When Niemah Butler started planning a weekend away for her friend’s 40th birthday, she wasn’t going to let a pandemic get in the way.
Instead, Butler and seven friends booked a long weekend away to the Dominican Republic. Their trip includes airfare and an all-inclusive hotel for $800 for travel at the end of July. The college friends worked with a travel agent and purchased travel insurance that allows them to cancel for any reason. It was a steal – well below the 37-year-old’s initial budget of $1,100. “We want to enjoy the pool and the restaurants,” says Butler, a college administrator in Miramar, Fla. “But if they are closed, we can cancel anytime.”
For travel lovers with cabin fever, booking deals in the midst of a pandemic is more tempting than ever. With social distancing easing in some states, luxury resorts sitting empty and stimulus money coming through, the thrill of a post-COVID trip is an instant mood booster. For others, experiencing the ins and outs of travel planning and chasing a great deal is also part of the fun.
But should you?
It depends. “I’ve seen super cheap deals that are phenomenal right now,” says Terika Haynes, founder of travel consultancy Dynamite Travel in Melbourne, Fla. who worked with Butler to book her trip. “The desire to travel is still there, and there are some people that are ready to travel right now.”
Experts say it’s important to consider new refund policies, the risk of traveling to international destinations, how far in advance you’ll need to travel and whether or not you’ll need to fly before getting back out on the road.
Wade through the deals – and cancellation policies
Right now, the cheapest deals are the biggest gamble, so individuals must assess their own tolerance for risk, says Rob Merlin, St. Louis-based luxury travel advisor with Smartflyer. Domestic fare sales such as Hawaii for $119, can present some of the best bargains, but even international airfares can have rock bottom prices. Right now many are looking ahead to the winter holiday season, he adds.
To mitigate travel risk, Merlin encourages his clients to book two or three hotels at different destinations while waiting to purchase airline tickets until closer to their travel dates. Rather than going for the cheapest offers, Merlin recommends choosing travel with the most liberal cancellation policies. “The real deals are going to be in flexible cancellation penalties,” he says.
Airline tickets can pose some of the biggest financial risks for travelers. That’s because even some airlines that are mandated to give refunds for cancelled flights don't have the cash on hand to do it, and are giving vouchers instead, says Christian Leininger, director of business and corporate development for AirHelp, a passenger rights company. With only a tiny fraction of the flights in the air, many are being cancelled by airlines, yet customers aren't necessarily getting the refunds their entitled to. “Even if they are obliged legally, they just don’t do it,” he says. For those who booked through third-party sites, getting refunds is especially difficult at this time, he adds.
Consider ‘distance-friendly’ destinations
Many travelers are also considering taking trips that naturally allow for some social distancing, but still offer adventure, adds Merlin. For instance, RV companies for cross country road trips are seeing an uptick in bookings, as are small rural boutique properties and bespoke country home rental companies, he says.
This year, Reshma Chamberlin says she plans to swap her usual “bucket-list travel” which took her gorilla trekking in Uganda last year for destinations closer to home. “For the next year, our focus is on the smaller easier domestic trips,” says Chamberlin, a St. Louis based co-founder of Summersault, a clothing brand. A fourth of July trip to Northern Michigan beaches is in the works. Chamberlin and her husband are driving there and renting a lakeside home with a flexible cancellation policy, she adds.
Learn the situation on the ground
Once you’re close to booking, consider talking to the hotel or rental property owner directly. Booking through third-party sites can make it difficult to get a refund.
In some instances, hotel staff is being trained to answer any questions related to local COVID-19 related ordinances, cancellation policies and to knowledgeably address the situation on the ground, says Christine Gaudenzi, director of sales and marketing at the Family Coppola Hideaways, a boutique hotel group with locations in Belize, Guatemala and Italy. At Coppola, Gaudenzi is also working to train reservations to answer post-pandemic questions about disinfection, social distancing protocols and a private butler program that's gaining more interest. For reservationists, the key is addressing each guest’s “personal scale of anxiety,” says Gaudenzi.
Keep in mind: many hotels will operate differently while social distancing measures are in place. For instance, pools, spas and even some restaurants can stay closed or operate with amended schedules. “Consumers are going to have to adjust to a fully functioning hotel that looks different from 2019,” Merlin says.
New rules on refunds
For those willing to book, companies are slowly unveiling better consumer protections. Large hotel chains such as Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt have rolled out new cancellation policies on refunds, which include 24-hour cancellations, easy rebooking and no need to pay upfront. Airlines are also taking steps to reassure customers they can get their money back if travel falls through. For instance, United Airlines just announced free cancellation and fee-free change policies through the end of 2020, while allowing those who have booked previous trips to change their flight or cancel their flight without penalty.
The bottom line: Now is the time to search around for flexible deals, rethink long-haul flying and realize you’re taking a gamble, says Haynes: “It’s safest to focus on refundable options.”
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(An earlier version of this story misspelled Terika Haynes' name.)