Spending

How to save money 'if you want to travel and be safe' in 2021

"There's no need to give airlines interest-free loans. You're not a bank."

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No one could blame you if you're not quite ready to fantasize about a fabulous getaway just yet. After all, international travel from the U.S. is still heavily restricted, and the CDC is advising consumers avoid travel altogether, as it increases your chances of contracting and spreading Covid-19.

But if the vaccine rollout and the prospect of herd immunity at some point in 2021 has you optimistic about taking a vacation, now is likely the best time to book your travel plans for the second half of the year, says Scott Keyes, founder of email newsletter Scott's Cheap Flights.

"Right now, two things are true: You can't go to Paris as a tourist, and you probably haven't been vaccinated yet," Keyes says. "If you wait for both of those things to no longer be true, by the time restrictions ease and you've been vaccinated, there probably won't be any cheap flights left."

If you want to find the best deals on travel for the rest of the year, experts say it pays to act now. Follow these three steps to make sure you do so with an eye on flexibility and safety.

Book early for deals on international flights

On Tuesday, White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said that most Americans will have access to a Covid-19 vaccine by mid-to-late May or early June.

Uncertainty over the vaccine rollout and when restrictions for U.S. travelers might ease have led airlines to offer deals on international flights. But bearing Fauci's forecast in mind, if you wanted to lock in a cheap fare for a potential late summer or early fall trip, Keyes says you'll likely find lower fares if you book now, rather than in May.

He added that he is currently seeing peak summer plane tickets from New York to Paris, for example, going for $450 to $550 round-trip, when airfares typically would cost at a minimum $900.

Right now, two things are true: You can't go to Paris as a tourist, and you probably haven't been vaccinated yet. If you wait for both of those things to no longer be true, by the time restrictions ease and you've been vaccinated, there probably won't be any cheap flights left.
Scott Keyes
Founder, Scott's Cheap Fights

But if you're going to book now, it's important to bake some flexibility into your travel plans. Virtually all U.S. airlines have eliminated change fees on all fares booked through the end of March. And while many airlines have announced plans to extend this policy indefinitely, experts caution that the deal may not apply to the cheapest, basic economy fares once April rolls around.

It's also important to note that changing a fare isn't the same as canceling it, says Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. "If you change the date of your reservation, you may be subject to a fare increase later on depending on where you're going and how full the flight is," he says. "If the fare goes down, you'll get a credit for the difference."

And there are still some cases where you should wait to book. Harteveldt cautions that you're potentially tying your money up with the airline indefinitely as you wait for travel restrictions to lift. "You may want to hold off on booking flights, simply because if borders don't reopen, you don't want to be out several hundred dollars in airfare," he says. "There's no need to give airlines interest-free loans. You're not a bank."

Wait to snare last-minute deals on domestic airfare

The pandemic has flipped the normal pricing model for domestic flights on its head, says Keyes. Under normal circumstances, airlines typically hike fares as the departure date nears, knowing that the seats will likely be bought by business travelers happy to swipe a corporate card for the purchase, he says.

But with business travel largely on hold, "we're seeing an inversion in the normal pricing scheme," he says, with customers paying higher fares when booking months in advance and more deals closer to departure. "Chances are you're going to pay an inflated price if you book a summer trip from Denver to Chicago right now."

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Booking domestic travel is a way to keep things simple in a travel landscape that still looks very uncertain, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. "If you want to travel and be safe, think locally," he says. "Most Americans live within 200 miles of something fabulous."

'Trust, but verify' accommodation safety

Whether you plan to travel internationally or vacation someplace closer to home, make sure you have the flexibility to cancel accommodations, for example, if there's a surge in new Covid cases in your desired destination.

"I'd encourage people to book refundable rates to keep the property reserved, whether it's a home-share or a hotel," Harteveldt says. "Then, as we get more clarity into how public health conditions are evolving, you can shop and see if there's a better nonrefundable rate available, cancel, and book at the new rate."

Booking a hotel or renting a home will require a little extra homework, he adds. Hotel Covid-19 precautions vary widely, he says. "Unfortunately, the standards aren't always being met," he says. "People on social media are walking into rooms that haven't been cleaned, beds haven't been made, and it's clear someone checked out the same day."

Harteveldt's advice: Scour social media, review sites such as TripAdvisor, and (in the case of home-rental sites such as Airbnb and VRBO) comments from previous renters to get a sense of the place's cleanliness. "I'd advise people to bring along cleaning wipes, too," Hartevedlt says. "Trust, but verify."

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There are other steps you can take to avoid losing money on travel expenses if you have to change plans. Purchasing a Cancel For Any Reason travel insurance policy may provide some peace of mind. "If you want to at least protect some of your investment and it's otherwise not going to be fully refundable, strongly consider Cancel For Any Reason insurance," Summer Hull, a columnist for ThePointsGuy.com, told Grow.

And whether you're booking flights, hotels, or any other sort of travel-related expense that you may have to cancel or modify, book directly through the company in question, says Hobica. "This is not the time to be booking through a middleman," he says. "It just adds another level of complexity when it comes to getting a refund. It's like playing telephone."

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