Air Travel Health & Wellness Travel Trends

5 Charts That Show COVID-19's Impact on Air Travel

How much of a hit has air travel taken during the COVID-19 pandemic? The short answer: Like nothing anyone has seen before. Even airline experts with long memories can’t remember a comparable impact of some critical event. Yes, 9/11 stopped air travel cold, but the immediate effect lasted weeks, not months. And the nation had a visible system in place—TSA screening—squarely aimed at preventing similar events in the future.

And while statistics vary depending on source and assumptions, public data makes clear that U.S. airline passengers are down about 90 percent for this time of year. International passengers are down at least as much, and domestic air travel in many parts of the world is also down, or shut off completely. Rewards site Upgraded Points recently put those staggering numbers into visuals, which offer a holistic view of the situation thus far.

Here’s what stands out in terms of the about-face COVID-19 has forced upon travel, and data visuals by Upgraded Points that illustrate them.

While very few people are flying (which we’ll refer to as foot traffic), air traffic is higher. As of late-April, about half of all U.S. domestic flights are regularly being canceled despite a 90 percent drop in foot traffic.

The discrepancy between foot traffic and flights is explained by one simple fact: The recent U.S. stimulus bill that offered rescue funds for airports and airlines requires that U.S. airlines continue serving the points they usually serve—which they are doing, by flying virtually empty planes.

Similar effects are seen in Asia and Europe, where foot traffic is down at least 75 percent and many airlines are not required to continue service.

For example, Porter Airlines has suspended all flights, as has RyanAir and Royal Air Maroc. More carriers have suspended all international service, including South African Airways, Turkish, Avianca, and Qantas. The number of daily commercial flights flown globally has decreased by 76.5 percent.

Airlines are having a tough time finding places to park their idle aircraft. As an odd consequence, Southwest is, for now, the world’s largest airline in terms of seats flown per day.

Airports are taking a similar hit, and with a drastic reduction in passengers comes a drastic reduction in workers. Several big multi-terminal fields have concentrated flights into one or two terminals and closed the others. 

All this means big-time economic losses: 4.6 million job losses are projected in the U.S alone in 2020. Sources estimate a loss of 4.6 million jobs in the U.S. travel industry—and counting. It’s no surprise that most airline stocks are tanking. According to International Air Transportation Association (IATA), only Asia looks to lose more passenger revenue this year than North America.

Currently, airlines are offering some very attractive fares, both for the near and long term. Transcon economy round-trips, for example, starting at less than $300 for travel in May; you can (but probably shouldn’t) fly to London for less than $400. But premium-cabin fares are still high.

At present, most airline schedules show minimum service operations through September 30, which is about when U.S. stimulus money is expected to run out. At this time, nobody knows whether conditions will allow airlines to start rebuilding schedules by that time or face widespread closures. For now, most states remain closed or in some state of closures.

The ancient curse “may you live in interesting times” certainly applies to today’s airlines and travelers alike.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Air Travel Passenger Rights

How COVID-19 Is Waging a New War on Air Passenger Rights

For decades, airlines just about everywhere have been resisting government-mandated passenger rights regulations. Despite the fact that the airlines brought on themselves many of the regulations they hate; they’ve had a remarkably deaf ear for customer pain points. That struggle has been ongoing for years both in the U.S. and abroad.

But now some airlines are using the financial squeeze of the global COVID-19 shutdown to ask for “relief” from those legal requirements like providing refunds for canceled flights, or compensation for lengthy delays. Those terms are mandated by the European Union, but impact flights operating elsewhere, too.

What the E.U. Has Long Required of Airlines

The primary current target is European Union’s Regulation EU 261/2004 for passenger compensation in case of delays. A rule called E.U. 261 has long required covered airlines to compensate travelers by cash payments of:

  • about $275 for a delay of two hours or more; on a flight of less than 930 miles
  • about $435 for a delay of three hours or more; on a flight of 930 to 5,600 miles
  • about $650 for a delay of four hours or more; on a flight of 2,175 miles or more

In addition, airlines are required to provide accommodations for overnight delays. And if a flight is delayed five hours or more, travelers have the option of a refund of all unused tickets and of tickets already used if the flight no longer serve’s any purpose. That’s on top of a no-cost return to the passenger’s origin point.

Airlines sometimes avoid some of the payments if they can provide proof that the delay or cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances, but those exceptions are rare. E.U. 261 applies not just to flights within the E.U., but also flights from E.U. to and from points outside the E.U., regardless of where the given airline is based.

What E.U. Airlines Are Trying to Change Now

The current proposal is to lengthen the delay times that trigger compensation from two, three, and four hours to five, nine, and 12 hours, respectively, and to exclude some routes entirely. It’s also been reported that some airlines want more wiggle room to avoid payments. The latter proposal, submitted by Croatia, is viewed locally as a compromise.

Most travelers in the U.S. probably aren’t aware of the E.U. 261’s compensation requirements, or that it can apply to them. U.S. domestic air travelers have no comparable protections at at home: The only cash compensation rules in the U.S. cover the singular case of bumping due to overbooking. What U.S. travelers get in other delays and cancellations is determined by each line’s contract of carriage, and no airline offers cash compensation for delays. (The DOT does require refunds for canceled flights, however, for any flights operating to, from, or within the U.S.—as does the E.U.)

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the current proposal. But Brexit regulations still being laid out also raise the issue of whether the U.K. will continue to honor E.U. 261 in general.

Cash refunds for canceled flights during the pandemic and beyond is another skirmish in itself. Regulations in both the E.U. and U.S. require cash or credit-card refunds (credit vouchers do not suffice). But airlines in much of the world are fighting to overturn those requirements, too. The government of Canada recently said it will allow its airlines to forgo refunds for canceled flights.

