Many Americans are anxious to plan a trip after a homebound year. But given uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it’s especially important to include protection so you don’t end up paying for a trip that doesn’t happen or is cut short. What you need to know…

Airline Tickets

On domestic and most international flights, the big three US airlines—American, Delta and United—have permanently eliminated “change fees,” the $75 to $750 charges previously imposed on travelers to switch flights. Smaller Alaska Airlines also eliminated the fees…Southwest never imposed them. But there are some crucial caveats…

Basic economy tickets remain inflexible. When airlines made the elimination of change fees permanent, they excluded the lowest, ­inflexible fares called “basic economy,” or “saver” on Alaska. Exceptions: Basic economy booked on Delta by March 30 or on United by March 31 can be changed without a fee. 

Foreign and discount airlines are charging change fees again. Policies vary and change regularly—check when making reservations. 

The rules of the airline that handles your booking will apply even if you fly on a plane belonging to its partner. Example: If you book a ­nonbasic-economy ticket to Europe this summer on Delta, you can change it without a fee even if you fly on a plane belonging to Delta partner Air France. 

Change fees still apply on certain international flights on big US airlines that don’t “originate” in the US (United)…in North America (Delta)…and in North or South America (American). If you book a round-trip international flight starting from the US, for example, you won’t face change fees—but if you book those two flights separately, your return flight might.

Don’t expect cash back if you cancel. You’ll typically receive a credit valid for one year from the date you originally booked—not one year following the date of the flight. If you change to a ticket that costs more, you’ll owe the difference. If the new ticket costs less, most airlines will give you a credit. Exception: United will pocket the excess. 

“Opaque” tickets booked though Priceline or Hotwire usually are nonchangeable. These tickets do not show the airline until after you book. With most other third-party travel websites, change rules of the underlying airline apply, but confirm before booking. 

What to do: Avoid lowest-fare economy tickets and opaque travel websites in 2021—their risks outweigh the savings. Non-opaque websites such as Booking.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and ­Orbitz.com generally are safe, though these occasionally offer nonrefundable deals, so read terms carefully. Be wary of booking tickets on discount, small and/or foreign airlines, many of which are imposing change fees. If you must change or cancel, inform the airline before flight time to receive a credit. Always confirm the policies for changes and cancellations with the airline before you book. 

Lodging

Most hotels have historically allowed penalty-free changes and cancellations until 24 or 48 hours before the scheduled arrival even without special pandemic policies—but there are exceptions. Vacation rental sites Airbnb and VRBO let property owners choose their own cancellation policies, so they vary. 

What 2021 travelers need to know about lodging reservation flexibility…

The deal you choose determines whether reservations can be canceled. Most hotels offer refundable and nonrefundable rates, the latter costing around 10% less. Refundable reservations usually can be canceled for a full refund up to either 24 or 48 hours before arrival date, though this varies. Although refundable rates usually are labeled “refundable,” nonrefundable rates often have less-clear labels such as “prepaid,” “guaranteed rate” or “advance purchase rate.” Last year, most hotels allowed even noncancelable reservations to be canceled, but those pandemic policies have now largely expired. Exception: At Hyatt, virtually any reservation that has an arrival date before the end of July 2021 can be canceled or changed without penalty up to 24 hours before scheduled arrival.

Airbnb and VRBO cancellation terms often are far stricter than hotel policies. With Airbnb, property owners can select from options ranging from “flexible,” which allows free cancellation until 24 hours before check in…to “super strict 60 days,” which offers 50% refunds if canceled at least 60 days in advance. VRBO property owners set their own cancellation terms, and some don’t allow refunds at all. 

What to do: Don’t prepay for a nonrefundable hotel, and don’t book hotel rooms through opaque travel websites this year. The best option can be to use sites such as Booking.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com to search for attractive rates, then visit those hotel chains’ own sites to book—the hotel’s site is likely to offer rates at least as low as the non-opaque sites, and booking refundable rates through the hotel chain itself is the best way to ensure that you won’t run into problems. It’s sometimes possible to obtain refundable rates that are competitive with nonrefundable rates by calling the hotel and asking if it has special rates for seniors, AAA or AARP members, or guests attending a big local event. 

