The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the travel industry in unprecedented ways. With spring vacations canceled long ago and summer options looking grim, many travelers are wondering what they should do about trips they had booked for later in 2020.
Should they go ahead and cancel or postpone? Is it better to just wait and see what happens? Will international travel even be possible? Are refunds an option?
“Right now, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] tells us that all nonessential travel ― foreign and domestic ― is on hold,” Erika Richter, senior director of communications at the American Society of Travel Advisors, told HuffPost. “This is a rapidly evolving situation. However, we know one thing for certain: The virus is not under control. Therefore, travelers need to continue to consult with expert resources to understand the impact on their 2020 travel plans.”
Essentially, travel will return in phases, but there will be restrictions and considerations that affect individual travelers differently.
“Barring a miracle, there will be no vaccine this year,” said Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy. “Even if you can physically go somewhere, no one can make the decision for you about whether or not to make the trip. That’s a matter of personal risk analysis based on the information you have.”
So what major factors should people consider when assessing what to do about travel they had booked for later this year? HuffPost spoke to Kelly, Richter and other travel experts to find out. Read on for their guidance.
Don’t Hold Out Hope For International Travel
There are many factors to consider when assessing what to do about travel you had planned for later in 2020. A big one is whether the trip is domestic or international.
“Local and regional travel will come back first, potentially in 2020, depending on the experts’ advice,” said Richter. “International travel likely won’t see a return until 2021.”
Kelly told HuffPost he believes that many borders will open up later this year, allowing for the possibility of international travel. Still, he noted, “some countries may not let in people from the U.S. because of our inability to handle this like an adult.”
Even if international travel is technically possible, the decision to risk that option will be a personal calculation. It’s safe to assume informed travelers will take a more cautious approach amid the pandemic.
“We always tell travelers to reference objective third-party sources of information like the CDC and the State Department before making decisions to travel,” Richter explained. “Every traveler has their own level of risk tolerance, so it’s important that they are making informed decisions in consultation with expert advice. This also means that travelers need to talk to their health care provider before their next trip ― whenever that trip happens to take place. Every traveler is going to have a different health profile and vulnerability, which will certainly need to be considered before their next trip.”
In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in various countries, mandatory self-quarantine orders for foreign travelers may also make international trips less appealing.
“Some countries may not let in people from the U.S. because of our inability to handle this like an adult.”
– Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy
“Before you can cancel your plans down the road, it’s important to consider the purpose of your trip and where you’re headed,” said Rob Karp, founder and CEO of the travel planning service MilesAhead. “Consumers need to weigh out their region’s current travel restrictions along with understanding the restrictions being held in the destinations they plan to travel to.”
He added that travelers should think about how they could pose a risk to the destination they hope to visit.
Domestic Travel Will Likely Come With Restrictions
Domestic travel will be a safer, easier option, but there are still many factors to consider.
Even if nonessential travel is back on the table later in the year, some states may have mandatory self-quarantine orders in place. Budget travel expert Lindsay Myers advised paying attention to any travel restrictions at the destination you plan to visit and consulting expert sources.
“Listen and read about what is happening in the area that you want to visit,” she said. “This will help you have a more informed decision on what to do with your reservations.”
If you had planned to fly somewhere else in the U.S., turning it into a road trip may feel like a safer plan. The farther away the destination, the greater the risk to you and others, so consider a shorter trip to somewhere closer to home. Even just an afternoon drive for a hike or other outdoor activity can offer a nice break.
Still, the popularity of the destination is another factor to consider. U.S. beaches and state parks are already having issues with overcrowding.
“The busier the location, the more travel restrictions you are likely to face,” said Axel Hefer, CEO of hotel price comparison site Trivago. “Ask, ‘Will I feel comfortable making the trip?’ Similar to shorter trips, any travel to remote locations might be more manageable in the short term. Also keep in mind that experiences at your destination may be impacted, so you should check whether restaurants and other activities will be open.”
Although you may feel comfortable driving somewhere, there may be concerns about hotels or Airbnbs.
“If you do not feel safe about the cleanliness of your accommodation, try switching your house with a friend or family in another city for the weekend,” Myers suggested. “It gives you a chance to get away and break out of your everyday.”
If There’s A Penalty For Canceling Now, Just Wait And See
After conducting your personal risk analysis, you may feel inclined to cancel your trip. But it could be prudent to hold off, especially if it means incurring a penalty.
“It pays to wait until the last minute to cancel your flight,” said Myers. “Travel has been brought to a standstill, and there is so much uncertainty about when it will come back. Do not cancel your flight because this turns the cancellation into a voluntary cancellation of your reservation. When this happens, the airline does not have to refund you or help you in any way.”
Voluntary changes and cancellations are often subject to fees. Many airlines have implemented more flexible cancellation policies amid the pandemic, but if you’re looking for a full refund, it may be worth waiting to see what happens. Myers noted that many airlines are still canceling flights as they approach their scheduled departure dates, which qualifies more travelers for a refund attributed to an involuntary change.
“It pays to wait until the last minute to cancel your flight.”
– Lindsay Myers, budget travel expert
“It doesn’t cost you anything to keep the option open, even if the end result is the same,” said Konrad Waliszewski, co-founder and CEO of the travel app TripScout. “Consumer protection regulations for COVID-19-related cancellations are only likely to get more consumer-friendly and transparent over the coming months as well.”
For other travel reservations, such as hotel rooms, you should similarly take the time to figure out your options. Travelers can contact the hotels where they reserved rooms or the booking platforms they used to learn about the cancellation policy and what plans they have in place for the remainder of the year.
“The hotel and Airbnb industry have been hit very hard during this pandemic,” said Myers. “If you booked directly with the hotel, contact the hotel directly to discuss your options on moving your date or completely canceling your booking. Airbnb already has cancellation processes with their hosts in place. Hotels and third-party platforms have been constantly updating their reservation policies because of the pandemic.”
If There’s No Fee, Canceling Now Could Help You Save Later
There are reasons you may want to cancel sooner rather than later. For one, travel companies’ cancellation policies are changing rapidly, and the flexibility we’re seeing now not is guaranteed in the long term. Plus, if you’re able to cancel now without incurring a fee, you could even get a better deal later.
“If you’re able to cancel your bookings with no penalty, then you should cancel now,” advised Waliszewski. “If your trip actually becomes possible and safe, then prices will certainly be much cheaper than your original booking, and it’s the one time you don’t have to worry about everything being booked.”
Airlines, hotel chains and other travel suppliers are offering different refund and voucher options for cancellations. If you’re loyal to a major airline or hotel chain, you may feel comfortable accepting a credit instead of a refund.
“Consumers need to ask themselves if that credit is something you’ll actually utilize at another time,” Karp said. “You should also factor in your confidence in the supplier. Is this a brand or company you normally book with and trust? Consumers are less likely to keep a credit with companies they don’t necessarily trust.”
Karp also noted that canceling a flight sooner rather than later may help airlines get a better sense of flight capacity and if that particular route is in demand. He and Richter both emphasized that postponing is an option as well.
“Although this may feel like a strange time to coordinate travel plans, suppliers are being flexible with bookings, vouchers and refunds now more than ever,” Karp said.
Even if you don’t know when it will be safe for you to take the trip you’d planned, you’ll likely be able to postpone again if need be.
Ultimately, travelers with trips scheduled for later in 2020 need to take stock of their current booking options, consult the most up-to-date guidelines and recommendations from public health and safety experts, follow the conditions in their destination of choice and consider personal health factors. These considerations will shape the best course of action.