As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the globe, non-essential travel is still off the table. But many would-be travelers are holding out hope for later this year.
“Safety has rightly been the top priority for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with news on vaccine readiness and approvals being granted around the world, we see the appetite for travel in 2021 growing,” said Mark Crossey, U.S. traveler expert for Skyscanner.
“The events of 2020 have underscored the importance of human connection and quality time with loved ones, and we know from our website traffic and customer behavior that travelers are turning their gaze to later this year,” he added. “We predict that many customers will prioritize spending on experiences over material goods in 2021, looking to make special memories with loved ones.”
But if you’re thinking ahead to potential travel later this year, should you go ahead and book things now ― or wait until you have a better sense of what’s feasible down the road? Below, Crossey and other experts share their advice.
Take advantage of good deals that come with flexibility.
With recreational travel at a low, there are some surprisingly inexpensive flight options right now. Crossey noted that “fares are currently still cheaper than normal seasonal trends.”
At the same time, airlines have responded to the pandemic by making their cancellation and rebooking processes more flexible. Because of this, TripScout co-founder and CEO Konrad Waliszewski recommends going ahead and booking your next trip, even knowing there’s a chance you’ll have to postpone or cancel it.
“If you’re planning any post-pandemic trips, book now,” he advised. “It’s unlikely you will ever see better prices, availability and perks again ― but make sure it’s a flexible booking that you can change for any reason. Travelers who decide to wait until the pandemic has stabilized will miss out this rare opportunity as they compete with the millions of travelers eagerly trying to satisfy their pent up wanderlust.”
The Points Guy founder and CEO Brian Kelly echoed this sentiment, noting that there are amazing deals to be had. He also advised booking a trip with airline miles, which have been sitting unused for most people over the past year.
“Almost every airline will give you your miles back if you don’t want to take the trip because they’ve gotten rid of redeposit fees, so it’s like booking a refundable ticket,” he said.
Although airlines have generally done away with change fees, another reason to book with airline miles instead of dollars is that you then hold onto your cash, which would become airline voucher money in the event that you change your plans.
“You can’t pay rent with an airline voucher,” Kelly noted. “So I recommend book a trip with miles and a refundable hotel, so if you’re unable to take it, you can get your miles back and you aren’t out any cash.”
Read the fine print.
While airlines and other travel vendors have generally adopted more flexible cancellation and rescheduling policies over the past year, this phenomenon is by no means universal, so it’s important to always read the fine print.
“Not all airlines are being as flexible, and every airline differs and is constantly updating their policies,” said Jeremy Prout, director of security solutions for International SOS. “I encourage anyone traveling to ensure they have read and understand the most up-to-date airline cancellation policies. In regards to flexibility persisting for a long time, we are a year into the pandemic and many of us know the risks associated with travel, which gives airlines and hotels the opportunity to change these flexible policies, as when you book you know the risks associated and are still doing so willingly.”
Lodging may also be less flexible, so pay attention to the terms of your booking when you reserve a hotel room or home rental. Melanie Fish, a travel expert at Vrbo, told HuffPost that their hosts set their own rules, and although many have increased cancellation flexibility during the pandemic, there is a range.
“It really comes down to personal preference,” Fish said. “One reason to wait could be that local government travel restrictions will not overrule a host’s cancellation policy. So let’s say the beach you’re going to shuts down, it doesn’t necessarily nullify the rental contract for the house on that beach. Some travelers wait to book closer to their travel date to feel confident guidelines from health authorities or local travel restrictions make it possible to travel.”
Fish and Crossey both noted that their respective travel platforms offer flexible booking policy filters in their search functions. If you understand and feel comfortable with the cancellation policies for your trip, there’s little harm in booking it so that you have the option should you feel safe traveling at that point.
Still, Waliszewski advised being mindful of which vendors you use, given the economic impact of the pandemic on the travel industry.
“Avoid booking with lesser known booking sites and suppliers that have a higher risk of near-term bankruptcy,” he noted.
Keep up with public health guidance.
“We’ve seen how engaged our community is as behaviors on our site have changed in line with the evolving news agenda and government advice,” Crossey said. “Before planning your next flight, I strongly recommend reading the coronavirus travel advice from your local authorities and governments as well as the guidance from the World Health Organization.”
If you decide to go forward with your travel planning process, booking flexible flights and lodging in advance gives you more time to conduct in-depth research on your chosen destination’s state of COVID-19, restrictions and risks to mitigate. As your trip approaches, stay up to date with the evolving pandemic situation, both at home and your destination, and be prepared for adjustments.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic and fighting against a novel virus that we truly still know little about, even a year into it,” Prout said. “This virus is constantly changing and evolving, which is reflected in the recent news around multiple new and more contagious strains being found in parts of Europe and now in the United States. With this, we cannot predict whether certain states or countries will go into another lockdown, if restrictions will increase in the coming months, and more, all of which can heavily impact travel plans.”
Consider a “flexcation.”
“The pandemic has ushered in some interesting new travel behaviors and many families are discovering new and different ways to get away together,” Fish said. She noted that Vrbo has observed a rise in what they’re calling a “flexcation,” which combines “work or school with vacation time, taking road trips, and visiting the great outdoors.”
Basically, families are renting homes for longer spans of time and mixing remote work with vacation time, often in places that offer fishing, hiking and camping.
“Many people are still working from home and employers are offering more flexible remote work policies, which means families have the freedom to keep flexcationing and take longer vacations,” Fish explained.
Instead of returning to the same popular locations year after year, she advised looking for off-the-beaten-path destinations. This approach tends to be more affordable, presents fewer COVID-19 risks and “can be a refreshing experience,” she added.
If you don’t want to book, try planning anyway.
Even if you decide not to book any flights, hotels or outings, it may still be a nice experience to spend some of this extended time at home researching travel options and putting together your dream itineraries.
Psychology research over the years has found that the act of planning a trip can boost your mental health. Kelly has certainly found this to be true, even during the pandemic.
“I personally recommend at least planning,” he said. “Just planning a trip releases endorphins, at least for me. And I think it’s a great time to research what your next trip will be.”