After two years of disrupted travel plans amid the coronavirus pandemic, the fading of the Omicron variant has many older Americans eager to return to the roads and skies in coming months. There’s no guarantee, however, that another variant won’t upend plans or lead vulnerable people to rethink their travels.
The good news is the travel industry is much more flexible with vacationers who need to change plans. Many car rental shops and hotels allow cancellations within 24 hours of pickup or arrival. And most airlines aren’t charging fees for changes up to 24 hours before a flight; some allow same-day changes fee-free. Even cruise lines, which have a reputation for being inflexible, have relaxed their change policies.
The bad news is that stuff still happens to mess up vacations. So for those hoping to travel over the next few months, it pays to learn details on cancellations, itinerary changes, and protecting your budget.
Know the Rules
Before booking any trips, plan for potential disruptions, says Jeanenne Tornatore, a travel expert at the Outside Insider. Travelers should read the cancellation policies for airlines, hotels and activities that require prebooking so they know their options. Don’t just rely on websites, especially for small businesses.
Check the cancellation policies for specific hotels since the individual locations of name-brand hotels such as Marriott or Hilton could be franchises, says Cameron Sperance, hospitality reporter for Skift, a travel news site. Hotels need to comply with certain corporate standards to carry the brand’s name, such as health and safety measures, but the individual properties have some flexibility when it comes to bookings.
While hotels may offer vacationers leeway when it comes to cancellations, it’s a different story for lodgings booked through sites like AirBnB and VRBO. Those individual owners set the stipulations. “It’s up to the goodness of their heart whether you’re going to get the full refund,” Sperance says.
An important point for budget-conscious travelers: Hotels and airlines may be less generous with refunds for those who opt for rock-bottom rates, especially if travelers cancel close to the booking date, Tornatore adds.
Even without a surge in Covid variants, staffing shortages in many industries aren’t going away, so book in advance any special excursions, restaurants, spa services, live entertainment or other activities and call ahead to make sure nothing has changed. If live shows get canceled, attendees usually can get refunds; however, if the ticker buyer can’t make it for whatever reason, the venue is unlikely to offer a refund.
One exception to strict cancellation policies may be showing a positive Covid test close to the travel date, she says, speaking from experience. When a family member tested positive for Covid, she presented the airline with dated copies of positive test results and her family received refunds for their nonrefundable fares.
“If you’re able to provide the right information, I think that travel suppliers are still being very flexible. They don’t want people to get on their planes who are positive,” she says.
Cruise lines are giving travelers greater leeway to reschedule or cancel, says Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic. Many are allowing cancellations close to the time of departure, some up to 48 hours before ships sail, which was unheard-of prepandemic. Not every cruise line will allow vacationers to cancel for a full refund, but most will offer a future cruise credit.
Cruise-goers should also know the ship’s health and safety protocols. Most boats have capacity limits, and cruise lines may not be sailing all ships. Be prepared to show vaccination and perhaps booster status, as virtually all cruise lines require proof of vaccination, McDaniel says. PCR Covid tests are also required by federal health authorities within two days of boarding.
Cruisers hoping for vaccination waivers based on medical status will need to speak to the cruise line. Some operators are standing firm on a no vaccination, no sailing rule, McDaniel says, such as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, including for families who haven’t vaccinated young children.
Passengers who test positive for Covid while on board are isolated in a cabin and given room service and in-room entertainment. Travelers who were in close proximity to that person for an extended period of time will be isolated for 24 hours and tested several times to ensure they are negative before they are allowed to leave the cabin, she says.
What’s more, ports determine who is allowed to disembark, and local authorities can change entry requirements at any time. Destinations may require new tests to enter or can refuse entry if even one person on a ship tests positive for Covid. McDaniel says passengers need to consider these potential outcomes.
“You’re going to have the best experience if you are flexible and understand that the cruise you book might not be exactly the cruise you take,” she says.
Is Travel Insurance Worth It?
Experts generally say travel protection is worth the cost, but they advise consumers to shop around and read the fine print. “I wouldn’t view it as kind of the ripoff that people may have thought it was prior to the pandemic,” Sperance says.
There are two types of primary travel insurance: trip cancellation and travel medical insurance. Trip cancellation policies cover the nonrefundable costs of a trip, such as deposits, lost baggage, trip delays or interruption, and may cover liability for rental cars. Travel medical policies are geared to international travel since in most cases Medicare won’t cover vacationers outside the U.S. and private coverage varies.
For trip interruption and delays coverage, Sperance says, people should find out if the policy covers extra hotel nights in case a flight is canceled or travelers need to stay in quarantine.
With travel medical insurance, he says, look for language that includes coverage for pre-existing conditions and medical evacuation in case of emergencies. Some policies include specifics around Covid, including coverage for quarantine expenses or other medical expenses related to Covid.
The cost of travel insurance depends on several factors, including destination, and a person’s age and health if they are getting medical coverage, says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of travel insurance marketplace VisitorsCoverage.com. For a basic, domestic trip cancellation policy the premium is about 10% of the trip cost.
Depending on the trip, both types of policies can be combined, says Shrivastava.
Tornatone, meanwhile, warns travelers to read the policies as certain basic domestic travel insurance may not cover Covid-related travel disruptions. Travelers who want to be covered for anything can get “cancel for any reason” travel policies. However, those may cost 40% to 50% more than basic policies.
Contingency plans are an important part of travel now. If possible, build in extra time on the front and back end of the trip to allow for unexpected delays.
Despite the unknowns, 2022 might be a good time to hit the road, says Laura Breen, director of sales at VBT Bicycling Vacations & Country Walkers, an international tour operator whose demographic skews toward retirees. “It can be really rewarding to travel right now because places are slightly less crowded than you’re used to,” Breen says.
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