With the frequently changing rules and recommendations around travel right now, it’s hard to make plans. Is it safe to book if the place you want to go isn’t welcoming US citizens right now? What if you’d have to quarantine and miss out on half your trip? While there are a lot of unknowns about the future, there are some things we do know about how to safely make plans right now.
Remember: You can already book flights for summer 2021.
Airlines let you book flights up to ~12 months in advance, which means flights for summer 2021 are already available. And while summer is typically one of the most expensive times of year to fly, that truism has been temporarily upended by the pandemic.
Of course it’s not guaranteed we’ll have largely contained the pandemic by summer 2021. But the further out your trip, the more likely it is a vaccine will have been approved and distributed or that rapid, widely available testing, will make travel safer.
Don’t make tomorrow’s plans on today’s circumstances.
A lot can change in the next 6-12 months. One recurring dynamic over the past few months has been that today’s safe spots are tomorrow’s hot spots and vice versa. New York and Europe, once the Covid-19 epicenters, became relatively calm over the summer. Hawaii had been largely spared initially, but by summer cases were growing.
The same goes for travel bans. Americans are barred from visiting many countries in the world today, but those bans are temporary, not permanent. And though we don’t know precisely when they’ll be lifted, there’s no question they eventually will be.
Let’s say you’d like to visit Paris. Who wouldn’t? If you book a flight today for travel today, you’re gonna have a bad time. If you book a flight today for travel in 2021, there’s a far greater likelihood Americans will be welcomed.
While it’s uncertain precisely when most international travel will be allowed to resume—it’s largely a question of when and how well we contain the virus spread—that’s why it’s advisable to book flights further out and remember that for many flights, you can change dates without penalty.
Book in pencil, not in pen.
Since nobody knows precisely when travel will begin re-normalizing, being able to change your plans is key. Think of it as booking in pencil, not in pen.
In the Before Times, it would cost $200+ to change your travel dates. Fortunately, the major US airlines including American, United, and Delta have continued to extend their free change policies for travel through the end of the year (Southwest always allows free changes). They’ve also announced policies to allow free changes on all new bookings on domestic flights and some short-haul international routes, excluding basic economy.
Similarly, most hotels and many homeshares are offering flexibility as well.
Remember, free changes ≠ free cancellations.
Don’t assume you can get a refund if you decide not to take a flight you’ve booked. While you can change your travel dates for free—be aware you’d still have to pay any fare difference—that’s not the same as being able to get your money back.
Remember that, by law, you are entitled to a refund if an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight (like a 2+ hour schedule change). But you won’t get a refund if you just decide not to go, even if the reason you don’t want to go is due to a mandatory quarantine. If SCF ran an airline, passengers would absolutely be entitled to a refund if the country they were flying to barred them from entering. But that’s not how most airlines operate.
You might be wondering why planes would still be flying to places Americans are banned. They’re carrying a small number of people who are exempted from the ban like dual citizens, family members of EU citizens, students, and passengers in transit (connecting in the EU en route elsewhere)
Expect flights to be cheap for the foreseeable future.
Since 2015, we’ve been living in what I call the Golden Age of Cheap Flights. Airlines have been able to offer cheaper flights because their business model has changed. Rather than relying on economy ticket revenue, they now rely on other streams, from premium seats to cheaper jet fuel to corporate contracts to selling frequent flyer miles.
The factors that ushered in the Golden Age of Cheap Flights are likely to continue post-pandemic. The only outstanding question is business travel, the demise of which many are predicting. My sense is that within a few years business travel will almost entirely return.
You can snag last-minute flights more cheaply right now.
Though I’m normally not a fan of last-minute flights—and we don’t send deals that are only available last minute—I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they’re currently way cheaper than normal.
In ordinary times, airlines jack up last-minute fares to gouge business travelers who typically book late and are less price sensitive. But with business travel virtually non-existent, airlines are offering these last-minute flights affordably, sometimes even cheap.
So even if you’re like me and had rarely considered a last-minute getaway, it’s more affordable now than it used to be.
Know that having a trip to look forward to is fun and important
When researchers studied how people enjoy travel, they made a startling discovery: on average, we get more joy before a trip than during one.
Having something fun and exciting to look forward to is important in the best of times, which is to say it’s especially important now during the not-best times. Even if it’s planning a far-out trip for summer 2021, don’t sleep on how much joy anticipation can bring.
The bottom line, though, is that travel should be fun, not stressful. If having a Bastille Day trip to Paris on the calendar is something that would bring you joy, wonderful. There’s a ton of great fares to choose from these days. If having a Bastille Day trip to Paris on the calendar is something that would bring you heartburn, well, life’s already got enough stressors right now. We’ll still be here to help you get cheap flights whenever you feel comfortable booking again.