While COVID-19-related travel restrictions make it hard to plan a vacation now, the travel industry is doing everything it can to make it attractive — if not now, then very soon. The good news: It’s a buyer’s market out there.
“This is a unicorn situation for three reasons,” says Lara Barlow, general manager of Travelzoo, a website that creates and vets travel deals. “The deals are never-before-seen amazing, they are all flexible, and they start in what would be considered high season.”
One important caveat: Until travel gets the green light from governments around the globe, potential travelers should proceed with planning under yellow-light caution. Uncertainty about when that will be means you need to think twice before you take the bait on a deal.
Many advisers stress the importance of flexibility, too. “If you want to leave the country, consider a backup in case you cannot,” says Jack Ezon, founder of Embark Beyond, a New York City-based travel agency. “We have several clients who want to stay in a villa in Tuscany or a seaside resort in France who also have a backup in Arizona or California set up, all with a 24-hour cancellation policy.”
One key financial consideration: If you cancel a trip, can you afford a postponement? When travelers cancel a refundable trip within penalty-free windows, most companies will offer a voucher for future travel rather than a refund. For many travelers, tying up a significant amount of money for up to a year creates a financial problem.
Among its advice to travel shoppers, the Federal Trade Commission recommends always paying with a credit card, which can offer an extra level of protection if you can’t get your money back from a vendor in case of a cancellation, for example. Most credit-card companies offer purchase protection, meaning they would refund you while pursuing reimbursement from a vendor.
While offering discounts, the following four sectors — airlines, hotels, cruises and tours — are also taking steps to address travelers’ concerns. Here’s what you need to know before jumping at low-cost deals, as enticing as they might be.
What’s new: All of the major and low-cost carriers in the U.S. have implemented new cleaning procedures designed to more thoroughly scrub planes and cleanse them of germs nightly. Delta Air Lines and Frontier Airlines now use a fogging agent to disinfect cabins before custodians wipe surfaces down. Southwest Airlines says each plane gets more than six hours of cleaning a night. Many carriers are blocking middle seats to allow for social distancing and boarding from the rear rows forward to keep passengers from close contact in the aisles.
The sales pitch: Most airline experts expect prices to remain low for an indeterminant amount of time, pending progress on virus testing and eradication. The airfare prediction app Hopper found the average round-trip flight to Miami this summer at $143, down $115, or 45 percent, versus 2019. It found the average domestic round-trip ticket in April was $205, down 33 percent compared with last year.
“There are two reasons to discount: to help people overcome fears of flying again, and because we are in recession, people have less money to spend,” says Seth Kaplan, cofounder of the “Airline Weekly” newsletter.
The fact that most airlines are waiving cancellation and change fees through June 30 essentially makes flights cheaper.
“We’re seeing unprecedented flexibility, even from famously inflexible airlines,” Kaplan says, referring to low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines.
Before you jump, consider: Unless the airline cancels your flight, you won’t get a refund. Rather, if you decide to cancel, you’ll get a voucher for future travel. The voucher preserves the money you spent, but if you don’t want to tie up your funds, think twice before booking. And don’t expect to find deals for Thanksgiving or the December holidays. Those tickets remain higher priced, with optimistic airlines hoping for a rebound by then.
What’s new: Most hotels worldwide are closed this spring during shelter-in-place orders. Like airlines, they are using this time to develop deep-cleaning disinfection practices that follow guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that directly address coronavirus. From market behemoths like Marriott International to boutique chain Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas, newly issued cleaning guidelines call for more frequent cleaning of public areas such as lobbies and fitness centers, the use of electrostatic spray technology that better spreads cleansers, and the availability of hand sanitizers throughout hotels.
The sales pitch: “I think every single hotel out there will be holding sales,” says Pauline Frommer, the editorial director of Frommer’s, the guidebook, and publisher of frommers.com. “There will be pent-up demand, and hotels will be in a big world of hurt economically.”
Even before they reopen, she points out, many hotels are holding sales at sites such as Buy Now, Stay Later, which sells “hotel bonds” or discounted gift cards for $100, redeemable for $150 after 60 days. This makes eparticipating hotels such as the Greydon House in Nantucket, for instance, about one-third off. In March, Hopper found hotel rates down between 9 and 25 percent across the country. Rates at hotels in San Francisco averaged $218 after March 1 and $292 before.
Before you jump, consider: Hotels normally have generous cancellation policies unless you buy a prepaid, nonrefundable rate, which tends to be lower. Though some hotels will refund even the nonrefundable prepaid rates through June, the best advice is to avoid them (use the AARP member rate instead, which is usually similar).
Also realize that your favorite hotel may not come back the same as you remember, if it even comes back. “For the near future, hotel offerings may change a bit,” Frommer says, indicating some hotels may not reopen and at others amenities like spas may lag in returning to service.
What’s new: After the drama of quarantined and virus-stricken passengers unable to disembark from ships such as the Diamond Princess, the cruise industry is stepping up its hygiene protocols to convince travelers to book their ships again. Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, a travel agency based in Coral Springs, Florida, forecasts a sea of changes: Elevator buttons will be wiped down several times an hour. Buffet dishes will not be self-serve but spooned onto plates by dining servers. Passengers and crew will be checked for temperature. Larger ships will beef up their onboard clinics, and there will be social distancing seating in theaters.
The sales pitch: Except for small-ship expedition cruises, the industry has always been a good place to look for deals, and now is no exception. Royal Caribbean is offering three-night cruises to the Bahamas from $189 a person. It and many cruise lines are offering free cancellations up to 48 hours before sailing. But beware: In that case, you’ll get a credit for a future cruise, not a refund.
Before you jump, consider: Most cruise lines have set June or July dates to resume sailings, but that depends on government restrictions, and the CDC’s current “no-sail” order could extend to July 24. Both Canada and Alaska have deferred cruises to July 1, subject to governmental approvals.
When travel bans are lifted, not every ship and itinerary will be available compared with prepandemic schedules. “Once they get the OK from the CDC, cruise lines will roll out ships,” says Fee. “Lines that had 22 ships might start with five and add on. Most won’t get to full capacity until toward the end of the year.”
What’s new: Group trips, where it’s harder to maintain social distancing standards, may be slower to rebound than other forms of travel. Intrepid Travel, one of the largest small-group operators, has suspended all but a few tours scheduled globally until at least Sept. 30. Tauck, a luxury tour company offering group and private trips, has canceled departures through June and has relaxed cancellations penalties through July.
The sales pitch: TravelZoo recently advertised a five-night all-inclusive resort stay in Jamaica with airfare for $499. It also had an eight-night South Africa safari with airfare from $1,699.
Before you jump, consider: Read the terms and conditions carefully, as they may vary based on when you booked and when you plan to travel. For example, G Adventures offers free cancellations and rebookings up to 14 days prior to departure before Dec. 31, 2020. That window stretches to 30 days for trips departing between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2021.