So far, neither the U.S. nor the E.U. has granted airlines’ wishes. The U.S. issued an enforcement notice warning to airlines, and the E.U. stated that airlines currently still need to follow E.U. 261, and that: “In order to change any provision of this law, you would need wide support for an agreement from the other institutions.”

But never underestimate the power of high-priced lobbyists, and stay tuned for updates.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Miles & Points Money

COVID-19 Could Impact Your Points and Frequent-Flyer Terms—for the Better

If you’re avoiding booking flights for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19, you might be wondering what’s going to happen to your frequent flyer status and/or airline points in the meantime.

For many frequent flyers and business travelers, the most important benefits of frequent-flyer membership are through special “elite” status: The prime benefits are no-cost upgrades to available premium seats via various priority lists, as well as preferential treatment on relaxed baggage restrictions, better boarding group, fewer or no seat-assignment fees, and faster ways to earn more miles/points.

Those upgrades are a powerful loyalty attractor. Elite members go to great lengths to retain or upgrade their status level, and the schedule reductions and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have seriously thwarted their ability to retain and improve status. The same goes for hotel chains with loyal members.

Recognizing this problem, and wishing to retain loyalty of their best customers, many airlines and hotels have started to ease status requirements for the duration of the epidemic. They’ve also extended validity of some important elite-status benefits. And some airlines have even eased restrictions on use of miles for ordinary, non-elite flyers.

Airlines Changing Points Terms Due to COVID-19

Several airlines have already announced their changes; others are sure to follow. The changes listed below are effective as of April 20. They’re moving targets: Look for further, rolling, extensions, especially those scheduled to end this month or next. Further down are the hotel chains offering points or elite-status term changes.

Alaska Airlines

Elite flyers can retain their current status on Alaska through at least December 31, 2021.  Companion certificates earned through the line’s credit card slated to expire in 2020 are extended: Apply certificates by December 2020 for travel through November 6, 2021. Status-earning miles acquired between January 1 and Apr 30, 2020, will roll over to 2021. You can find more information here.

Air Canada

Elite flyers on Air Canada retain their current status through December 31, 2021. Frequent flyers will not have to pay a fee to redeposit miles used to book award flights, through at least April 30. Accrued miles will not expire through May 14. You can find more information here.


Elite flyers whose status expires on January 1, 2020, will retain their current status through January 2022. Upgrade certificates slated to expire on January 31, 2021, are extended to July 31, 2021. You can find more information here.


Elite flyers with Delta retain their current status through January 31, 2022. Status-earning miles acquired in 2020 will roll over to 2021. Sky Club memberships set to expire March 31 or later are extended for six months. You can find more information here.

Upgrade certificates and vouchers scheduled to expire March 1 through June 30 are extended until December 31, 2020. Certificates and vouchers expiring after June 30 are extended for six months.


Hawaiian “will not be expiring any miles from March 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020. Members with miles set to expire within this time period will retain their full mileage balance. [Prior] standard expiration policy will resume on January 1, 2021.” You can find more information here.


A-List and A-List Preferred flyers with elite status through December 21 will have status extended through December 31, 2021. Companion passes earned through December 31, 2020 will be extended through June 30, 2021. You can find more information here.

United Airlines

Elite flyers on United retain their current status through January 31, 2022. United has lowered mileage and spend requirements for the 2021 status year to earn various status levels by 50 percent.. Frequent flyers will not have to pay a fee to redeposit miles used to book award flights, through at least May 31. You can find more information here.

Expiration dates on several annual-pay programs, such as Wi-Fi, checked, bags, United Club membership, and seating in Economy Plus are extended by six months. Electronic travel certificates are now valid for 23 months.


WestJet has upgraded or extended members who were on track to attain status in March through May, and it will “continue to look after” other travelers whose elite status might be affected by coronavirus changes. WestJet is also extending the validity of various vouchers and certificates, by varying periods—check the website for details. You can find more information here.

Other North American Lines

Clearly, the other big airlines with robust elite-status programs—specifically, American and Hawaiian—are likely to announce similar policies, within weeks if not days. On other U.S. and Canadian lines, status is a lot less important, but you can expect some relaxation of various frequent flyer rules from those lines fairly soon, as well.

Foreign Lines

Big foreign lines, too, are easing rules and extending status. Lines that have extended status for a year include LATAM, Qantas, Qatar, and Virgin Australia; Virgin Atlantic has extended status six months. Air France/KLM, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, and Etihad are adding miles to accounts or lowering status requirements. Many of these lines are also extending validity of various upgrades and companion certificates—check their respective websites for more information.

Bonus: Amtrak

Even Amtrak is relaxing some rules. Upgrade, companion, and various other certificates earned through the Guest Rewards program due to expire are extended through September 25, 2020. And earned points expiration dates are also extended to that date.

Hotels Changing Points Terms Due to COVID-19

The giant hotel chains operate frequent-stay programs that offer substantial elite-level benefits such as room upgrades, free meals, and early check-in/late check-out, along with the room awards available to ordinary members. They, too, are reacting to the fact that members can’t earn credit as quickly as they can during normal periods. In fact, their extensions are generally more generous than those of the airlines.


Accor has added bonus points to member account that reduce the points required to qualify or requalify for elite levels. You can find more information here.

Best Western

Current member status levels are extended through January 31, 2022. You can find more information here.


Current member status levels for 2019 scheduled to end on March 31, 2020, are extended through March 31, 2021. Members with 2020 status is extended to March 31, 2022. Accrued points due to expire in 2020 will remain valid through December 31, 2020. Accrued Weekend Night rewards are extended through August 31, 2021. You can find more information here.


Elite status levels as of March 31 are extended through February 28, 2022. Unused awards with expiration dates between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020 are extended to December 31, 2021. Accrued points due to expire in 2020 will remain valid through December 31, 2020. You can find more information here.


