Though you may have skipped spring break this year or canceled your family summer vacation, holiday travel might still be on the table. On one hand, the coronavirus is nowhere near eradicated, so it’s hard to know whether it will be safe to travel by winter. But with ticket prices so low ― at least for now ― it can be tempting to get in while the getting’s good.
According to travel booking app Hopper, domestic flight prices around Christmastime have dropped 25% compared with 2019, reaching a new low of $275 round trip, on average. As for Thanksgiving, travelers can expect to spend 30% less on domestic flights than in 2019, with a new average low of $216 round trip.
Of course, things could change as we get closer to the holiday season, and prices might go back up. Here’s what you should keep in mind when planning to travel for the holidays.
Research the best cancellation policies
Airlines and hotels are understandably struggling right now. To encourage bookings, many have not only lowered their prices but also relaxed their cancellation policies.
American Airlines, for example, now allows customers who book tickets for travel through Sept. 30, for flights occurring before Dec. 31, to cancel or change their itinerary for no fee. Hyatt is allowing all reservations made for travel until July 31, 2021, to be changed or canceled up to 24 hours before check-in without a fee.
However, just because you might be allowed to cancel doesn’t mean you’ll have cash back in your hand right away. “Be aware that while most airlines have generous cancellation policies at the moment, if you’re the one to pull the plug on the trip, you’ll likely receive a voucher for future travel rather than your actual money back,” said Ted Rossman, industry analyst for CreditCards.com. It’s only when the airline cancels the flight or makes a substantial schedule change that you’re entitled to actual money back.
That means you won’t lose any money, but your funds could be tied up for a while if you do decide to cancel. “If you’re OK with a future voucher, then, by all means, book now,” Rossman said.
Another option is to look into a “cancel for any reason” travel insurance policy, though keep in mind there are a couple of catches. Rossman warned this type of insurance costs more than a standard travel insurance policy and it doesn’t reimburse all of your costs ― more like 50% to 75%. Generally, this type of travel insurance is better suited for major international trips, not short domestic ones.
Finally, Rossman said it’s a good idea to book travel with a credit card. “Credit cards have more generous dispute resolution policies than debit cards,” he noted. Plus, as long as you avoid racking up interest by paying your balance in full each month, credit card rewards can be valuable and help offset the cost of the trip.
Watch out for coronavirus hot spots
The situation surrounding the pandemic continues to evolve. So keep in mind that certain “safe” areas of the country could become riskier by winter. If cases surge in an area you were planning to visit, you might be forced to cancel your trip. At the very least, you could be required to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning home.
Also, note that Americans are currently restricted from traveling to many countries (this list will likely change as time goes on).
Travelers who are concerned about making the safest choices when it comes to travel destinations should stay up to date with advisories from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and state and local governments.
You can also use online travel planning tools to stay on top of local coronavirus updates. TripIt, for example, provides a neighborhood safety score for each destination that includes the COVID-19 risk, based on data collected from Johns Hopkins University, WHO, CDC, local health agencies and others.
Regardless of where you travel, be aware of “touchpoint traps” that could increase the risk of spread, said Kelly Soderlund, TripIt’s travel trends expert. “For instance, make sure TSA employees use fresh gloves when patting you or your belongings down,” she said. “Bring a plastic bag for your mask to avoid contamination when you remove the mask to eat or drink.”
The decision to travel is personal
Right now, traveling is a risky move ― no matter where you go. And there’s a possibility we could experience a second wave of infections later this year. But ultimately, the decision to book travel is yours to make.
“People who are booking travel seem to be keeping it on the [down low], as there is a lot of shaming going on ― whether it’s making the decision to travel, sit indoors at a restaurant or even sending kids to school,” said Mollie Krengel, founder of Wild Bum, an online marketplace of curated travel guides. But many people without major health risks feel comfortable booking travel right now. And there are a lot of people hitting the road instead of the ski slopes to minimize their risk.
“At the end of the day, you have to make the decision based on your comfort level,” Krengel said. For air travel, she recommended choosing an airline that is doing a great job of cleaning and keeping the middle seats open. “Most accommodations are also taking extra precautions, but it can’t hurt to do your due diligence,” she said. And always double-check the current cancellation policies and fees before you book. In fact, “get them in writing,” she said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.