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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown so many wrenches in so many plans (summer of travel, anyone?) that once again, you still don’t know whether you can or should travel during the holidays.
If it’s the uncertainty that’s holding you back, you should focus on booking highly flexible travel so that if plans change, you won’t lose money.
Here we outline four ways to book holiday travel without locking yourself in. Make sure to check the current terms before hitting “book” on any travel.
1. Avoid budget airlines
All of the full-fare airlines in the United States have kept flexible change and cancellation policies and eliminated fees for changing your flight, as long as you don’t book basic economy. In other words, these airlines are currently allowing changes to newly booked itineraries:
Delta Air Lines.
(Southwest is generally considered a low-cost airline, but it offers an extraordinarily flexible change and cancellation policy even in normal times.)
The other budget carriers, including Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, have rolled back their flexible booking policies, offering limited flexibility on new bookings. That means you may pay slightly less in the short term for a Spirit flight in December, but you're more likely to eat a hefty fee if your plans change close to your departure date. Save yourself the headache and simply skip the budget airlines.
Before booking, ask yourself: “How likely am I to take another equally expensive flight with this airline in 2022?” If the answer is “not certain,” then you might want to reconsider booking with that airline in the first place.
2. Choose your lodging carefully
This is where things get more complicated. Currently, some hotels offer refundable rates, but they may be more expensive. The flexibility, though, would allow you to cancel within 24 hours of check-in to receive a full refund.
Vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Vrbo have been less generous with their cancellation policies, sometimes leaving it to the discretion of the property owner whether to allow cancellations.
If you’re at all unsure about securing a room for the holidays, your best bet is to choose a refundable rate, which provides maximum flexibility.
3. Don’t rely on travel insurance
Travel insurance is a good way to hedge against uncertainty … in normal circumstances. However, whatever is happening with the pandemic in December is unlikely to qualify as an “unforeseeable event,” and therefore unlikely to be covered by a travel insurance policy.
In other words, changing your mind about traveling isn't likely to be covered by your policy. You might still want to get coverage in case something else happens, but don’t rely on travel insurance to bail you out if you decide to change your plans — unless you purchase a stand-alone policy with a cancel for any reason add-on (and even then you won’t get a 100% refund).
4. Standby might be an option
The last-minute holiday deals of yesteryear are gone. You won’t be doing yourself any favors by waiting to book flights. If you pick a date, though, you might have some flexibility with the time of departure.
Even though airlines have largely abandoned change fees, it could still cost you a lot more to change your flight because you’ll generally have to rebook at the current price. If you’re only hopping on a slightly earlier or slightly later flight in the same day, you might have an opportunity to avoid the upcharge.
One option that you might not have had before is flying standby, as some airlines made changes to their standby policies in the past year. For example, United can now confirm a seat on a different flight as long as it departs within 24 hours of the original. This is at no charge for United members with elite status.
American Airlines eliminated its standby fees as well, allowing anyone to standby for an earlier flight. If you want to take a later flight, you might have to pay a $75 same-day change fee — though depending on what the cash price of the fare is, that fee might be less than actually rebooking your flight.
The bottom line
If you’re a planner, you might be worrying about whether to book holiday travel at all. Thankfully, you have plenty of good options that afford maximum flexibility, including booking with a full-cost airline and picking your hotels wisely.
How to maximize your rewards
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Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
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Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card