Is it just us or does it feel like there are no fewer than 5,231 reasons why we might need to change our travel plans these days? And for once our chronic indecision isn’t solely to blame. With domestic and foreign coronavirus lockdown measures beginning to lift, travelers are likely feeling the pull to get back out on the road. But if there’s anything we’ve learned these past few months, it’s that the path of the coronavirus pandemic, and our rollercoaster emotions about it, is nothing if not unpredictable.
For those of us with incurable wanderlust, planning some kind of getaway is getting us through. But understandably it’s hard to click “book” without being assured that we’ll be able to change our minds and our plans with little or no penalty given the uncertainty of the public health situation.
The good news is that in an effort to court nervous travelers, many airlines, hotels, vacation rentals, car rental companies, and other travel businesses have baked added flexibility into their reservation systems to compensate for COVID-19—for now. Some of the policies won’t last much longer, so it’s important to know where you will be locked in and where you won’t.
Here are some tips for making sure that you can book with confidence, knowing that if something comes up, or you get cold feet, you can reschedule or table your trip.
First, adjust your mindset
Before you launch into exploring your options and making bookings, it’s important to manage expectations. Everything about how we live and operate in the world has changed since we last traveled, so the way we think about travel needs to change, too.
Before browsing options, set aside some time to have an honest conversation with yourself (and your quarantine crew if they’re coming along) about what you feel comfortable and safe doing—whether that’s a camping trip into the wilderness, a hotel getaway, or a vacation rental escape. How far are you willing to go and what mode(s) of transportation will you take to get there? How will you best protect yourself and others? Is your trip going to require a quarantine? Before you get into the fun stuff, have the difficult, and extremely important, conversations first.
Also, if the current climate means waiting a little longer, then wait. There’s no reason to plan or book nonessential travel if the process is becoming stressful. That defeats the whole purpose. If you feel your anxiety rising as you go through the process, take a break and revisit it again later. Only go when you’re ready.
Be prepared for things to possibly change, too. Various forms of lockdowns could be put back into place if coronavirus transmission cases start to head upwards in the area you live in or are visiting. You might feel unwell and regardless of whether you have COVID-19, you shouldn’t travel if you feel sick, so you’ll need to place your plans on hold if you do. It’s not just the policies that need to be flexible; we all need to be more flexible ourselves during this pandemic.
Enlist a seasoned professional
In this new world a lot is changing—and fast. If ever there was a time to use a travel advisor to help you navigate your options, it’s now. They will know the booking policies of the airlines and hotels (and how to back out) better than anyone, and they will also be well versed in all the new safety and cleaning measures. (Did you know Four Seasons has partnered with Johns Hopkins, and Hilton has linked up with the Mayo Clinic?) They will be your strongest ally and will be able to help you understand the vast and complicated matrix of options: What’s even open and what’s not? What travel restrictions are in place where you want to go? Will you need to wear a mask at the hotel?
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“Be sure you understand the current terms and conditions and work with a professional advisor to guide you to the experience and terms that best suits your needs and concerns,” said Eric Maryanov, president of Los Angeles–based All-Travel, and a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council (a great resource for finding reputable advisors, too).
Maryanov argues that travelers and their advisors are more empowered than ever to advocate for themselves and their clients in the current climate. “Future bookings have never been more flexible than they are right now,” said Maryanov. And for those who don’t think they will be ready to travel in 2020: “Now is a good time to plan and reserve for 2021—space will sell out and vendors are being more flexible with those who book early.”
Read the fine print and pick up the phone
Before you book anything (and honestly even before you start browsing), make sure to go straight to the cancellation policies page and see what your options will be. For many of us, if the change and cancellation policies aren’t flexible, it’s a nonstarter. If the policies aren’t totally clear on the website, pick up the phone and call the property, airline, or travel provider and make sure you understand exactly what the change and cancellation policies are.
“A few weeks ago, I looked into booking a hotel at a big luxury chain for myself,” said Cari Gray, founder and CEO of custom travel specialist Gray & Co., and also a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council. Gray said she discovered that she would have had to cancel the booking at least 10 days in advance or she would be charged a one-night stay for canceling closer in. “This sounded out to lunch,” said Gray, who ended up not booking.
Her advice: “Make sure you take the time to find out the cancellation policy. What if you get sick last-minute? What if there’s an outbreak and the hotel has to shut down? Will they offer just credit or a refund?”
