It’s been almost 10 months since the coronavirus pandemic landed on US shores, and in that time, the travel industry has become a shadow of its former self. With international borders mostly closed, people hunkered down in their homes and business travel reduced to a fraction of its former self, airlines and hotels are seeing only a sliver of the travelers they had just a year ago.
But with vaccines now ramping up production, it’s likely that travel begins its comeback in 2021. And if you’ve been eager to book a trip for later this year, you may want to start looking at your options now instead of waiting to see how things unfold. That’s because there are a number of reasons that booking today could be a better choice than holding off until we’re already deep into 2021.
There aren’t many silver linings to the pandemic cloud we’ve been living under for nearly a year now, but one of the few bits of good news is that the major US airlines — American, Delta and United — have dropped their change fees on all domestic tickets and most international itineraries departing from North America. The one exception is basic economy tickets, and even some of those can still be changed without a fee depending on how and when they’re booked.
(Also, let’s give credit here to Southwest, which has never had basic economy or change fees in the first place. If you’re looking for a passenger-friendly airline, Southwest continues to have some of the best policies of all the US carriers, including easy-to-change tickets and free checked bags.)
Now, that doesn’t mean all airline tickets are refundable. There’s a big difference between “changeable” and “refundable.” Basically, the new policies mean you can change your ticket before departure and not have to pay an extra fee. But unless you specifically pay more for a refundable flight, you still can’t get your money back on most tickets unless there’s a cancellation by the airline itself.
And while there are no longer fees for changing your flight, you’ll still have to pay any difference between the original fare you bought and the price of the new ticket if it’s more. Conversely, if the price of your new flight is lower, both American and Delta will give you a credit for the difference. (United just pockets it, so keep that policy in mind when you’re choosing an airline.)
Still, the new rules offer a lot more flexibility and make it more attractive to go ahead and book since there’s no risk of losing your money if a vaccine doesn’t make it to you before your trip. It also means it’s worth locking down a great deal for the future if you find one now. Speaking of which…
Unsurprisingly, struggling airlines and hotels are doing everything they can to get people to book. And while now isn’t a good time to partake in unnecessary travel, you can take advantage of deals now for trips in the future.
What kinds of deals can you get? Just as an example, JetBlue is currently running a flash sale with flights between January and June starting at $59 one way. Even June may still be too soon for a leisure trip, but you can get from San Francisco to Honolulu for Thanksgiving at a round-trip price of $326 as of this writing.
If you’re interested in an international getaway, there are also deals to be had. Right now, you can book from New York to London in November for $357 round trip, or score a round-trip itinerary between Chicago and Amsterdam for around $492.
To find cheap airfares, either use Google Flights or an online travel agency to search for trips, or sign up for notifications from a deal site, such as The Flight Deal or Scott’s Cheap Flights. Or try a data-driven app like Hopper to find the ideal time to book.
And if you’ve been sitting on a stack of frequent flyer miles, now’s the time to use them. Award availability is more open than it has been in years as airlines try to fill seats, and most US airlines no longer charge a fee to cancel an award ticket and get your miles back (again, United is the exception if you cancel less than 30 days from departure). So put aside some time to search the airline’s website and see what sorts of miles deals appear.
Even with changeable flights, there may still be some aspects of a booked trip that are difficult or impossible to change, and you don’t want to lose money if you get sick and can’t travel.
You could buy a travel insurance policy to cover you in case the worst happens, but they can be expensive, and not all of them will cover claims related to the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, a cheaper and better way to protect yourself might already be in your purse or wallet: your credit card.
Many travel credit cards include various forms of travel protection, such as trip cancellation and interruption coverage, travel accident insurance, emergency evacuation coverage and more. While these protections generally don’t cover you if you voluntarily cancel your trip due to the pandemic, they often do cover you if you personally get sick from the coronavirus.
Every credit card offers different levels of coverage, and some don’t have any travel protections at all, so it’s important to check the fine print before you book your trip with a specific credit card to know exactly what you’re being protected against. But if you want to be sure that your travel investment is safe, choose the right credit card to book your post-pandemic vacation.
Related: Read CNN Underscored’s guide to the best credit cards with travel insurance protections.
While it’s impossible to predict how long a full vaccine rollout will take and when international destinations will start to lift travel restrictions, it seems likely that travel will begin to ramp up by the second half of 2021.
On the other hand, it’s easy to predict that demand for travel is going to explode as soon as planes are fully back in the skies. With so many people cooped up in their homes for so long, many have a palpable desire to get to an exotic destination as soon as possible.
Once demand takes off, great airfares and award availability are likely to taper off. That doesn’t mean deals will completely disappear — industry leaders are projecting that business travel, which is the most lucrative part of the market for airlines, won’t fully return for several years. But if you want to lock in a great deal, it’s better to do it now while demand is still depressed.
It’s been a tough year, and even though we may be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, there are still a number of tough months ahead. By booking yourself a trip now, you’ll have something to look forward to at the end of it. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health, and the idea of an upcoming trip may help get you through the slog.
And even with all of the above in mind, if you just don’t feel comfortable booking future travel at the moment, don’t feel bad about that either. Many people don’t have a flexible enough family or work schedule to allow themselves to book speculative travel with so many unknowns still out there.
If that’s you, there’s one other thing you can do while waiting for travel to resume: earn extra travel rewards on your credit card. Many cards offer big sign-up bonuses to new card holders, and those bonuses alone can be enough to book a trip when the world is finally more stable. Plus, you can use a credit card to earn rewards on the everyday things you buy while you’re stuck at home.
So, if you aren’t ready to book travel yet but want to make sure you have enough frequent flyer points or miles to go somewhere great when you finally can, check out our list of the best travel credit cards and see if one of them might be a good fit for you.