The travel industry is reeling from disruptions around the globe caused by the coronavirus. In addition to cutting schedules, some airlines are both slashing airfares and offering generous change and cancellation fee waivers in an effort to get travelers to purchase tickets in the coming months. If you are thinking about taking advantage of some of these bargains, here is what you need to know to get the best deal, and the questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether doing so is worth it.
What do change and cancellation waivers cover?
The small bit of good news for travelers who may have already booked trips or are thinking about doing so now is that the major airlines are offering to waive change and cancellation fees on some tickets. Before you get too excited, though, these fee waivers tend to have a lot of conditions and exclusions. With some, you must purchase tickets by a certain date for travel within a set period of time. Some apply to pre-existing bookings, while others count toward future bookings.
You can find a helpful roundup of the coronavirus-related change and cancellation policies for the major airlines in this guide. But if you already have travel booked, or are considering buying airline tickets for the future, be sure to read the fine print very carefully.
For example, American Airlines is currently offering to waive change fees for customers who purchased their tickets prior to March 1 for travel through April 30 – so that’s a pretty narrow band of travelers. You have until December 31, 2020, or 12 months from your original ticket date (whichever is earlier) to get a new ticket issued.
If you were planning to fly Delta, that airline’s current policy is to waive change fees on all tickets purchased between March 1 – March 31, 2020 for travel between March 1, 2020 – February 25, 2021. You can change your ticket for free one time to an alternate itinerary and it must be reissued by February 28, 2021 with rebooked travel beginning no later than that date. If you purchased your ticket before March 9 for travel between March 1 – April 30, you only have until December 31 to rebook your ticket and begin travel. On top of that, depending on the region you were planning to travel to, like Asia or Europe, the eligible impacted travel dates might vary.
Waived fees doesn’t mean free.
It’s a lot to keep track of. But there’s more. Although it might sound like “waived change and cancellation fees” means you can simply cancel or change your ticket at no cost, it’s unfortunately not as simple as that.
These days, airlines will charge you hundreds of dollars just to change or cancel your reservation. But then you will also have to pay any fare difference on top of those fees for any new travel or tickets that you book. So let’s say you had a $300 ticket from Los Angeles to New York on Delta but you needed to change it to a later set of dates where flights cost $400. Normally, you would have to pay a $200 change fee plus the fare difference, meaning you would be out another $300. With these current fee waivers, the $200 change fee would be waived, but you would still have to pay $100 fare difference to rebook the higher-priced ticket.
If you cancel your ticket altogether, don’t expect to get a refund. Instead, airlines will issue you a travel credit for the dollar amount of your ticket that you can then use to pay for a future ticket. So before you book anything, make sure you will actually be able to use that travel credit on the airline at a future date.
With all that in mind, there really are only a few situations where it pays to purchase your tickets now in the hopes of saving some money. In general, you should only book tickets for flights you have a high probability of taking, and if you know that the fares available now are much lower than are usually available. Here are some of the key considerations to keep in mind.
These are flights you actually want to take.
As airlines struggle to cope with reduced flight schedules and huge drops in bookings, many are offering incredible fare deals. For instance, you can currently find fares from the West Coast to Hawaii for as little as $197 round-trip on Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines and United. Those same fares can top $600 under normal circumstances, so it seems like a no-brainer to book, right? Wrong.
If the dates you were thinking of booking are in the next few months, you might see your plans come to nothing as airlines continue to adjust their schedules and more travel bans are put in place. However, if you are making plans now for several months out, like September or after, you might want to take a chance that the coronavirus impact will be mostly over by then.
In general, you should only book flights you actually think you might take, even if the deals you find are almost too good be true.
You know for a fact that airfares will not remain this low.
Along the same lines, you should only book tickets at prices that you know to be well below average for the routes you are considering flying. If the airfares currently being offered on your selected itineraries are only slightly better than usual, it is probably not worth booking now and hoping that your travel plans end up going forward. However, if you are saving several hundred or even thousands of dollars off the normal prices for the tickets you are thinking about, then it might be worth booking now and keeping your fingers crossed. The farther out in the future you can book, the better.
Airfares are not going to suddenly rise.
Also keep in mind that, like the beginnings of the coronavirus outbreak, the resolution of it will not be a clear-cut date, but will probably drag out for a while. So if you are afraid that you will lose out on deals by not booking now and that airfares will suddenly rise astronomically on a certain day…that is not likely to happen.
The one circumstance where this might be the case is if a new travel ban goes into effect, like the restrictions on flights from Europe to the U.S. that President Trump announced March 11. That measure was set to go into effect within two days, prompting thousands of travelers in Europe to try to book last-minute flights home and the cost of some tickets to shoot up by thousands of dollars. If you are traveling in a region you think might be subject to a travel ban, it could be worth booking changeable tickets home now at current prices in case you need them, and then altering your plans as time goes on.
You can shift your plans earlier.
On the flip side of this, if there is a place you absolutely have to be in the coming weeks and there are no travel restrictions currently in place, consider booking your plane tickets to depart as soon as it is possible for you to travel. Given the fast-changing nature of this situation and the short time frames between the announcement of restrictions and their enforcement, you do not want to take any chances of not being able to get where you need to go, or to face the possibility of quarantine once you arrive.
Are you okay with being out the money for now?
As mentioned above, some airlines will let you cancel your ticket if it meets their conditions. But rather than an actual refund, you will be issued a travel credit to redeem for future tickets on the carrier. If you decide to book something now that you might need to cancel, just make sure that you can afford to hand over your money to the airline in the hopes of rebooking at some point in the future. Essentially, this is like giving your airline an interest-free bridge loan. If you are almost certain you will cancel your ticket and get it reissued at a later date, you might just want to hang onto your money in the meantime and book later when the situation becomes less stressful and irregular.
Book direct, or things will get more complicated.
One final thing to keep in mind. If you book your ticket through an online travel agency like Expedia, the airline will probably just tell you to try to change your arrangements through the agency. That is one reason you might want to consider only making bookings directly with the airlines you intend to fly, so as not to add another layer of complexity to an already complicated situation.
Unfortunately, there are very few clear answers or strategies to pursue in this time of increasing uncertainty. If you have some flexibility and find incredible airfares to places you want to visit several months from now, you might consider jumping on those deals. However, it is not worth speculatively making cheap bookings you are unsure you will be able to use just to snag a deal. Airfares are unlikely to bounce back unexpectedly once the immediate crisis is under control, and chances are there will be some great deals in the coming months that you will be able to take advantage of without risking issues changing or cancelling tickets you purchase right now.
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