By Sam Kemmis
It’s time to start thinking about holiday travel. Or is it? The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown so many wrenches in so many plans that it’s hard to know what will happen next month, never mind in December.
That doesn’t mean you should scuttle all travel plans for the holidays, necessarily. Rather, you can take extra precautions to book highly flexible travel so that if (and when) plans change, you won’t lose money.
Here we outline four ways to book holiday travel without locking yourself in. Be aware that, just like everything else this year, the policies and ideas mentioned here could be totally different come fall. Make sure to check the current terms before hitting “book” on any travel.
1. Avoid budget airlines
As of Aug. 9, 2020, all the full-fare airlines in the U.S. are offering flexible change and cancellation policies for new bookings. In other words, these airlines are currently allowing some form of fee waivers on changes to newly booked itineraries:
Alaska Airlines (NYS:ALK)
American Airlines (NAS:AAL)
Delta Air Lines (NYS:DAL)
JetBlue Airways (NAS:JBLU)
Southwest Airlines (NYS:LUV)
United Airlines (NAS:UAL)
(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 (NYS:SAVE) and Allegiant (NAS:ALGT) , 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. Save yourself the headache and simply skip budget airlines this year.
Even though the airlines in the list above are offering “change fee waivers,” this doesn’t mean you’ll get your money back if you cancel a booked flight. Instead you’ll likely receive a voucher with that airline to book future travel. Usually that’s no problem, but in these uncertain times it may mean losing the value of your initial ticket eventually.
Before booking, ask yourself: “How likely am I to take another equally expensive flight with this airline in 2021 or even 2022?” If the answer is “not certain,” then you might want to reconsider booking in the first place.
2. Choose your lodging carefully
“I don’t need a hotel, I’ll stay with my … oh, right.” Whatever the holidays look like this year, they’re less likely to involve pullout sofas or sleeping in your childhood bedroom. You might need to book a hotel room or vacation rental.
This is where things get more complicated. Currently, only a few hotels offer generous, blanket change/cancellation policies for all travel through December:
You can book a room with one of these brands now and cancel within 24 hours of check-in to receive a full refund. That’s hard to beat. Other hotel brands may offer flexible rates, but they’re often more expensive and require reading the fine print.
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 or not to allow cancellations.
If you’re at all worried about securing a room for the holidays, your best bet is to choose one of the hotel brands listed above, as they provide 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. Play the waiting game
Last and most simply, you might not need to book holiday travel just yet. Usually, airfare prices creep up throughout the fall until they reach nearly absurd levels by November — but 2020 is not “usually.” For example, here are the prices we found for a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles during the week of Christmas:
Those prices are ridiculously low, indicating that the normal demand spike that drives high prices hasn’t yet materialized (and is unlikely to). Even if air travel returned to 50% of normal rates by December, supply would still far outstrip demand, and prices may remain low.
The takeaway: There’s no rush. You might start tracking prices now, and if they start ticking up, you could book with one of the airlines with flexible change and cancellation policies. But prices could also drop — nobody knows.
The bottom line
If you’re a Type A planner, (1) this has probably been a rough year, and (2) you might be worrying about whether or not to book holiday travel at all. Thankfully, you have plenty of good options that afford maximum flexibility, including booking with a full-cost airline, picking your hotels wisely and even waiting a few more months.
More from NerdWallet:
Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @samsambutdif.