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Guide to Canceling and Booking Future Travel in Uncertain Travel Times

In less than a month, travel all around the world has come to an almost complete halt. Borders are closed, planes are flying nearly empty, and previously busy airports are ghost towns. As strange and uncertain as things seem today, we all know that travel will return.

What we don’t know, of course, is when. 

United Airlines Plane

For those of us who love planning – especially travel planning – the current uncertainties are very hard. It’s nearly impossible to plan. Many of us have upcoming trips this summer already booked that we need to decide whether to postpone or cancel. Many of us wonder when it will be safe to travel again and what dates might be reasonable for booking future trips that will actually happen.

Of course, I don’t have dates certain to offer you. But as someone who spends thousands of hours a year researching and dissecting all things travel, I do have lots of advice that you can hopefully apply to your own situation. The goal for all of us is to make smart decisions now that save money and hassles later.

So if you are wondering whether you should cancel already-booked future travel plans or are considering booking some trips for the future when this is hopefully all behind us, here are 9 important tips to consider.

Do you have summer travel plans you may need to cancel due to these uncertain times? Before you do, read these essential tips to make sure you are protecting yourself and the money you've spent!

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Tips for Canceling or Booking Travel Plans When the Future is Unknown

1. Wait until the last minute to cancel future flight reservations.

If you have flights booked in the next couple of months, it might be tempting to go ahead and cancel them. I get the psychology. It’s hard to have future travel plans made that you know you are not likely to take. 

But most airlines are only offering travel credits if customers cancel flights that are still scheduled to fly. Those credits have a limited shelf life. What we all want instead is a refund. After all, flight credits certainly aren’t as good as cash for families who might suddenly be facing job loss or other economic hardship in these times. 

If your flight is still many weeks away, you are much better waiting to see if the airline cancels your flight or substantially changes your flight time. If your flight is canceled completely, the Department of Transportation has made clear that you are entitled to a refund. And if the time of your flight changes by more than a few hours, you are also entitled to a refund under most airline contracts of carriage.

The bottom line is that airlines are playing a game of flight cancellation chicken with passengers right now. Don’t be the first one to flinch in this constantly changing landscape. You’ll likely get more if you can hold out.

2. Know when you are entitled to a refund. And demand it.

Speaking of refunds, airlines have been getting a lot of flack lately for making it hard for passengers to get the refunds they are entitled to. Many airlines have just been offering new itineraries or flight credits to passengers when flights they are booked on are canceled. These airlines are betting that average passengers – most of whom are not frequent flyers – don’t know they are entitled to ask for something more.

It’s important – more now than ever – to know your rights. If you want a refund and are entitled to it (usually because your already-booked flight is canceled), ask for it. Demand it. Escalate if you have to. Take it to Twitter. Hang up and call back. Yes, it may take some time, but the persistent will prevail.

3. Consider the benefits of postponing instead of canceling already-booked trips.

In an uncertain travel world, your first instinct may be to cancel everything that you possibly can. But that may not always be the smartest strategy, especially when:

  • A) you have locked in a great deal you can simply extend to use later or
  • B) a travel company offers you an additional incentive to postpone rather than cancel.

This is especially true right now for Disney trips. Did you book a Disney vacation package that locked in the old 2019 ticket prices before the February price increases? Or did you take advantage of a special discount, like the Kids Spring Ticket Deal at Disneyland? If you cancel your trip, you’ll lose those deals. 

Disney has already offered incentives to guests whose trips have been canceled by the park closures. At Walt Disney World, this includes a free dining offer for a future vacation. Similarly on Disney Cruise Line, guests have received 125% credits towards future cruises for canceled sailings. If these cancellations are extended, similar incentives may be extended to even more guests.

So if you can hang in there with the reservations you have and be willing to postpone your vacations, there may be a payoff later. 

4. When booking future flights, know exactly what you are booking.

If you are ready to go ahead and make future travel plans, it is so important to book carefully. Know what the rules are of the airline you are flying on and the specific ticket you are booking at that moment. 

I’d actually recommend taking a screenshot of the fine print associated with your ticket as you book. The rules are changing so fast on airline websites that you may not be able to remember or find the details again if you need them.

For those who are comfortable tying up some cash (or some points and miles) right now, there are certainly reasons to consider booking flights and vacations for the future. Airlines are mostly offering more generous change fee rules than they ever have before. So you get flexibility with carriers like United or American that are rarely flexible for anyone but their most elite frequent flyers.

5. Book fully refundable travel whenever possible. 

If you are ready to do some travel planning, by all means do it! I personally am planning a fall trip to Disneyland myself just in case.

When you are ready to book, however, make all bookings as flexible and refundable as you possibly can. For me, that means booking my Disneyland travel with Get Away Today. GAT’s Peace of Mind plan saved a lot of travelers in the last few weeks when the Disney parks closed. Plus, they are the only place you can get refundable Disney tickets.