Qualifying points required to reach the several elite levels are reduced by at least 25 percent , through 2021. Points due to expire between April 1 and December 31 will remain valid through December 31, 2020. Award night certificates due to expire between March 1 and December 31 will remain valid until December 31, 2020, and certificates issued in 202 will have an 18-month validity period. You can find more information here.


Current elite status is extended through February, 2022. Expiration dates for accrued points are extended to February, 2021. Active award night awards expiring in 2020 are extended to January 31, 2021. You can find more information here.


Current elite status is extended through February, 2022. Certificates and scheduled to expire through July 31, 2020, will remain valid through June 30, 2021. Point expiration is extended by six months. You can find more information here.


Wyndham says it is “pausing the expiration of any Wyndham Rewards points until September 30, 2020 and [has] extended current Wyndham Rewards Member Levels (status) for all members globally through the end of 2021.” You can find more information here.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

At Home Booking Strategy Miles & Points Security Travel Technology Travel Trends

Non-Emergency Passport Applications Have Halted

Were you planning to apply for, or renew, a passport this spring? With the rolling governmental measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do so. The State Department is limiting in-person service at passport offices to emergencies in which travelers need a passport for an international trip within 72 hours because of a “qualified life-or-death emergency.” And mail-in renewals are being discouraged due to “significant delays.”

The State Department defines that emergency in-person service as only for “serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family (e.g., parent, child, spouse, sibling, aunt, uncle, etc.).” A more complete list is available on the State Department’s website.

However, if you have travel plans on the far horizon (or hope to) you can still apply for renewal by mail, with some caveats. Expedited service is not available, and the State Department notes that you can “expect significant delays.” It’s unclear how long that delay will be, and it’s worth noting that for a renewal you’ll need to mail in your current passport with the renewal application. The department urges travelers to “please consider waiting to apply until we resume normal operations.”

Even if you qualify for emergency in-person service, options are currently very limited: The State Department says that passport offices in Atlanta, Connecticut, New Orleans, New York, and San Juan (Puerto Rico) are among those completely closed until further notice. And many of the other acceptance facilities, such as court clerks and post offices, are either closed or no longer accepting in-person passport applications.

At any in-person facility you will need an appointment, which you can make through the National Passport Information Center here, or by calling your local court or post office. For that appointment, you’ll need a completed application, supporting documents, proof of the life-or-death emergency, and proof of international travel specific to the emergency.

If you have an application in process, the State Department will continue to process it, but you can expect those undefined delays. Check the State Department’s website for details and application tracking.

The State Department says these current limitations will remain in effect until “normal operations” resume, which is clearly a very uncertain deadline at this time. If you will need a new or renewed passport in the near future, bookmark the above links for up-to-date information.

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Airport Health & Wellness Passenger Rights

Travel in the Time of COVID-19—What You Need to Know

The 2020 coronavirus, or COVID-19 pandemic, has been a moving target when it comes to travel. Nobody knows how long it will continue, whether and which areas it might hit next, when and where it will plateau and start to ease off, or when the travel world might return to something like normal. The time frame for cases to begin diminishing is unknown. And even once a decrease occurs, it’s worth considering that the virus could return.

The first place travelers should look to for advice on the virus as it relates to travel plans is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) via this page on destinations with COVID-19 alerts or warnings in place. It’s a good idea to bookmark it for updates, as the situation changes frequently.

Governments and travel suppliers have reacted by imposing rolling responses, with new cancellations and rule changes often. And with the U.S. State Department assigning a Global Level 4 Health Advisory (do not travel), existing travel plans for the next several weeks (or possibly months) poses a major quandary for many consumers. and its sister sites are regularly updating the following resource guides to travel companies’ COVID-19 responses:

The Main COVID-19 Travel Dilemmas to Consider

Travelers face three main areas of risk to think about:

  • Getting quarantined: If you need to travel, you almost certainly face the possibility of immediate quarantine of up to 14 days. If you’re lucky, it could be at home. But it could also place you in a strange city. U.S. citizens returning home from affected areas are being funneled to 13 airports where they will be screened and then asked to self quarantine.

Many countries have halted at least some flights, or closed their borders entirely. There are no indications about when normal activities will resume. The U.S. State Department currently assigns a Global Level Four Health Advisory (do not travel) for all international travel. The State Department also said Americans “should not travel by cruise ship.”

Many areas have taken actions that effectively work to deter tourism. Large public gatherings have been canceled or postponed, including the Tokyo Olympics. In many places, 14-day quarantines have been mandated for anyone entering the country; some nations have halted all visa requests. The list could go on: Check the State Department alert for any country you have travel planned to, and enroll in State Department STEP Alerts to receive updated information often.

Travel Industry Responses to COVID-19

If an airline cancels your flight(s), no matter what the airline proposes you can get a full refund on any ticket (see our guide to air passenger rights here). But if you have a ticket for a future flight that is not canceled or you haven’t yet bought a ticket, most major domestic and international airlines are offering some combination of postponement and refund options. Again, see our sister site Airfarewatchdog’s breakdown of airlines’ waiver options during the pandemic for more.

Generally, the options for canceling airfare will include:

  • Waiving change penalties for existing tickets—but in many cases, only for flights scheduled within a few weeks.
  • Waiving change penalties for newly booked tickets, with booking time frames ranging from a few weeks to a full year.
  • Rebooking a ticketed itinerary with no change in fares, but usually for rescheduled departures within a month or two.
  • Rebooking a ticketed itinerary with no change penalty, but at then-current fares, for up to a year.

Deadlines for making such changes are rolling; they’ll change from week to week and month to month depending on how the pandemic progresses. See our sister site Cruise Critic’s guide to cancellations for more.

Major hotel chains Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Choice, and Wyndham are refunding travelers and waiving change fees. Travelers who booked through third-party online travel agencies (OTAs) will likely need to go through those agencies’ websites or help lines for refunds. Travelers who booked through independent hotel-type properties will need to go to those properties for refunds. See our guide to which hotels (and airlines) are changing their points and loyalty membership terms to accommodate the pandemic.

