COVID-19 has essentially shelved all travel for the near term, leaving many people daydreaming of being anywhere other than the confines of their couch. With nowhere to go and no definitive timeline on when things will start to return to some semblance of "normal," trip planning has been put on the backburner. But maybe it shouldn’t be.
These unprecedented times have flipped the aviation market on its head, making airlines backpedal unfriendly consumer policies. In order to keep bookings flowing, airlines and travel companies have introduced relaxed rules and minimized financial risks. Not everyone may feel comfortable booking for July, but, for holiday travel and flights into 2021 onward, a little planning now can go a long way in terms of savings and flexibility. While it’s understandable to want to take the cautious approach, those willing to book future travel today will have lesser risk at higher rewards. Here's why.
Unreal Deals are Available
While large scale lockdowns and border closings remain in place, travel should be limited to only what is absolutely necessary. But there’s nothing wrong with booking flights right now with your sights set further down the road.
Of course, you’ll have to keep in mind that situations may change and be somewhat flexible. But planning a trip today will allow you to take advantage of some of the cheapest airfare in nearly 20 years. It won't last for long once demand rebounds and carriers rush to pay back government loans.
Advertised sales are momentarily on hold by most airlines, but that doesn’t mean cheap airfare isn’t out there. As always, it's the non-promoted fares that bring in the most value. Just this week, I noticed flights from Chicago-ORD to Los Angeles in mid-November for $95 roundtrip on American. And earlier, Boston to San Juan, PR was listed for $23 roundtrip (not a typo 23 dollars) over peak New Year’s dates via JetBlue.
International travel might be riskier to book without a long-term outlook, but travelers willing to start flying in late 2020 and early 2021 will find an abundance of deals too. As an example, flights to Latin American favorites like Costa Rica start at $117 roundtrip from Miami, and only $253 RT between JFK and Lima, both through February 2021 on Avianca. Flyers who have had to postpone summer Euro trips can score flights from New York to Barcelona for only $219 roundtrip on American from late October through February, or only $189 on TAP Portugal with the ability for an extended stopover in Lisbon.
Deals will vary by destination, but booking sooner rather than later for a future flight is your best bet because airlines are asking the government for a compromise on initial CARES guidelines so that they can suspend service to entire markets. Thus, cutting competition and ultimately leading to higher fares.
Related: The Airlines Most (and Least) Likely to Survive the COVID-19 Crisis
Free Fee Waivers Are in Your Favor
For the first time since airlines started ramping up customer-unfriendly fees for changes and cancellations in the mid-aughts, the outbreak of COVID-19 has made almost every airline worldwide rethink these punitive policies. Faced with a roughly 90% drop in booking revenue, carriers have instituted new “peace of mind” free change and cancel waiver programs to give flexibility to travelers who want to alter their trip, but also to entice future bookings. The first iterations of these free waiver policies were limited spring dates and still fairly strict, but newer revisions have expanded to include travel through the end of 2020 and into next year.
For tickets to qualify, they have to be purchased before a set date limit, currently April 30 or the end of May on most airlines, but there's no telling when airlines will pull the plug (and they will) on these pro-consumer policies. So, booking a qualifying ticket now for a trip later this year will grandfather you into these risk-free waivers while they’re still on the table.
Extended Expiration on Airline Credits
Alongside free change waivers, customers who ultimately cancel their trips outright will benefit from extended expiration dates on credits issued by many mainline carriers. Most airlines have changed the standard one-year "use by date" twofold, permitting credits to be generously used 24 months from the date of issuance. No longer under pressure to use it or lose it, passengers that still feel uncomfortable traveling even in autumn and winter this year can cancel tickets and have more than a year left to apply credits to future travel.
But do keep in mind, credits are only applicable on airlines that are still operating. For travelers booked on an airline that looks like it might stop flying in the near future, the best practice is to wait to see if they cancel, which then entitles you to a full refund (usually via credit card chargeback), instead of preemptively getting stuck with a voucher for an extinct airline.
Related: COVID-19 Flight Waivers and Refund Policies by Airline
Open Season on Award Tickets
Have you been racking up miles ordering essentials online through airline shopping portals or ordering delivery while sheltering in place? You're in luck because now is the golden age of airline award availability. Those needle-in-a-haystack premium cabin award tickets to Europe have become more available as demand for business travel dries up, leaving a surplus of seats available in the front of the plane and a whole empty stack in back to redeem with miles.
Another perk of using points to book flights for future travel is that several of the current airline waivers include free mileage redeposit fees (for the time being) if you decide to change your mind as the date nears. A benefit usually only reserved for elite frequent flyer status holders.
Trip Insurance Made Easy
Skip the limited insurance offered by the airlines at checkout for something more comprehensive. Tripadvisor’s brand-new annual Trip Protection policies by Allianz Global Assistance offer far better overall coverage, including enhanced trip cancellation, interruption, and accident plans alongside industry-recommended amounts for emergency evacuation and rental car theft and damages. Better yet, with only one payment, customers receive 365 days of protection so they can start planning a trip well in advance, knowing all bases are covered. (Tripadvisor is Airfarewatchdog’s parent company.)
Related: Annual Travel Insurance: Trip Protection
Something to Look Forward To
Everyone is yearning to get out of the house and explore the world we might’ve previously taken for granted. Maybe it’s a domestic flight to see family or the bucket list trip you’ve been putting off. Booking future flights now is surprisingly less risky than it’s ever been, monetarily at least. Studies have even shown that planning a trip can bring happiness.
The cheap airfares aren’t guaranteed to last, nor are the free fee waivers, so locking in a trip for later might be a bet worth making in order to save big and inject some much-needed excitement in your life.
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