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It’s not even the busiest time of year for travel yet, and 2023 has already been chaotic — even for the most seasoned travelers.
Among the 2023 travel fiascos, proof of travel boom and more:
United Airlines underwent an operational meltdown during the 2023 July Fourth week, resulting in thousands of passengers stranded.
Travel is back and booming, with the Transportation Security Administration reporting records on all fronts, including record numbers of passengers going through security and record TSA PreCheck applications.
And while booking travel through the sharing economy is becoming increasingly popular, vacationers are experiencing situations where vacation home and RV rental owners have ghosted them.
All that, and Christmas and Thanksgiving (which rank among the busiest travel periods of the entire year) are still fairly far away.
And so, as you book 2023 holiday travel, don’t overlook the best type of plan you can make: a backup plan. Here are some ways to build one.
Be flexible and pack light
With so many challenges, you might find yourself catching a different flight last-minute — but only if you’re nimble. Avoid checking bags so you’re not separated from your possessions should you need to rebook.
Though if you absolutely must check bags, tuck devices like Samsung Galaxy SmartTags or Apple AirTags into your location so you can keep tabs on your luggage should you get separated from it.
And while you might need to inevitably check bags, never pack essentials like medication in checked baggage. Anything you can't easily buy in a store on arrival (including identification or other important documents, medication or mementos) that you may need with you should always remain in your carry-on.
» Learn more: The busiest days to fly during the winter holidays
Book flights that you can easily cancel
If something happens and you can no longer take the flight you initially booked, understand your airline's change and cancellation policies.
That gets especially tricky if you've booked budget airfare which can serve your wallet well — but only if plans go as intended. If you need to change or cancel a flight, basic economy can cost far more than you originally intended. Though airline change and cancellation policies have improved, basic economy fares typically aren’t eligible for easy trip modifications.
Don’t get yourself in a situation where you can’t get refunded because you booked the cheap seats.
For low-cost airfares, you might look to Southwest Airlines, which has one of the best change policies out there. The cheapest Southwest fares can be canceled up to 10 minutes before scheduled departure in exchange for a travel credit toward a future flight. That generous policy was around before COVID-19 was part of the vernacular.
» Learn more: The best days to fly around Thanksgiving in 2023
Know what to do if the airline cancels your flight
You choosing to cancel your flight is one thing, but what if the airline cancels your flight?
For starters, know that you are eligible for a full refund under U.S. Department of Transportation regulations if the airline cancels or makes major changes to your flight — no matter the reason. But that's not entirely helpful if your airline canceled your flight mid-trip, and now you're stranded in a city you never intended to be. Follow this guide if your flight has been canceled, which includes tips on how to get rebooked on another flight and how to get compensation.
Oh, and if you still haven't booked your flight, follow these tips to booking a flight that's less likely to be canceled in the first place.
Consider alternative travel arrangements
Maybe your flight got canceled. Maybe your Airbnb host ghosted you. Maybe the hotel you booked is just absolutely unlike the reviews or photos, and you can't possibly stay there.
For that, understand your alternatives nearby.
For lodging, you might research other nearby hotels. A NerdWallet analysis found that it's almost always cheaper to book hotels last-minute. After analyzing 2,500 hotel room rates, NerdWallet found that it was cheaper to book a hotel room 15 days out versus four months out a whopping 66% of the time.
For actual transportation, map out nearby airports that you might fly into instead. From there, you might grab a rental car to get the rest of the way to your final destination (or even turn to mass transit such as trains). A sliver of good news if you need to make a last-minute rental car reservation: Another NerdWallet analysis found that booking car rentals at the last minute can save you 15%. It’s also a myth that one-way rental cars are always more expensive (they sometimes are, but again, not always).
Be prepared to extend your trip
If your flight gets canceled by the airline, you might be stranded. If so, have a plan if you need to spend an extra day (or more) in a city you never intended to:
Pack enough extras to get you through your trip
While still aiming to avoid checking bags, pack enough to survive a trip that lasts longer than expected. Sure, a one-day flight delay likely only requires minimal extra clothing. But particularly for international trips, pack enough medications and other items that can’t easily be purchased abroad. To avoid overpacking, wear versatile clothing that matches any outfit or occasion. Bring items that can be washed in the sink should you not have laundry access.
Know how to pass the time
You'll also need to pass time. If your trip gets disrupted while you're in the airport, know that you are allowed to enter and re-exit. That said, you might choose not to (particularly if you're able to get on another flight within a couple hours or don't want the headache of going though security again). If that's the case, scope out the terminal (thankfully, many U.S. airport terminals are getting better). You might also unknowingly have airport lounge access, which can be a respite from the chaos. Access to airport lounges is among the most popular perk on premium travel credit cards.
If you're outside the airport, you might need last-minute activities or hotels. Last-minute hotel deals sites like HotelTonight can help you find availability, often at deep discounts. And for last-minute entertainment, turn to websites like TodayTix, which offer tickets to shows that night, often at a steep discount anyway.
» Learn more: Credit cards that offer lounge access
Get the travel insurance
If you need to cancel your trip, have an outlet to get refunded. While most premium travel credit cards charge hefty annual fees, they can be worth it for one underrated perk alone: trip insurance. It’s not uncommon to find a travel card that will reimburse up to $20,000 for eligible expenses paid for with that card.
If you don’t have a credit card with built-in travel insurance, it might behoove you to purchase a separate travel insurance policy to counterbalance the unpredictability of these days.
» Learn more: Best Travel Insurance Companies
How to craft a travel backup plan
Even the best-planned trips are turning out to be canceled, rescheduled, cut short or sometimes stressfully extended. To avoid getting stranded, spending more money or losing luggage, make sure that your overall travel plan includes a backup plan.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card