What to Do About Travel Plans During COVID-19

If you haven’t yet made any payments and set up any firm arrangements for a spring or summer trip, one obvious choice is to refrain. Given the elevated chance of complications for older COVID-19 victims, if you’re 65 or over and/or have an existing medical condition, according to the CDC it’s smart to wait out new COVID-19 developments at home.

If you need to travel, even domestically, despite the pandemic, you can protect yourself physically by taking CDC advice about hand washing, wearing a mask, employing general hygiene like washing your hands often, and avoiding crowds. You can protect yourself financially by:

  • Avoiding as many nonrefundable bookings as possible—or at least making sure that any such bookings are with suppliers that have agreed to waive change penalties. Among other things, that means book direct rather than through agencies. That strategy works pretty well for hotels, but not air tickets. Refundable fares are usually a lot more costly than nonrefundable ones these days.
  • Considering the possibility of a 14-day quarantine: Take enough of your necessary medications to cover an unexpected/extended time away from home, or at least arrange for somebody at home to be able to send you what you need if you’re delayed.

If you can’t use or don’t like the refund/reschedule options your suppliers offer, your rights to legal recourse are limited:  

  • Airline: If your airline’s offer doesn’t work for you, but your flight is still currently scheduled to operate, wait until a week or so before scheduled departure. If the airline cancels any ticketed flight, you’re entitled to a full refund.
  • Hotels: If you have a prepaid hotel, your best bet is to wait for the hotel to set a policy. You have essentially no legal and easily enforceable right.
  • Cruises: As with hotels, cruise passengers have very few enforceable legal rights. You’re pretty much limited by what the cruise lines offer.
  • Travel insurance: If you bought travel insurance before your insurance company’s stated date for the outbreak—January 21 through 27, for most companies—you’re probably due the full benefits of your policy. If not, your recovery is likely to be limited. Check your policy to see just what it covers, and figure you won’t get any more than that.

In general, any refund you’re due should typically come from the agency where you made your arrangements. Getting refunds from some suppliers may be tough—especially those in foreign countries that don’t have a presence in the U.S. or Canada. Don’t be surprised if you lose some money when you cancel; that loss might be better than the risk of traveling.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Editor’s note: This story is updating as new information becomes available and is current as of the publish date.

Passenger Rights

Travelers Are Owed Swift Refunds for Canceled Flights, Department of Transportation Warns Airlines

The Department of Transportation (DOT) just reminded everyone that travelers are entitled to a refund (not airline credits) for canceled flights. Why? Because some airlines have recently parted from longstanding U.S. regulations that require those refunds.

On April 3, the DOT of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings issued an Enforcement Notice firmly supporting the federal requirement that airlines issue cash refunds when they cancel flights. The notice affirms that issuing a future credit or voucher does not satisfy the DOT requirement. Failure to comply, says the notice, “could subject the carrier to an enforcement action.”

Because there is an ongoing global health emergency, DOT says, the Aviation Enforcement Office will exercise “prosecutorial discretion” and allow airlines to become compliant before taking action. Presumably, however, DOT will take action against airlines if they continue to refuse required refunds. This is great news for travelers: If you’re arguing with an airline about a refund, be sure to cite this notice.

The House version of the most recent $2 trillion government stimulus bill initially included mention of some important consumer protections for travelers. But those contested protections didn’t make it into the final version, which ultimately awarded airlines and airports $50 billion in loans and grants for short-term costs. And that means some big problems for travelers remain, especially as certain airlines try to cling to bookings.

The U.S. / Domestic Flights and Airlines

Currently, the biggest problem in consumer rights is refunds for tickets on flights canceled by an airline: Some are simply refusing to do it. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations require that when an airline cancels a flight for any reason, it owes you a full-money refund of any ticket—even “nonrefundable” ones—within seven business days for credit card transaction, 20 days if you paid by a cash card.

Instead, some airlines—most notably United, along with several giant international lines—are refusing to issue the refunds within the legally required period. Instead, they’re issuing only vouchers/credit toward future travel, which some lines say they will refund fully only if not used within one year. Still, refusal to make full refunds is a clear violation of longstanding rules. It’s also worth noting that customers who accept a voucher from an airline do risk that the airline could go bankrupt in one year’s time. The DOT told USA Today it is reviewing complaints about the offending airlines, and murmurs of any bailout money going to airline executives were denied this week by ranking senators.

International Flights / Airlines

But the problem is worse outside the U.S., and amounting to something similar to a bail out: Canada’s government has said that it will allow airlines to issue vouchers/credits, even where rules require cash refunds. The French government has announced the same policy for Air France, and possibly other French airlines. And European airlines, as a group, are asking that E.U. suspend its refund rules for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s unclear if these foreign-government policies would affect U.S. rules for U.S. travelers.

For now, if you hold a ticket for a canceled flight you don’t want to reschedule, the first step is to check with the airline to see if it is complying with the refund law: You can check our sister site Airfarewatchdog’s guide to COVID-19 responses by airline here.

I just submitted a refund request on a canceled flight that Delta seems to be honoring; at least one SmarterTravel editor has been told by Turkish Air that it will refund her ticket for a canceled flight (though the refund hasn’t yet been made). But if your chosen airline is ignoring the law, you’re better off accepting a voucher you don’t really want than doing nothing and possibly losing your money completely. Whatever you do, though, you’ll have to act before the original departure date of the flight.

You can also prod DOT into possible action by filing a complaint here. The complaint needn’t be an extended dissertation on everything about your trip; DOT is mainly motivated by a large total number of complaints.

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How Hotels and Airlines Are Helping During the Pandemic

I sometimes get so used to bashing travel suppliers—especially airlines—for the many ways they abuse travelers’ rights, that I often overlook the good they do. Especially during this global pandemic, travel suppliers are doing a lot of good.