She also recommended quizzing properties about which services will be open and available. Will the pool or other facilities be open, and what kind of food service will be offered? “If you have to pay a resort fee, what is that for if pools can’t be open?” she said, suggesting you push back on such fees if the full roster of services won’t be available.
She finds that properties with more personalized service are likely to take better care of customers overall. Some of her favorites include Hotel Cheval in Paso Robles, California, and San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, California, properties that she said exemplify the right approach during this pandemic.
You will also want to get on the phone if and when you need to change or cancel. Maybe the option you were hoping for isn’t available online or the information you need can’t be found. Speak with another human being who will hopefully be understanding and accommodating.
Things to consider when booking hotels, vacation rentals, camping sites, and RVs
Chances are some of the first trips we take will be outings closer to home. Whether you are thinking of a simple camping trip, heading out in an RV, or booking a hotel or vacation rental, you will want to know what your options are for rescheduling or calling off the booking if need be.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, most major hotel chains have developed more flexible reservation policies. Marriott International is allowing all guests to change or cancel without a charge up to 24 hours prior to arrival as long as the change or cancellation is made by July 5, 2020. Similarly, Hilton is waiving its change fee and is offering full refunds for all cancellations up to 24 hours before arrival for any new reservations booked between now and June 30, 2020, for any future arrival date.
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When it comes to searching for a vacation rental on the likes of Airbnb and Vrbo, the hosts dictate the cancellation policy. Just as before COVID-19, some hosts will have more relaxed cancellation policies, including a full refund up until 24 hours prior to arrival, and some have more stringent policies. Both Airbnb and Vrbo offer travelers the option of filtering the listings they see according to flexible cancellation policies. We highly recommend using this filter. Airbnb also waves any cancellation penalties if the renter or owner contracts COVID-19.
RV-sharing sites such as Outdoorsy and RVshare have also put the onus on owners to decide what kind of cancellation flexibility they want to offer renters. Outdoorsy is encouraging renters to work directly with owners to address cancellations “whether that is helping renters shift their booking to a later date, enforcing your usual cancellation policy or issuing a full refund.”
You also will want to check the cancellation policies at whichever camp or RV sites you plan to be staying at. At Kampgrounds of American (KOA) sites, RV and tent sites require only 48 hours’ notice for cancellation, but camping cabins require seven days’ notice.
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Again, check the policy online and then call to confirm before booking anything.
How flexible are flight bookings?
All the major U.S. airlines (Delta, United, American, and JetBlue) have extended their change fee waiver policies to allow flights booked up until June 30, 2020, to be rebooked without a change fee. They will all charge a difference in fare if the price of the new flight is greater than the original flight, and only Delta has said it would credit fliers the difference if the cost of the new flight is lower.
Even if the airlines continue to extend their flexible booking policies for awhile, they won’t do so forever, so at some point you will need to revert to your “old ways” of researching and booking flights, which doesn’t include the ability to cancel or change the booking without penalty. The best approach is to set up a flight tracker on Google Flights and keep an eye on fares.
A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate could protect flight cancellations that customers make during the coronavirus pandemic. If it passes, airlines will be required to refund passengers for flight bookings they cancel for as long as the coronavirus pandemic is considered a national emergency. The legislation did not specify whether the law would also apply to new bookings or only to existing ones.
Can travel insurance help?
With regard to the current coronavirus crisis, travel insurance providers consider it to be a known event as of January 21, 2020 (or thereabouts, the date can change slightly depending on the provider, but usually falls sometime between January 21 and January 27, 2020). Travel insurance purchased before that date will cover disruptions resulting from the outbreak, but any travel insurance purchased after that date will not.
An exception to that is Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) coverage, an optional upgrade to a travel insurance policy that covers cancellations for reasons not otherwise covered by standard travel insurance. “Canceling out of fear of coronavirus would likely [be included in] that policy,” said Erik Josowitz, an analyst with InsuranceQuotes.com.
Josowitz cautioned that “as the COVID-19 situation has ramped up, many travel insurance companies have stopped offering cancel for any reason policies—but not all.” He said to always be sure to read the fine print, as there are plenty of caveats, even with CFAR coverage.
For instance, the CFAR upgrade has to be purchased within 14 to 21 days of making the initial trip deposit and it will reimburse travelers for up to 75 percent of their trip cost—for a price. Cancel for Any Reason coverage typically costs between 5 and 10 percent of the total trip cost—or about 50 percent more than standard travel insurance policies, according to Josowitz. But many still agree it is worth the investment in the current climate.
This story originally appeared on May 19, 2020, and has been updated to include current information.