How Safe Is it (For my Wallet *and* Me) To Book Future Travel Right Now?

Every day, a deluge of travel deals from airlines hits my inbox from JetBlue, Delta, and every other major (and minor) air carrier I've used over the years. With flight prices being dirt-cheap right now, every day upon seeing the emails, I find myself practically salivating over a Thanksgiving itinerary or tropical vacation that will cost me less than my monthly Wi-Fi bill instead of hundreds and hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars. But COVID-19's trajectory remains foggy, and given factors like a potential second wave of the virus, a current lack of a vaccine, and varying global travel restrictions, future travel bookings feel like a high-stakes gamble for my health and wallet.

Since the potential winnings of the gamble are high, though (admittedly more so for my wallet than my health, given that air travel provides for increased risk of exposure to COVID-19), I assembled a panel of experts to break down whether it's worth booking an airline seat when your flight plan may experience turbulence in the future.

Both travel coach Dylan Grace Essertier and Navdeep Kaur, MS, certified nurse practitioner with EHE Health, say you should ponder a number of factors before scratching your wanderlust itch and hitting the airport. Below, they break them down.

The 3 practical and health-related questions to consider before hitting "confirm" on future travel bookings.

1. How safe will I feel on the flight and where I am staying during the trip?

A trip that has you constantly questioning your health and safety won't be one for the photo album—that's for sure. That's why Essertier says you'll want to exert some control over the situation before you pack your bags and go. "Check what the hotel and airlines are doing to sanitize their space," she says. Do your due diligence via company websites, and by call your accommodation to ask questions like:

  1. What policies has your local airport adopted to keep you safe? The Travel Security Administration's (TSA) new travel guidelines allow for social distancing, 12-ounce hand sanitizer, and more—but the administration recommends checking with your local airport's website to see what specific policies are in effect in your area.
  2. Is the airline booking middle seats? Alaska Airlines, American, and JetBlue are all currently instituting this policy to give people three feet or so apart—if not six.
  3. How will it accommodate social distancing? Some airlines—like Alaska Airlines—have begun adopting policies to maximize social distancing, like allowing people to spread out across the aircraft if the flight is underbooked or limiting first-class tickets.
  4. How is the accommodation dealing with keeping guests from contracting COVID-19? The American Hotel and Lodging Association (ALHA) recently released an industry-wide guide for keeping hotels safe and clean using practices like no-contact room service, laundry services that adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cleaning guidelines, and contactless payment. The association is working with hotels globally to institute these policies, but it can't hurt to give your chosen home away from home a ring to ask about their policies.

Right now, though, do remember that the official CDC recommendation remains to avoid all non-essential travel. Since no one can know how that recommendation may change in the weeks, months, or perhaps even years to come, it remains up to you to measure the risk/reward—first and foremost, by considering your own health and any underlying conditions.

2. How has my travel destination responded to COVID-19?

As important as it is to methodically research your travel plan, Essertier points out that you'd also be wise to consider where you're traveling. "If you want to travel this summer, my advice would be to research how that destination handled the pandemic and how they began to open up their part of the world. You can check the country or city's tourism board to get this information," says Essertier. (This is also true if you're visiting family: Are they committed to a certain level of COVID-19 precautions you're comfortable with? Are you putting them in undue risk? Will you be comfortable quarantining for a week or two after you arrive?)

Much of the Southern United States has begun or even completed the process of reopening. So if you want to visit, say, Savannah, Georgia, but would feel anxious or uncomfortable about being in a place where restaurants and stores are open for business, that might be a reason to postpone your trip. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may find yourself feeling more comfortable about traveling to a place with sprawling land—and thus abundant social distancing space—like, say, Utah.

Countries also differ on whether they're accepting tourists, says Kaur. "This includes closed airports, required medical clearance for entry, closed land, and internal restrictions within the countries itself. While some countries have begun to ease restrictions on transportation and traveling, it is still recommended to avoiding nonessential travel at this time." For international travel, then, both your wallet and your health might be better off if you push your far-in-the-future plans further, ideally to a time when COVID-19 isn't clouding the distant horizon.

3. How financially secure are my future travel bookings?

Your final step, according to Essertier, is to evaluate how much money you'll lose if you wind up needing to cancel the trip due to health concerns. To do that, you'll have to do exhaustive research on your preferred airline's cancelation policy. Plus, you'd be wise to take note of whether you'll be able to get refunded for any other plans (amusement parks, outdoor adventures, shows, etc.) you might also book ahead of time to fill out your travel agenda.

And if you buy your ticket through third-party travel sites, like Kayak and Expedia, I learned through personal experience that if you try to cancel, you'll be redirected you to the website offering the tickets for your selected fare. But while you can't cancel through the third party vendor directly, the cancelation policy should be in line with whatever airline your ticket is for. Here are some of those policies:

How some of the most popular airlines are managing cancelations During the coronavirus pandemic:

Delta: While Delta won't issue a full refund (as in, cash straight back in your pocket) for all flights booked at this time, the company is issuing free change waivers (meaning you can switch flight date and destination without penalty) and eCredits through September 30, 2022 for flights purchased through April 17 and set to depart through September 30, 2020. Other tickets booked through June 30 can be changed or redeemed for eCredits a year from purchase date.

JetBlue: As of May 28, JetBlue's offering Travel Bank Credit (its form of travel credit) that last for 24 months when travelers decide to cancel their upcoming itineraries.

American Airlines: If you purchased a ticket through American Airlines before June 30, 2020, for travel between March 1 and September 30, 2020, you can rebook a future flight to any destination (up to December 31, 2021) without change fees.

United Airways: For any ticket purchased between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2020, United customers will be permitted to change their flights free of charge for up to 12 months after the original ticket issue date. They can also receive travel credit valuable for 12 months if travel is booked during that same time period.

Southwest: Southwest customers can cancel their flights up to 10 minutes before takeoff, and they'll receive credit (called: "Wanna Get Away" fares). Any travel funds received after canceling a flight between March 1 and September 7, 2020, will expire September 7, 2022.

You can check out an in-depth outline of airline cancelation policies here

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