From providing free hotel stays for health workers to donating huge sums of money, here are some of the ones we’re seeing step up.

Hotels Stepping Up During the Pandemic

Hotels are offering free or low-charge rooms to communities for housing both caregivers and non-COVID patients. Standout individual hotel offers in hard-hit New York City include those from the Four Seasons Hotel, which was the first hotel in New York City to begin providing free stays to healthcare workers responding to the pandemic.

The Plaza Hotel, Room Mate Grace Hotel, Palace Hotel, St. Regis Hotel, and Yotel are now counted among the hotels hosting health care workers and non-critical patients free of charge. More broadly, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), a major hotel trade association, notes that more than 6,500 hotel properties that are adjacent to medical facilities across the country are offering temporary housing for health care workers, noncritical patients, and/or the homeless:

“To help match and streamline the process, the [AHLA] is working to create a Hotels for Hope database at the federal level with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as at the local level with industry partner state associations. Local, state and federal government officials will be able to search willing properties based on geographic location.”

Very few are doing it for free, but many are doing it at very-discounted rates. Some are providing food or other support to medical communities. Examples include:

  • The Sophy Hyde Park Hotel in Chicago has opened its rooms at no charge to medical staff respondiong to the pandemic at nearby University of Chicago Medical Center.
  • Caesars Entertainment has donated more than 250,000 pounds of food to a variety of food banks and charities, along with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers.
  • The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air have provided hundreds of meals to first responders and medical personnel.
  • The Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon has arranged with Multnomah County to serve as a homeless shelter.

Airlines Doing Good During the Pandemic

Airlines are also doing their part in fighting the pandemic. As befits their status as the generally top-rated U.S. airlines, Delta has offered free transportation to Georgia, Louisiana, and Michigan for medical professionals, and JetBlue has offered free transport for medical personnel and some stranded college students. JetBlue has also donated a million frequent-flyer points to the Red Cross for travel to support its vital work. United is offering free travel to health workers heading to New York. Airlines around the world have removed seats from regular passenger planes, providing added cargo capacity to ship medical supplies where they are needed.

Airlines around the world have also notably intensified their cleaning and disinfecting procedures to keep their fewer operating planes free of the virus. They’re also rightfully ensuring travelers maintain safe physical distances from each other: A few lines, including American, have stopped assigning middle or every-other seat to maintain social distancing.

And keep in mind that the travel industry is taking a big financial hit from the pandemic. Much of what individual suppliers are doing to minimize effect is as much public relations as it is a public benefit. But, in a difficult time, travel companies are clearly stepping up to help the effort. Kudos to them.

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14 Booking Sites’ COVID-19 Cancellation Responses

If you booked a trip between the mid-March start of the epidemic (now pandemic) and sometime later this spring, current travel bans and shutdowns mean you face the requirement to reschedule or cancel your trips. And future trips later in the year still might meet the same fate of a COVID-19 cancellation.

SmarterTravel has already shared the major airline and hotel players waiving fees for travelers who booked directly—but what if you booked through a third-party online travel agency (OTA) such as Expedia? The general recommendation is typically that you contact the OTA for rescheduling. But the situation is a bit more nuanced than that.

Two major parent companies, Booking Holdings (also known as and Expedia, control around 86 percent of the worldwide OTA business through their many subsidiaries. Here’s which company ultimately owns each of the following third-party booking sites:

COVID-19 Cancellation Policies by OTA

Here’s a rundown of policy statements from OTAs that focus mainly on air travel and accommodations regarding a COVID-19 cancellation. Most start out with instructions to go to the OTA’s app or website and select the trip(s) you are canceling for more information about the conditions. Whether or not you’re eligible for a refund or credit will typically depend on both the third-party site in question and the company that the stay or service is with.

Agoda (Booking)

According to Agoda: “If your booking is eligible for free cancellation, you will see the message: ‘This booking may be affected by a current emergency or developing situation. Due to these exceptional circumstances, Agoda will waive all fees on cancellation for your affected booking.’ You may then proceed to cancel through this self-service option without contacting customer service.” states: “We understand you may need to change your travel plans. To get the latest info, contact the property you booked to check if they can accommodate you. You can also visit our Help Center for support with making changes to your booking.” The posted statement applies to accommodations bookings only; selecting “airfare” redirects users to Priceline (see more below).

Cheapflights (Booking)

Cheapflights says only that: “Airlines and travel providers are continually updating their policies and will be a go-to resource for up-to-date information regarding changing upcoming travel plans. Please contact them directly for the latest information. Many are waiving cancellations fees.” You can find a detailed airline-by-airline summary of COVID-19 cancellation policies here via Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site.


For air tickets, Expedia suggests that you first try to cancel online from within your trip record. If a fee applies, the website provides two airline dropdown menus: (1) links to the airlines you’re most likely to use and on which you can cancel through Expedia, and (2) a longer list of airlines less used that you have to contact directly.

Expedia contacted SmarterTravel with the following updated hotel cancellation policy on April 2: “For customers that booked and paid for a non-refundable rate prior to March 19, 2020 using Expedia for a stay between March 20 and April 30th 2020, an email will be sent their way providing them with an option to keep or cancel their existing booking. If the customer decides to cancel, they will be eligible for a full refund, or in some cases, a voucher allowing them to rebook the original property at later dates. There is no need to call Expedia, however you must cancel your booking a least 24-hours before check-in to be eligible for this offer. For customers who booked a property with a refundable rate, they can visit our customer service portal to change or cancel a reservation.”

HomeAway and VRBO (Expedia)

The Expedia-owned rental sites state: “To cancel or change an upcoming reservation due to travel restrictions, you can do so right from your traveler account. If you are making changes outside the cancellation policy window, please contact the property owner or manager to discuss their cancellation and refund policies. If you don’t see a button to cancel your reservation, please contact the property owner or manager directly for assistance.”

