How to Handle Vacation Plans (Including Your Summer Vacation) During COVID-19
Should you stay or should you go?
The summer before the coronavirus hit, nearly half of all Americans headed out on a vacation. But with so much of the country and the world still under quarantine and lockdown, traditional travel plans still may not be on the table.
"We've gone from a whole society of FOMO to FOGO—fear of going out," says travel expert Peter Greenberg, host of The Travel Detective and CBS News travel editor. "But we've evolved into a species where we don't just want to travel, we need to. So it's not a question of whether or when or even to where, it's going to be how we travel."
Your summer travel plans and vacation checklists may need to shift—or be canceled altogether—to protect your health and the health of the people you meet when you're out and about. Here's what to consider when you're making travel plans during the coronavirus crisis if you need something to look forward to beyond your next staycation.
Before you start planning that trip, though, remember that the health and safety of you, your family, and people at the companies, services, and destinations you plan to use or visit comes first. Planning a trip for this June may not be in the cards, but if you're ready to start planning trips way in advance, be sure to take these precautions.
Think small and domestic
If you had grand plans to add some stamps to your passport this summer, you might be disappointed. Many countries will likely keep their current rules requiring people arriving into the country to undergo a 14-day quarantine in place until the coronavirus crisis is definitively over, and who wants to spend their entire vacation stuck in a hotel room?
"We’re going to come out of the gate slowly," Greenberg says. International travel is still iffy—and basically impossible in many places while COVID cases still rise and global vaccine rollout gradually makes headway. "For the next three to six months, people will stay in their comfort zone with one-tank trips, under 300 miles away."
Greenberg expects people to crowd into national parks and state parks, so he recommends heading off the beaten path. "Rediscover the small towns of America," he says. "You don’t have to go to the Statue of Liberty to say you’ve been in New York state—there are different ways to see a city and to see a state. Look for two-lane country roads and stop where you want to stop. You’re probably going to have an amazing time."
Don’t discount the big hotel chains
It may feel safer to be in an Airbnb or a tiny boutique hotel, but the chain hotels are looking for ways to ensure the safety of their guests and their staff, too.
“The big hotel chains are coming up with cleaning protocols,” Greenberg says. “Hilton has partnered with Mayo Clinic—and short of calling it the Hazmat Inn, they’re doing everything to create a level of comfort and security.”
Hotels are doing away with many potential touchpoints by allowing smartphone key access to rooms, removing unnecessary objects like hangers and magazines, and even putting a “seal” on the door after it’s been thoroughly cleaned to their new standards, so you can feel confident that it’s safe and virus-free.
Time your cancelation correctly
If you decide to cancel your travel plans, start with the hotel and any tours and activities you have planned.
“For hotels and tour companies, I advise reaching out sooner rather than later,” says travel planner Susan Moynihan of The Honeymoonist/Largay Travel. “By canceling early, they may have an option to resell your room or tour, so they may be more incentivized to bend the rules for you and let you change things.”
With airline tickets, it’s best to wait until the bitter end if you’re looking for a refund.
“It’s a game of chicken,” Greenberg says. “Do not blink first. Airlines will keep flights on schedules up until two days before, to avoid having to pay the refund. Wait until the airline cancels the flight to get the full refund.” If the flight actually happens as you booked it and you don’t plan on flying, you can still cancel and get a voucher for future travel.
Look at the potential benefits of the voucher
If you can afford to leave the money—and still want to take your planned trip eventually—it may be smart in some cases to seek out a voucher instead of a refund.
“Most have been as generous as they can, with incentives like 2021 trips at 2020 prices, or 125 percent credits towards future travel and waived change fees,” Moynihan says. “If you can afford to hold off and reschedule your trip, I think it’s a win-win; it helps support the travel industry, and it can benefit you in the long run. Also, it reserves your space for when the post-pandemic travel rush ensues. As soon as there’s a vaccine, people will be eager to return to travel, so things will be at a premium.”
Don’t give up
You might have to be tenacious (and on hold for a long time) to get the solution (read: refund or cancelation voucher) you want. “It’s always worth the time to call directly, and go up the chain if need be,” Moynihan says. “A call-center customer service rep may not have the power to grant cash refunds, so asking to speak to a manager can be useful.”
Not getting your case for a refund or voucher heard in the calls? You may get more leverage from the customer service reps who monitor the company’s social media accounts.
And if all else fails, with domestic companies, you could always take them to small claims court. “It’s so easy to file a claim in small claims court,” Greenberg says. “If you have a paper trail, there’s 95 percent chance of winning—especially as many of the judges hearing those cases are trying to get their own refunds.”
Look into your travel coverage
Credit cards can be an avenue of last resort to help you recoup some of your cash through their insurance or a chargeback. Separate travel insurance may be able to help in some circumstances, too.
“Most of them do not cover for COVID-19—it’s considered a force majeure-type event,” Moynihan says. “But they still cover for things like cancelation for covered reasons, such as documented illness for you or a close family member, or job loss. It’s always worth asking about cancel for any reason insurance, which lets you cancel up until a few days out for any reason whatsoever. But you need to purchase that at the time of initial deposit; you can’t add it later on when you get nervous about traveling.”
Pay a little more for flexibility
Not sure if you’re ready to commit to traveling—or you’re worried about how fluid the coronavirus situation could be? It may be worth it to pay a little extra for a fully refundable booking for future trips you plan.
“Nonrefundable rates may be slightly cheaper, but they can cost you more in the long run if you have to pay a change fee or cancel,” Moynihan says. “It’s always worth paying for flexibility, especially now.”
Ask about escrow
The travel industry is in flux, and you definitely don’t want your money to get caught up in that if a company you’ve booked with closes permanently. For future bookings, ask if the tour companies you’re considering puts your money into escrow, rather than paying for the expenses of your trip with someone else’s trip deposit.
"You need to insist that they put your money in escrow, that they have that level of financial responsibility," Greenberg says. "Don’t consider tour operators who don’t do that."