offer carte blanche to change or cancel your trip no matter what. Each has various restrictions on what you can and can’t do with travel booked this month.

Make sure to carefully check the policy before booking, and watch for these common features:

  • You still have to pay the fare difference when changing flights. Airlines are waiving change fees for new bookings, but that does not include the difference in price between your original ticket and whatever you change it to. For example, if your original ticket cost $200 and you change it to one that costs $300, you will still have to pay that $100 fare difference.

  • Many programs allow only a single change. Many airlines and hotels allow only a single free change on new bookings, so don’t assume you’re getting a fully flexible ticket.

  • Cancellations can get tricky. Many airlines will refund a canceled ticket only in the form of credit with that airline. These cancellations are effectively ticket changes (you just have to buy a new ticket with the credit instead of changing the original). So don’t buy a dozen tickets thinking you can get refunds for them all.

Free the line

Finally, I feel compelled to make a public service announcement on behalf of the poor, beleaguered customer service teams out there:

If you can, minimize the number of times you call hotels and airlines in the next few weeks. Airline phone lines, in particular, have been jammed lately as everyone tries to change or cancel their tickets, and some customers (like those returning from Europe) need help much more urgently than others.

Think of the airline phone lines like toilet paper: We all need some, but nobody should take more than their share, or it creates a crisis.

Right? High-five! Oh, wait …

Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected]

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