For flights, that also means I’m booking trips for the rest of 2020 with Southwest Airlines. Southwest never has any change fees, and I’m able to book flights now using Southwest Rapid Rewards points that are fully refundable if I need to cancel. Because of the generous change rules, I even felt comfortable booking a very speculative trip to Hawaii on Southwest in August. It may not be reasonable or possible to travel then, but if it’s not, it’s no big deal to cancel and get it all back in minutes.

Aulani View from Four Seasons

I booked a speculative trip to Disney’s Aulani in Hawaii on Southwest because of the airline’s generous change rules.

What should you be wary of during these times? Whatever you do, do NOT book a pre-paid non-refundable hotel room to save a few bucks. I’d also be hesitant to book flights with an airline that may go out of business the next few months. That cash could be gone forever. Quite a few low-cost carriers may be very vulnerable right now.

6. Expect flights you book now to change.

Even as you are making future flight plans, don’t expect them to be set in stone. Few industries are seeing as much sudden and speedy upheaval as the airline industry. Airlines are still adjusting their flight schedules. Flight times and frequencies on certain routes will change; some cities may even be cut in the coming weeks.

While this might strand some travelers unexpectedly, there is a silver lining here too. The good news is that this probably gives you as the customer extra flexibility. There will be refunds up for grabs from airlines that rarely give refunds. You might originally book a cheap flight at an inconvenient time but find you are able to leverage that booking into a superior flight time at no extra cost if flight schedules change.

Monitor your future flight reservations on occasion. Chances are good there will be loopholes to exploit as things change.

7. Be ready to start with a staycation or closer-to-home trip – especially this summer or fall. 

Because none of us know when life is going to get back to some semblance of normal, a lot of people probably won’t be booking any new summer travel plans right now until a path forward is more clear.

If things do open up a bit in a couple of months, I fully expect those of us stuck in the house will want to get out. But we’ll probably be advised to do so gradually and cautiously. It’s not going to be a switch that is flipped that returns life and travel to normal. Travelers may still be concerned with the risks of flying. Most of us will probably start with a smaller and closer-t0-home trip that can be planned last minute.

Our family already had a weekend booked at Yosemite National Park for mid-July and I’m holding on to those reservations. At just a 3-4 hour road trip from where we live and with most of the activities outdoors, this could easily be a trip that works before other kinds of travel open fully. And I’ll be ready to jump on a few other day trips near the San Francisco Bay Area where I live when it is safe to do so.

Northern California National Parks - El Capitan and Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park

Hoping that national parks travel may be possible this summer.

8. Expect international travel and cruising to be much slower to come back.

Speaking of travel opening up, do not expect all travel types to return to normal on the same timeline. Two areas that almost assuredly will be later to return are cruising and international travel.

Countries around the world are being hit at different times. They are mounting vastly different responses. There will be an instinct to want to keep borders closed to prevent countries that are on a later timeline from causing problems for countries that have put the worst behind them.

As Americans, we are used to having one of the most-honored passports in the world. We can travel a lot of places that many others can’t. Expect that to change in a big way and for quite awhile. I fully expect Americans to be barred from traveling to a number of places for quite some time even after our situation at home radically improves. 

Cruise lines obviously have some unique challenges in this brave new world too. The trial and tribulations of the Diamond and Grand Princess as well as Holland America’s Zaandam weigh heavy on the minds of many travelers. Many of us will be hesitant (justifiably) to cruise again, seeing how a number of ships have been turned away from docking in recent weeks and how cruise ships seem to be particularly potent incubators of germs.

9. When travel does re-open, expect prices to go up. And quickly.

Right now, the state of the economy and the general uncertainty about travel is causing a lot of would-be travelers to wait in the wings. If you are in both the financial position and the mental position to book future trips, it’s not a bad idea to take advantage when prices are mostly low (as long as you take the other precautions I’ve talked about above!). I personally have booked several speculative trips and will be booking more in the next few weeks.

I fully expect that when things truly start looking up, demand will surge. We are all hoping and longing to travel again in whatever form we can. And given how much the travel industry has contracted in this downturn, that means that the supply will be much lower than it was. Some places may open but with capacity controls that will drive the supply even lower. With the corresponding increasing demand, travel prices will likely go up. So, the early birds who can make speculative and flexible travel plans now before the crunch will be the ones who save more money when travel is safe and responsible once again.

Have you canceled any future travel plans? Are you booking future trips, and if so, for when?

Considering booking travel for later this year but unsure of what the future holds? Expert travel booking tips to help keep your plans as flexible as possible and prevent you from losing money in these uncertain travel times.

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Caroline Makepeace

Wednesday 15th of April 2020

Great tips and advice here. I believe international travel will take a long time to recover. I think it will be about local travel, domestic travel and wide open spaces! Western Australia in Australia will be popular as will the Southwest USA. I doubt we'll be seeing normal overcrowding in European cities for a long time. That's a good thing though. And cruising? Well that's probably going to be the hardest hit industry.

Tamara

Friday 10th of April 2020

I really wish we had any indication of when they will reopen international travel and even if road trips, etc will be allowed this summer. If we could even know what criteria need to be met or a possible timeline. The waiting and not knowing the fate of all our summer plans are giving me an ulcer.