If a property’s cancellation policy is stricter than you’d like, contact the owner through the app/site and ask for flexible cancellation terms if the pandemic creates problems—cancellation terms are negotiable if the property owner is willing. 

Travel Packages and Cruises

You can book travel packages and cruises through travel websites or cruise lines. But if your goal is flexibility, it’s better to book through a traditional travel agent—explain that you want to make travel plans that can be canceled or changed if necessary. If something goes wrong—a virus outbreak on a cruise ship, for example—you have a skilled advocate to help you. Travel agents often charge fees of perhaps $50 to $100.

What to do: Choose a travel agent on the website of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA.org)…Virtuoso.com, which specializes in high-end trips…or ­TravelLeaders.com. Members of these organizations typically have the clout needed to convince travel companies to treat clients fairly. 

Car Rentals and Train Tickets

If your travel plans include car or train reservations…

Car-rental companies generally offer flexible cancellation terms, but the rate you choose matters. “Pay later” or “pay at counter” rates generally can be canceled without penalty. “Pay now” or “prepaid” rates usually can be canceled, too—probably for a fee. Examples: For US rentals, Enterprise imposes a $50 cancellation fee if a prepaid booking is canceled more than 24 hours before scheduled pick-up or $100 within 24 hours. Avis charges $50 or $150, respectively. 

Refunds usually are not possible
when cars are rented through opaque travel websites so use ­non-opaque travel sites to search for the best rates, then book through the site of the rental company itself, which is likely to offer the same rates. 

Amtrak’s cancellation policy depends on the fare selected. Amtrak cancellation/change fees and restrictions have been waived for reservations made by March 31, 2021. After that, “saver” tickets will be nonrefundable beyond 24 hours after booking…and “value” fares must be canceled at least 15 days before departure for a full refund—fees of 15% to 25% apply closer to travel date. “Flexible,” “business” and “premium” fares can be canceled or changed without a fee with one big exception—sleeper accommodations must be canceled at least 121 days before the travel date for a full refund…75% refund if canceled less than 121 days pretrip. Helpful: Amtrak waives change/cancellation fees for passengers who provide doctor’s notes establishing that the trip was canceled due to an illness to a member of the traveling party. 

What to do: Prepay for car rentals only if the savings compared to paying later exceed the fee for cancelling. Pay extra this year for train tickets that provide flexibility.

Travel Insurance and the Pandemic

Most travel insurance does not cover pandemics. Even those that cover COVID-19 do so only if the policyholder contracts the disease, not if a healthy policyholder decides to cancel a trip because infection rates rise or quarantine rules are enacted. 

You can’t depend exclusively on insurance to protect your trip. Instead make refundable travel purchases as described above. For an extra layer of protection, make travel purchases with a credit card that offers trip-­cancellation-and-interruption protection, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee). 

If you still want travel insurance, a “cancel for any reason” (CFAR) policy is better than a “named peril” policy that likely will not cover pandemics. CFAR policies are pricey and don’t fully cover losses—expect to pay 10% to 12% of your trip costs for a policy that covers 50% to 75% of losses. Example: If your prepaid tour is $10,000, CFAR insurance might cost $1,000. If you cancel, the policy might cover $5,000, leaving you $6,000 out of pocket—the other $5,000 you spent on the trip, plus the $1,000 insurance fee. Certain CFAR policies exclude COVID despite the “for any reason” in their name. If this limitation is in your policy, you could simply describe your reason for canceling without specifically mentioning COVID-19. Example: Rather than say “I’m canceling because I’m scared I’ll catch COVID,” you could say “I’m canceling because I’m scared of taking the trip.” 

Given the widespread illness, do obtain some form of medical evacuation and/or emergency medical care coverage if you travel abroad. Example: Medjet medical evacuation policies can cost less than a few hundred dollars, depending on age, trip duration and other factors. MedjetAssist.com