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Photo collage of a plane over a map, passport and two boarding passes with a tag that says  Pay Later
Money; Getty Images

Stir-crazy vacation-seekers are starting to book trips again, fueled by low fares, discounts, and “book now, pay later” deals from the hard-hit travel industry.

Nearly 90% of Americans plan to travel this summer, many more than once, according to a survey from the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). But while people are feeling more secure in booking getaways now that vaccination rates are up, there’s still plenty of uncertainty — like whether vaccine passports, COVID-19 tests and quarantines will throw a wrench in vacation plans.

About 60% of Americans think planning a 2021 vacation will be more complicated than in the past, according to the survey. Vacationers "are confused by the numerous COVID-19 restrictions, and they want a level of reassurance to make sure they know how to travel in the post-Covid era,” says ASTA spokeswoman Erika Richter.

To protect yourself, and your travel budget, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Should I snag a cheap travel deal now or hold off?

Hotel room rates dropped to record lows in 2020. Prices are still low, with hotel rates averaging about $108 a night during the last week of March 2021, according to the hospitality analytics firm STR. And some hotels are offering big discounts for travelers who book a couple of months in advance.

Airfare also costs less than it did pre-pandemic. But how much longer those lower prices will stick around is anyone’s guess.

“Travel providers are still in a little bit of a state of shock, and they’re pushing bookings like crazy, so the deals are amazing right now,” says Brian Barth, CEO of Uplift, a travel loan company.

Before you book a cheap trip, keep in mind that the pandemic isn’t over; plans can still be upended. Richter urges travelers to research what kind of restrictions are in place at their destination location, and the ins and outs of the cancelation policies of every flight, hotel or cruise they're interested in booking before taking the plunge.

What's the deal with "book now pay later" plans?

To help travelers lock in cheap rates, more airlines and travel companies are offering “book now, pay later" options. These deals let you book a vacation and pay it off in installments over a designated period of time, often with interest.

Uplift, for one, offers closed-end installment loans, which are repaid incrementally on a set schedule. Travelers get approved for these loans based on eligibility factors like credit score, credit history and cost of the trip they want to take. Some people qualify for interest-free loans, but others can expect to pay an annual percentage rate (APR) or up to 36%. (Uplift's average loan APR is about 20%, according to a company spokesperson.)

Right now, a handful of airlines and cruise companies are partnering with Uplift to give cooped-up customers more payment options. Some, like Carnival Cruise Line and Allegiant Air, are even funding the interest of the loans for purchases over $800, Uplift says. Barth says Uplift is already seeing bookings for trips as far out as 2022.

What about cancellation policies?

United, Delta, and American Airlines have all eliminated change fees for most domestic flights. For now, some airlines are also are waiving cancelation fees, which traditionally run up to $200.

Changing your flight could still cost you. If you rebook a flight with a higher fare, you’ll have to pay the difference — If you booked a super cheap flight originally, good luck trying to match that price on a future flight. If the new flight is LESS than the original one, some airlines are issuing travel credits to make up the difference.

Canceling or changing a trip purchased through a travel website can also be a headache. Read the fine print to know who to contact—either the website or the airline or hotel itself—if your plans do change.

Hotels.com and Expedia both offer free cancellations for most bookings. Uplift, for its part, asks customers to cancel through the airline or cruise company they booked with.

How do I know if I'm getting scammed?

Amid all the ongoing uncertainty, travel scams are on the rise.

One common con involves fake websites that closely resemble travel sites with too-good-to-be-true prices and sketchy sweepstakes. Other fraudsters disguise themselves as online airline brokers and government travel programs like TSA precheck and Global Entry.

“Scam artists do exist and pose a financial and sometimes a safety threat to the traveling public,” says Joseph Dworak, an attorney and tourism faculty member at San Jose State University.

Here's what to do before booking a vacation online, or handing over any personal or banking details to a travel site you've never used before:

  • Read the reviews. Check the company’s BBB rating and social media reviews, especially if it’s a site you’ve never heard of. Then do a Google search with the company’s name and “complaints” to see what other travelers are saying about it.
  • Scope out social. Take a look at the site’s social media links. Scammers often link out to the Facebook homepage instead of a unique page (which should look something like Facebook.com/thecompanyname), to fool people into thinking they have a social media presence. If they DO have a profile, check when they last posted. If it was months or even years ago, proceed with caution.
  • Check the website's URL. Sites that are secure begin with "https://" and include a lock icon in the search bar, according to the BBB.
  • Ignore cold-call offers. Never book with a company that calls or texts you out of the blue — that's a sure sign of a scam, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says.

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