Like millions of fellow Americans, I'm fully vaccinated and ready for domestic leisure travel again, but enough uncertainty remains that my first priority for hotel and airline reservations is this: They have to be refundable — or at least changeable.
Along with price, refundability was a top priority of mine even before COVID-19. Plans can change, weather and health can intervene, and it's just plain awful to forfeit money to an airline and get nothing in return.
The ongoing pandemic adds an extra layer of uncertainty for travel plans, particularly for international trips. As we've tragically seen in other nations, COVID-19 cases can flare up. Just this month, the State Department issued a "do not travel" warning for Japan.
The good news for globetrotters is that hotel cancellation policies are mostly generous and easy to understand — cancel by a certain date and you get a refund. At peak times in certain cities, hotels may offer only nonrefundable bookings, however.
I just changed the dates of a planned fall visit to New Orleans for that reason. I found it hard to resist the low fares for nonstop flights from Charleston offered by startup Breeze Airways, which amounted to $200 for two people, round-trip, including a checked bag.
When I saw the nonrefundable "event rate" hotels in New Orleans on my travel dates, I canceled my original Breeze tickets within the brief period for full refunds. Then I rebooked, for dates when hotels were more reasonable, and if my plans fall through later my room is refundable.
Breeze would not exactly refund my flights if I have to cancel, but would keep the funds on hold for future use, like a store credit with a 24-month expiration date. If you can't get a cash refund, that's the next best thing.
Some major airlines just keep your money, if you book their least expensive tickets and end up not being able to use them. Some policies:
- On Delta, United, and American the least expensive tickets known as "basic economy" are non-refundable and non-changeable if they were purchased after April 30. So travelers on those three big carriers must buy more expensive tickets or risk losing their money.
- Southwest has no cancellation or change fees, and if you have to cancel one of their least-expensive tickets (the "Wanna Get Away" fares), it will hold the funds and you have a year to use them. The more expensive tickets are fully refundable.
- Frontier charges fees to change or cancel that rise as the departure date nears, and any remaining value becomes a travel credit. Buying its "works" bundle when booking avoids such potential fees but raises the cost.
- JetBlue charges a $100 change/cancel fee on the lowest-cost tickets (Blue Basic domestic) — but — is waiving fees for all tickets booked through June 7. After that, only the more expensive ticket classes have no change/cancel fees.
One very good choice, if you have enough airline loyalty program points or miles, is to book award tickets. That's because an increasing number of airlines will simply redeposit the points or miles in your account if you cancel the trip, right up the day of travel.
For example, American used to charge a fee to redeposit AAdvantage Miles if an award ticket was canceled. The airline ended that policy Nov. 11. Cancel an award ticket on Southwest, up to 10 minutes before departure time, and they just return the reward points to your account.
Know the rules of the airline you choose, though, because some have rules that penalize the budget-conscious. Delta, for example, in late 2020 stopped charging fees to change or cancel award tickets — except for basic economy fares.
I've missed being able to travel, and I'm starting to make plans again, but if those plans fall through I want my money back.