Airlines and hotels are hurting for business during this pandemic—and it’s likely not just for the next few weeks. But to encourage travelers to keep planning future trips for as early as this spring and summer, many are offering to waive cancellation and/or change penalties. And they’re typically waiving them even on what are usually “nonrefundable” tickets and rooms, in case the COVID-19 crisis lasts until your trip.
Here are the major players offering flexible booking due to COVID-19.
3 Major Airlines Offering Flexible Bookings
The basic Big Three airlines’ (Delta, American, United) option for new tickets bought now is currently as follows: If you buy a ticket (of any fare type) before March 31 that’s for travel dates through the next nine months, the airline will waive change fees for rescheduled trips. Those rescheduled trips are to be completed within a year of the original issue date.
Most other domestic lines and big international lines follow a similar policy. Southwest, of course, does not assess any change fees in the first place. In all cases, travelers who reschedule will pay whatever the going fare is at the time they book the new trip.
You can find a detailed airline-by-airline, regularly updated summary of cancellation policies via Airfarewatchdog (SmarterTravel’s sister site) for all major U.S. lines, plus dozens of others (Canadian, Asian, European, and Latin American lines).
5 Hotels Offering Flexible Bookings
Five major hotel chains—Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Wyndham—announced similar policies: Prepaid, nonrefundable reservations for stays through April 30 can be canceled up to 48 hours before the original arrival date. (So far, Best Western and Choice have not posted anything about cancellations, nor have I seen comparable policies published by smaller chains and chains based outside the U.S.)
Why They’re Not Exactly ‘Risk-Free’ Bookings
Although these policies appear generous, they’re not exactly “risk free” as some travel companies have been calling them. In all cases, if the airline or hotel has your money from the get-go, you won’t usually get your money back as money; you get the ability to apply the money toward a future ticket or stay. And even though a year seems a long time, many of you will find that re-using the value of your prepayment toward a future trip within one year is often not practical.
One COVID-19 Airline Policy to Be Wary Of
United Airlines’ policy poses a special risk. According to the current published policy, you can use the value of a canceled prepayment toward a future trip, but if the future trip fare is less than the amount of your credit you forfeit the residual value.
United is also not playing nice on schedule changes. After a few iterations, United’s current policy on schedule changes is that if it can’t get you to your original destination within six hours of the original schedule, it will refund your fare—but with a catch: The refund is limited to a credit voucher good for a year rather than cash, and you can get cash only if you don’t use that voucher within a full year. The blogosphere is speculating that refusing a cash refund for a full year is illegal, but nobody has any great suggestions about how to avoid the problem.
All in all, my take is that now is a good time to sit on your credit cards and watch what happens. I would be very surprised if the various travel barriers and prohibitions will end as soon as March 30, so airlines and hotels are likely going to expand offers, week-by-week or month-by-month, until the pandemic is truly contained and travel is truly safe.
For the foreseeable future, only buy nonrefundable air tickets or hotel accommodation if (1) the price is incredible low and (2) you’re at least 95 percent sure of being able to re-use it within a year.
And even then, think about purchasing “cancel for any reason” insurance.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 6 Best Places to Buy Travel Insurance
- How Hotels and Airlines are Changing Cleaning Policies in the Wake of COVID-19
- The Ultimate Guide to Travel Insurance
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.