Tips for keeping your summer vacation flexible
Kassian is avoiding hotel chains, which have already started tightening their cancellation policies as travel restrictions ease. Instead, she prefers independent hotels. “Many are generous with last-minute cancellations,” she says.
Experts say travelers look for policies like this when planning their vacations.
“Flexibility is no longer a luxury,” says Jeffrey Galak, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “It’s a requirement.”
Several recent policy changes reflect this requirement:
- Before the pandemic, only first or business class airfare offered the option to change your itinerary without paying a fee. From now on, all but the cheapest economy class tickets can be changed.
- Many hotels and vacation rental sites have changed their refund rules in the wake of the pandemic, allowing guests to cancel their stay without penalty.
- Cruise lines used to be held to rigid refund rules that made tickets non-refundable the closer you got to the departure date. Many today allow customers to cancel and receive credit and, in some cases, a full refund. Many cruise lines still don’t have cancellation fees unless you book a special rate.
How do you find flexibility in an industry that until recently prided itself on being inflexible? One way is to hire a travel consultant.
“In uncertain times like these, it becomes increasingly important to book through a reputable travel advisor who has relationships with approved and reliable tour operators,” says Robyn Davis, Managing Director of Global Events, a corporate events company.
Davis urges travelers to choose their advisor carefully, ensuring they are licensed, insured and accredited by the International Air Transport Association. A knowledgeable travel advisor will outline a trip’s full cancellation policy in writing, recommend a travel insurance policy with every booking, and be there to help if you need to cancel, she says.
You can also look for flexible policies. For example, the Vrbo site and app allows users to filter properties by cancellation policy, with its most lenient policy offering full refunds up to 14 days before check-in. If you are flexible with your travel dates, you can also try an undated search to find more available properties in the area.
Some companies are extremely flexible this summer. JetBlue Vacations, for example, allows customers to change their flights free of charge up to seven days before departure when they book round-trip flights and a hotel together. For cruise passengers, it also has an “aircraft-port commitment”.
“If a customer misses their cruise departure due to a JetBlue flight delay or cancellation, we’ll help them get to the next port of call,” said Andres Barry, president of JetBlue Travel Products.
Shelley Ewing, president of TierOne Travel, is a fan of Disney Cruise Line’s flexibility. The company has changed its cancellation fee schedule, expanding its refund window to allow some customers to cancel up to 60 days before sailing on certain sailings.
Ewing also recommends Royal Caribbean, which allows some travelers to cancel up to 48 hours before their departure date and get the full amount paid back as future cruise credit. (As always, these terms are subject to change.)
According to experts, a travel insurance policy can offset some of the risks of cancellation. “There are certain types of travel insurance that will provide maximum flexibility for your trip,” says Joe Cronin, president of International Citizens Insurance, a health insurance site for expats.
There are two types of insurance. Standard travel insurance covers named perils, such as unexpected cancellation or death in the family. A cancel for any reason policy is exactly what it sounds like, and it allows travelers to recoup a large percentage of their expenses.
“You can cancel for any reason, usually up to two days before departure, for a refund of up to 75% of non-refundable prepaid expenses”, explains Chelsea Capwell, spokesperson for Travel Insurance Master, an aggregator online travel insurance. But you must purchase the policy early to receive coverage in the event of cancellation for any reason, usually within one to 21 days of the initial trip deposit.
Everyone wants flexibility this summer, because no one knows what’s going to happen. We could have another wave of coronavirus cases. The war in Ukraine could spread. And you can do all of these things – hire an agent, research the most flexible policies, buy insurance – and still end up on the wrong side of a strict policy.
Too often, travelers throw their hands up and walk away. But that ignores the most effective strategy for making your vacation as flexible as possible: Ask. If you need a late checkout, ask at reception. If you need to shorten your stay, ask. If you need to reschedule your stay or want a refund, there’s no harm in asking.
For the first time in years, if not decades, the travel industry wants to be as accommodating as possible. Galak, the Carnegie Mellon professor, suspects the travel industry’s unprecedented flexibility is a time-limited offer. But while he thinks policies will tighten again as summer approaches, he doubts they will return to their pre-pandemic rigidity.
“Consumers just won’t tolerate it,” he says.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.