Hotwire (Expedia)

Hotwire states: “The fastest path to canceling your booking is through one of our self-serve tools” which can be found here. “Hotwire follows the policies of our partners, which means any credit, refund or change is at the discretion of the airline, hotel, cruise line or other travel provider. The quickest way to find out if travel plans can be changed without a penalty will generally be to check the airline, car, or hotel website directly.”

The site goes on: “Many of our partners are updating their policies to align with changing travel restrictions, so make sure to check back regularly. Note: Some suppliers, like American Airlines, are also providing self-serve capabilities on their website. If your booking qualifies and you are able to submit a self-serve claim through a supplier directly, you will not need to also cancel your booking through Hotwire.” (Expedia)

The COVID-19 “travel advice” page states “we are waiving change fees for many hotels based on where you are traveling to or from. For international bookings in the following countries (and domestic bookings, where noted), you are eligible for a full refund. Please click the blue Contact Us button above to speak to an agent … Except for travel to/from the destinations listed below, we follow the policies of our travel partners.” The listed destination countries are many, and available here.

KAYAK (Booking)

KAYAK’s COVID-19 page generally points travelers to the individual airline or hotel where they have bookings. It also posts links to policies by individual airlines, hotels, and car rental companies.

Momondo (Booking)

The Momondo website simply states, “The COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak may impact your trip. Look for alerts on our site indicating certain destination-specific travel warnings.” The Momondo help page is here.

Orbitz (Expedia)

The Orbitz website duplicates the information posted by Expedia (see above).

Priceline (Booking)

For flights, Priceline urges you to complete your COVID-19 cancellation online if you can. “Your ability to change or cancel your ticket depends on the type of ticket you purchased and varies by airline. If a cancellation is permitted, you will see a link within your itinerary. Express Deals-Priceline deals, in which the full itinerary is revealed only after you book, are non-changeable and non-refundable.”

“Other reservations may be more flexible. You can view your flight’s fare rules on the contract before you book, and on your itinerary after you book. You can find your itinerary by going to check status on the Priceline homepage. If your flight’s fare rules allow changes and you’re ready to make a change, please refer to Exchange Guidance for additional information.”

Priceline provides further information here.

Travelocity (Expedia)

The Travelocity website duplicates the information posted by Expedia (see above).

Trivago (Expedia)

As a metasearch provider that only provides price comparisons and not bookings, Trivago advises users to check with the OTA that actually handled your booking. The same general wisdom goes for other price-comparison OTAs that don’t handle bookings, including Tripadvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company).

General Information on OTAs and COVID-19 Cancellation Policies

Clearly, the general advice to get a refund through the OTA is not always correct. Although the final money transfer might come through the OTA, they urge travelers to use whatever online COVID-19 cancellation systems they have to deal directly with hotels and airlines.

If you’re booking a future trip rather than adjusting existing bookings, most major OTAs direct you to airlines and hotels with flexible refund policies. Keep in mind, however, that if you book a nonrefundable service (even with a company that has a liberal refund policy) the supplier has your money and the full-value refund or credit may limit your future choices.

All the OTAs suggest that anyone traveling within 72 hours can use the agency’s phone; other travelers should refrain from calling for now, and stick to the Internet or an app to get information and make changes. All OTAs also seem to recognize that the travel restrictions are a moving target, and travelers should therefore check often to make sure they have the latest information.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Passenger Rights Travel Scams Travel Tips & Advice

What ‘Force Majeure’ Means, and Why You Need to Know

When you purchase travel from an airline or another operator, you enter into a contract for a service or goods. And if some unforeseen calamity prevents the seller from delivering the promised goods or services, the seller can claim “force majeure” as a basis for terminating the contract without incurring any liability for breach of contract.

The term is a dubious one taken from the 1804 Code Napoleon, and refers to occurrences beyond the reasonable control of a party to a contract that prevents fulfillment. It’s similar to “acts of God” and “frustration of purpose.” As such, the concept extends back centuries in common law.

It usually refers to natural disasters, and most would consider the COVID-19 pandemic a force majeure. So if the pandemic prevents an airline, hotel, or some other travel supplier from fulfilling a contract with you, you can’t really file a legal claim for breach of contract: That’s a fair and traditional use of force majeure.

But, some dishonest suppliers claim that force majeure means they don’t have to refund the money you’ve paid them when they can’t fulfill their end of the contract. So far there has been nothing upholding that position; if there’s force majeure, you’re still entitled to your money back. Don’t fall for it if some supplier tries to get out of refunding your money by claiming force majeure, but also don’t assume you have any right to the service or to file a claim against an airline.

As we recently reported in our guide to canceling a trip during the pandemic: The airline companies are not directly liable for disruptions caused by COVID-19; therefore, passenger-rights groups like AirHelp have said they will not be pursuing additional compensation for affected flights.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Health & Wellness Passenger Rights

Why TSA Is Accepting Expired Licenses

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has extended for one year the deadline after which TSA will accept only drivers licenses or state ID cards with REAL ID as valid to fly domestically. The former October 2020 deadline is now October 1, 2021.

Until then, TSA will continue to accept conventional state ID as adequate ID for domestic air travel. TSA will also accept a conventional license or state ID that expired on or after March 1, for a year after expiration or 60 days after the duration of the emergency, whichever is longer. These changes are due to the impact of coronavirus shutdowns affecting the ability of state DMV office to process REAL ID applications.

If you still need a REAL ID driver’s license, all 50 states are now issuing them (if DMVs are still open). The basic idea behind REAL ID is to provide TSA with an improved basis for screening travelers, so you have to provide more background information than you do for a regular license—much of what you provide for a passport. And you pay extra: My state of Oregon, for example, charges both a $30 re-issue fee and a $30 REAL ID fee. Check with your state’s DMV or equivalent for details.

