For another year, summer travel plans are up in the air even as more people are ready to take to the skies. Summer vacations are roaring back, but you still need Plans A, B and possibly C to make sure you get away. Book flights and lodging early and take advantage of more generous change and cancellation policies. If traveling internationally is on your wish list, match your pandemic risk tolerance to the rules in other countries. Most importantly, be flexible since you never know when the next COVID-19 wave may upend even the best-laid plans.
After two years of cancellations, deferments and marathon sessions with airline customer service, many travelers are hoping to book summer trips that actually pan out this year.
“I had the month of May 2020 completely off work,” says Katharine Ng, an engineering program manager in Los Angeles . Ng planned to visit Europe and Morocco but had to cancel and rebook for the following year, 2021. Those new plans were eventually scuttled because she wasn’t yet fully vaccinated by May, and travel restrictions got in the way.
“Thankfully, canceling the trips was easy because of the COVID cancellation policies,” Ng says. Yet while getting a refund was nice, it didn’t scratch the itch for taking an actual vacation.
Many travelers, twice bitten by summer plans gone awry, remain shy of making them again this year. Even the experts have given up trying to predict what twists the pandemic will take next. But regardless of what happens, travelers can maximize their chances of summer travel success with a few simple steps.
BOOK FLIGHTS SOON
Travel isn’t just coming back. It’s roaring back.
“We’re already at 2019 prices for airfare,” says Adit Damodaran, economist at Hopper, a travel booking app that tracks airfare trends. “We’ve already exceeded our initial forecast for prices.”
Prices are rising in part because of increased consumer demand, but volatile oil prices may be playing an even bigger role. When the Ukraine conflict caused some travelers to pull back on Europe travel, prices didn’t follow suit.
“In Europe, demand is decreasing, but prices haven’t dropped with it,” Damodaran says. “In fact, they have increased. Airlines could be preemptively adjusting fares for fuel price changes.”
Regardless of the cause, airfare costs are unlikely to drop significantly before peak summer travel. So booking sooner rather than later might help you avoid getting priced out of this travel season.
KEEP IT FLEXIBLE
The pandemic has ushered in one consumer-friendly change: Most airlines and hotels now offer more flexible booking options. And if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that no trip, however well planned, is safe from disruption.
The best way to find flexible booking options depends on a host of factors, but a few simple rules apply.
— Avoid basic economy airfare as it doesn’t allow changes or cancellations.
— Choose hotel rooms with free cancellation. Sometimes these rates are slightly higher than their nonrefundable counterparts.
— Read vacation rental policies carefully. Services like Airbnb and Vrbo generally let hosts choose the cancellation policy.
Data from Hopper shows that the number of basic economy bookings made on its platforms dropped significantly in 2021 after airlines introduced more flexible options for other fares. Now, these bottom-of-the-barrel fares make up only 20% of total bookings compared with nearly 40% before the industry change.
CHOOSE DESTINATIONS WISELY
Even if COVID-19 cases drop throughout the spring and summer, it could be some time before all international travel restrictions follow suit.
“I was planning a trip to South Korea but I couldn’t deal with a seven-day hotel quarantine,” says Ng, citing the country’s strictly enforced rules . Ng opted to visit Europe this summer, where such restrictions aren’t currently in place. She feels more confident that COVID-related rules won’t suddenly change right before or, worse, during her trip.
When choosing a destination, start with the countries that have restrictions that match your risk tolerance and work backward.
Of course, these restrictions can be avoided by sticking to domestic travel, but many travelers are eager to head abroad.
MAKE A BACKUP PLAN — OR SEVERAL
Even with all these precautions in place, anything can happen. Another surge, variant or military conflict could upend even the best-laid plans, which is why it’s important to make a backup.
First, after planning your main trip, consider making a few fully refundable bookings for a second, separate trip. These can be a hedge to ensure you don’t have to book everything last minute during peak season. Just don’t book airfare unless it is truly refundable — most main cabin fares are refunded as vouchers with the same airline, which aren’t as good as cash.
Second, sketch out an idea for a third trip, with the intention to book it at the last minute if original plans fall through. This step can help psychologically to avoid losing steam when plans change.
Finally, consider taking multiple shorter trips during the summer rather than one long trip to a single destination. This approach not only protects against potential destination-specific lockdowns, but could also help make up for lost visits during the pandemic.