More people took to the skies this summer than did in 2020, but fear of catching Covid continues to be a big concern for many would-be travelers. As of mid-August, about half, 49%, of people who travel somewhat frequently and are fully vaccinated against Covid said they are less comfortable taking a domestic flight, according to a recent survey by The Points Guy.
"There was this moment in time when there was just a ton of optimism," says Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy. "It felt like things were just sort of speeding ahead with destinations reopening, particularly for fully vaccinated travelers."
That optimism is fading, however, as the delta variant spreads and Covid infection rates rise across the country, Lieberman says. And the ripple effects are showing up in carriers' schedules for the fall. At the end of July, the four major U.S. airlines — American, Delta, Southwest, and United — had scheduled more than 53.6 billion seat miles for October, according to Cirium, an airline scheduling platform. As of the beginning of September, that number had fallen by 10%.
Airlines became very accommodating to travelers at the beginning of the pandemic, as they tried to make flying feel as safe as possible, Lieberman says. Many made it easy to cancel flights, and many left middle seats empty to promote social distancing. "The key for the travel industry has been and will continue to be giving travelers peace of mind," she says, and, as such, "the travel industry is a much more flexible and friendly place than it was prior to the onset of the pandemic."
All the same, she adds, "booking with points and miles so you don't have cash on the line" is a good saving strategy, because "you can just redeposit those if you need to cancel or reschedule."
If you want to travel this fall but are feeling anxious about getting on a plane, here are some tips to keep in mind before booking your next flight.
A lot has changed in airline passengers' favor since the beginning of the pandemic, Lieberman says; airlines, for example, are much more willing to let travelers amend their itineraries without incurring penalty fees, but you may not get a cash refund if you cancel a flight.
If you're worried that you may need to skip out on upcoming travel, then make sure you build flexibility into your itinerary, Lieberman says. That includes using points or miles instead of cash to buy your tickets.
If you cancel a ticket that you paid for out of pocket, you may not be able to recoup that money right away or at all. Many airlines offer vouchers for future travel, but they won't give you your money back outright. That's especially true if you're flying on a basic economy ticket.
"If you have a basic economy ticket, you want to read that fine print really closely," Lieberman says. "Make sure that you are fully aware of how your investment is protected. Are you going to get a voucher or are you going to get a refund? Because they're not the same thing and that can change how people feel about booking travel."
Many vouchers come with expiration dates, and while airlines have been flexible and moved those dates back as the pandemic has dragged on, they will eventually come due.
Policies and schedules are changing pretty regularly, and it's incumbent upon travelers to stay on top of it all if they want to have the best trip possible. "There's a lot of fine print," Lieberman says. "So this continues to be a time when travelers really have to do their homework."
It's not just the airlines' cancellation policies that you should read carefully: If you want to avoid any uncomfortable surprises — like mandatory quarantining periods — at your destination, it's a good idea that you research the health restrictions and regulations you'll encounter once you step off the plane.
"Travelers need to be prepared to follow rules and restrictions on the ground and be prepared with all of their documentation," Lieberman says.
For most destinations, those restrictions include mask mandates. Some might require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result as well. So in addition to keeping your mask handy (you will need to wear it in public spaces and on the airplane), Lieberman recommends having all of your documents — from CDC vaccination record cards to negative test results — in one place and easily accessible.
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