Even after that final deadline, not everyone will necessarily need a REAL-ID license. Passports, passport cards, permanent resident cards, and Trusted Traveler cards (which come with Trusted Traveler programs like Global Entry) will continue to be adequate identification for domestic flights. Also adequate are “enhanced” drivers licenses issued by border states Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington.

On top of the REAL ID standards, one more thing that’s suspended due to the pandemic is Global Entry renewal, which you can read more about here.

Dress Up Your Passport

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More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Booking Strategy Health & Wellness

Global Entry Enrollment and Renewal Halts Indefinitely

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has closed all Trusted Traveler Program enrollment centers nationwide until at least May 1. Closure applies to enrollment centers for all four trusted-traveler programs: Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, and FAST. Mobile enrollment events are also suspended. Obviously, this is yet another casualty of the ongoing coronavirus onslaught against travel. 

If you’re considering enrollment, you’ll have to wait until the suspension is lifted. If you’re at the “conditionally approved” status pending an interview, you can’t schedule an interview at an enrollment center until the centers re-open. But you can complete the enrollment through an “Enrollment on Arrival” facility on arrival into the U.S. at any of the 60 participating airports. That is, of course, if you’re traveling right now—which most people are not.

CBP says it will keep applicants informed of re-opening schedules. You can see more information here.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Booking Strategy Miles & Points Passenger Rights

Is It Smart to Use Miles During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The below is a question from a reader that many might be wondering during these turbulent times.

“Is it better to use miles or money when booking a flight during uncertain times? Is it good to use up some miles right now? Thanks for the input.”—JN

Right now, during uncertain times when you might need to cancel, money is less risky. Airlines are waiving future change fees, but they often still charge fees to redeposit miles.

Long-term, however, airlines will continue to devalue miles. So using them sooner, if you find a good rate, is better than sitting on them overall.

Here are some resources on canceling during COVID-19, for airfare and more:

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Health & Wellness Money

Cancel for Any Reason Insurance, Explained

You’ve probably seen lots of stories lately suggesting that you buy “cancel for any reason” (CFAR) travel insurance. This suggestion is based on the fact that conventional trip-cancellation insurance is “named peril” insurance. Meaning: Reimbursement is contingent on a specific exigency named in the policy: If it isn’t named, you aren’t covered.

Focus on “any reason” insurance has assumed prominence recently because many conventional policies do not include an epidemic or fear of an epidemic as a “covered reason.” Often, however, recommendations to buy “any reason” insurance don’t provide details about how it actually works. Here’s what you need to know:

What Is Cancel For Any Reason Insurance?

Typically, the “any reason” coverage is in addition to the traditional coverage that is limited to “covered reasons” for cancellation enumerated in the policy.

Does CFAR Cost More?

Some insurers bundle it into some policies; others treat it as an add-on option. Either way, you pay more than you would for conventional coverage. On a sample trip that a middle-age couple might buy, with a total of $4500 in prepayments, for example, the base cost of the least expensive bundled policy was $220; with 75 percent cancel for any reason, the price increases to $370.

What Does CFAR Cover?

The most common form cover 50 to 75 percent nonrefundable prepayments. Coverage kicks in when the typical 100 percent recovery for cancellation due to a “covered reason” does not apply. It does not replace the traditional coverages: You still recover 100 percent for covered reasons.

To qualify for “any reason,” you must:

  • Insure the full value of all nonrefundable or at-risk payments
  • Buy the insurance within a set period, typically 15 to 21 days, of your original trip payment
  • Cancel no less than 48 hours before scheduled departure

Many policies include trip-interruption coverage along with cancellation. That means it covers unanticipated costs of rejoining a departure you missed or unexpectedly returning home early. Interruption coverage is subject to the same 48-hour time limit and 75 percent recovery.

Originally, insurance regulators in New York State ruled that the “any reason” option did not meet their definition of “insurance,” so insurers could not sell it to New York residents. Recently, however, under some prodding, the regulator decided to allow it, and several large insurers are now selling it in New York.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Booking Strategy Luxury Travel

The World’s 6 Most Incredible Luxury Train Trips

There’s something timeless about traveling aboard a luxury train: the white-glove service, the exotic scenery rushing by, the rhythm of the rails rocking you to sleep in your own comfortable private berth. While luxury train trips operate all over the world, only a few rise to the top as being truly unforgettable.

Luxury Train Trips

Below I’ve picked the six best luxury train trips, taking you to places as far-flung as Bangkok, Cape Town, and Moscow. These trains provide all accommodations in private compartments for two or more, plus inclusive dining and other onboard services.

Legendary: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Easily the top of the top, this modern incarnation of the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express, evokes images of the colorful Middle East, mysterious Eastern Europe, and, of course, classic mystery with Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot. Recently reopened rail connections allow the train to complete its original itinerary between Paris and Istanbul, which it does  once a year; overnight stops include Budapest and Bucharest. The base price for Paris-Istanbul is about $20,300 (per person, double occupancy). Unlike other luxury trains, the Orient Express does not have onboard showers, so the five-night schedule involves three nights on the train and two in hotels along the way.

The train is owned and operated by Belmond; it consists of historic cars restored to modern requirements. Twin cabins, with upper and lower berths, include washbasins; lavatories are at either end of the car.

If you don’t want to go as far as Istanbul, Belmond offers dozens of routes around Europe and the U.K., on itineraries lasting from overnight to six days. Pricing generally starts around $3,500 per person for a two-day, one-night trip, although Belmond offers occasional promotional deals.

Distance Champ: The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express

Eight times per year, May through September, this luxury train trip takes you between Moscow and Vladivostok over 12 nights by way of Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, and Ulaanbaatar. The train stops for local sightseeing at several places along the way. The base price in 2020 starts at $16,995 per person, double occupancy.

The Golden Eagle train consists of modern equipment with three cabin classes, all including private toilets and showers. Silver cabins offer either small double beds or bunks; higher categories are larger with full beds.

