Melissa Yeager Arizona Republic
In any other year, this would be the time you’d be hastily researching your holiday travel options only to groan at the high cost of airfare before finally taking a deep breath and typing in your credit card number.
But this is 2020. The uncertainty of the new coronavirus pandemic has people wondering what COVID-19 infections will look like in November and December and whether it’s safe to fly to see friends and family, stalling the traditional holiday travel booking routine.
We don’t know what the pandemic will look like two to three months from now. Will travel advisories and restrictions persist? Or might the virus be contained enough for us to visit the people we love?
Here are three reasons it’s OK to book that holiday ticket now as well as one reason it’s fine to wait a little longer.
Holiday fares are cheap right now
If the pandemic hadn’t hit, you’d be facing some pretty steep fares if you were just booking your ticket now.
Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, which tracks inexpensive fares, told The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, his typical advice for people looking to travel during peak seasons like summer and the Christmas/New Year’s holidays is to book during the opposite season to grab the cheapest fare.
So, if you want to fly during the peak summer season, book when you’re opening Christmas presents. If you want to fly during New Year’s, book while you’re celebrating July Fourth.
But that’s not true this year.
“Purely on a fare perspective, what we’ve been seeing is that peak holiday flights have been significantly cheaper and more prevalent than a normal year,” Keyes said.
How cheap? Some fares are about half the price of a normal peak-travel season. A Phoenix to Kansas City, Missouri, ticket that normally would be upward of $400 is about $200. Some Christmas fares to New York City are pricing in the low $200s and Chicago for about $170.
Keyes also has spotted low international fares for the holidays.
Travel policies are getting more consumer-friendly
After years of consumers getting nickel-and-dimed for itinerary changes or losing their money for canceling a trip, airlines are battling to provide policies that give customers confidence in booking flights.
“That’s really important to customers to take the financial risk out of booking now,” said Kyle Mabry, global head of leisure sales for American Airlines
Flexible rebooking and cancellation policies are great news for travelers, especially those who want to book now and decide later whether to go.
Before you book, read the airline’s policy carefully so you fully understand what it offers. Here are some of the things to look for:
Change fees: Has the airline waived fees for changes? Does it apply to the fare class you’re booking?
Fare difference: If you change your flight, you may still be responsible for any fare increase.
Cancellation fees: A change fee is different from a cancellation fee. If you want to cancel your flight, find out if you will get a refund or a credit for a future flight, less any cancellation fee. Make sure you understand how many days ahead of time you can cancel and put a reminder in your calendar.
Can you afford a credit? If your airline offers a credit in lieu of a refund for canceling, make sure that you’ll be able to travel with that airline in the future and that you’re OK with that money being unavailable to you until then.
You have more flight options now than you will later
If you book early, you’ll get a better selection of flight times and days than if you wait until closer to your departure. Though passenger traffic has plummeted as a result of COVID-19, the most desirable routes and flight times will get snapped up more quickly.
“Demand hasn’t returned as we had hoped in many cases, but there is demand for warm-weather destinations,” Mabry said.
Mabry noted that places like Florida and Mexico are getting strong interest as people look to visit destinations where they can be outdoors when the weather turns cold up north.
Want to wait to book? It’s probably OK
Keyes said advance booking is always helpful, but it may not be a deal-breaker this year.
“You’re always rolling the dice, you know, the closer you get to your travel date. I would expect that peak holiday-travel cheap flights are going to be available much closer to those dates than they would be in a normal year,” Keyes said.
Though you may be able to find an inexpensive flight closer to the date, you will need to be flexible on the times and days you travel to snag the best fares.