The Golden Eagle folks run four different trains over a range of other itineraries, including several through the “Silk Road” areas of central Asia. They also run a separate Danube Express on a wide variety of European itineraries. As with Belmond, pricing generally starts at around $1,000 per person, per day. Some trips include use of steam locomotives over part of the journey.

Most Varied Attractions Along the Way: Pride of Africa

On the Pride of Africa train, Rovos Rail provides five luxury train trips a year on a 15-day itinerary from Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam or the reverse, passing through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, and including stops at a game reserve and Victoria Falls. Prices for the trip start at $12,820 per person (double occupancy).

The Pride of Africa uses mainly older equipment updated to current standards. All compartments include double or twin beds, toilet, and shower. Some trips are pulled by steam locomotives.

Rovos Rail operates the Pride of Africa on a wide range of other itineraries in South Africa and adjacent countries, some including safari stops.

High Altitude: The Andean Explorer

Belmond Andea Explorer luxury train interior.

The Andean Explorer, another Belmond operation, runs weekly two-night trips linking Cusco with Arequipa via Lake Titicaca, with a lake excursion included. Prices start at around $2,100 per person for the two-night, three-day trip. This is literally the highest of the deluxe trains, reaching altitudes up to 14,000 feet along the way, however, so you might want to skip this one (or bring medications) if you have problems with altitude.

The Andean Explorer train includes three levels of cabin, all with private shower, plus an observation lounge, and spa cars. Belmond also operates the deluxe day train Hiram Bingham between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

[st_related]Machu Picchu Is Overrated, Go to Choquequirao Instead[/st_related]

Exotic Asia: Eastern & Oriental Express

Oriental Express Belmond luxury train.

Belmond’s East Asian luxury train travels between Bangkok and Singapore twice monthly. The two- and three-night itineraries run through some of Thailand’s top scenic areas and take a detour to the famous River Kwai bridge. Prices start at $3,630 per person for the trip. You can also start or end the trip in Kuala Lumpur rather than Singapore.

The Eastern & Oriental Express train consists of modern cars built to luxury standards. It offers three levels of cabin, all of which include private shower and lavatory, plus dining and observation cars. Belmond also runs other regional excursions with the train.

Most Frugal: Palace on Wheels

The Palace on Wheels and its four siblings cruise through northern and southern India. The Palace on Wheels, Maharaja’s Express and Royal Rajasthan on Wheels cover mainly seve-day loop itineraries to and from Delhi, with a few Delhi-Mumbai trips; most include a stop at Agra for the Taj Mahal. The Deccan Odyssey and Golden Chariot operate similar patterns centered on Bangalore and Mumbai.

Pricing is seasonal, starting at $500 per person, per night, on the Palace on Wheels. The several trains also run occasional promotions, such as seven nights for the price of five and 50 percent companion discounts.

Deluxe Indian trains use modern equipment, generally with decor inspired by Bollywood’s best extravaganzas. All cabins include a private toilet and shower.

What to Wear on Your Luxury Train Trip:

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Booking Strategy

Airline Consolidators: What You Need to Know

In the eternal quest to get a better airfare, many travelers overlook an important source of cheap flights: Airline consolidators.

Consolidators sell tickets to individual travelers at low fares that aren’t available to the public; they buy those cheap tickets from airlines with which they have contracts. The best prices are on international long-haul business and first class tickets, but consolidators can also sometimes beat published economy fares. Consolidators are able to offer little on domestic tickets. The best deals are usually on flights within a week or two before departure, when published fares are generally very high.

As with airline sale fares, these lower prices often carry more restrictions. When you purchase through a consolidator, you may not be eligible for frequent flyer miles or advance seat selection, and you won’t have much flexibility to make changes to your itinerary without paying significant change fees. Airfare consolidators also tend to have limited staff, so customer service may be minimal. But these restrictions may be worth it in exchange for a rock-bottom fare.

Tips for Using an Airline Consolidator

1. Before shopping for a consolidator ticket, make sure to check all available published-fare options, including both legacy and low-fare lines. Airlines’ lowest published fares—especially flash sale and low-fare line fares—are often less than any consolidator fares.

2. Before booking with any consolidator, do your homework to make sure it’s a reputable company. Check for memberships in trade organizations such as the United States Air Consolidators Association (USACA), American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), International Air Transport Association (IATA), or United States Tour Operators Asociation (USTOA). We also recommend checking the company’s reputation with the Better Business Bureau or on review sites such as

3. Fares vary among consolidators, so shop around with more than just one. And make sure any consolidator price you are quoted includes all applicable taxes and fees.

4. The tickets you purchase from consolidators may not be eligible for frequent flyer mileage.
If this is important to you, verify eligibility with the airline and consolidator before purchasing the ticket. Some consolidators allow you to enter frequent flyer mile information when making your reservation.

5. To protect yourself, always use a major credit card to purchase your airfare. If there is any problem obtaining a valid ticket, you will then have some recourse for denying payment through your credit card company.

6. A day or two after you buy a ticket from a consolidator, verify your reservation with the airline and make sure you have a confirmed seat and are not waitlisted. Consolidators typically do not “own” an inventory of tickets; they buy your ticket from an airline only after you’ve paid, and sometimes they don’t or can’t follow through with the airline. If the airline doesn’t confirm your reservation, check with the consolidator immediately and be prepared to abort the entire transaction if it can’t guarantee your seat.

7. Ask plenty of questions. What happens if you miss your plane or your flight is canceled? What if you need to alter your itinerary? Make sure you obtain clear and accurate information from your consolidator regarding all policies and fees for ticket cancellations, changes, refunds, reticketing, and expiration dates — and then verify these with the airline.

Finding an Airline Consolidator

Here is a short list of airfare consolidators that offer fares to the public. (Many consolidators only sell to travel agents). The consolidator industry is competitive and turnover is high, so research the consolidator website carefully to ensure it’s reliable before you book.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.