Should you book summer travel right now? If you're planning to visit the Pacific Northwest, you can fly round-trip to Seattle from Los Angeles for $117 in basic economy on legacy carriers. Deal site Travelzoo is offering the Handlery Hotel in San Diego for as little as $99 a night in June and July. Or you can book, say, a rafting adventure in Colorado.
Why not go ahead and book it? After all, leisure travelers find two things irresistible: going and doing, and the value they get for money spent.
To which you may reply, "Are you out of your mind?"
It's a possibility. But it's also possible that you may be financially protected in a way that you have not been before. Refunds are more plentiful, but so are problems. And the issue of refunds has continued to evolve and with it, polices and practices that determine whether you get your money back, a credit or nothing at all.
For those who fret, the loosening of restrictions, particularly on airline tickets, may be of some comfort. But it's still a gamble, especially because it's unclear whether the curve is beginning to flatten.
Here's a guide to deciding whether you want to take a chance and be rewarded with good value or take a chance and take a financial beating.
CAN I GET AN AIRLINE TICKET REFUND?
"Up until a week ago, there was this surprising variance in policy between even the big three major airlines," said Seth Kaplan, an airline analyst.
The Department of Transportation last week said airlines should give refunds if they canceled flights, which some were not doing. Rather than issue a mandate, the DOT said it wanted airlines to comply voluntarily.
Now, it appears, more are adhering to their own rules.
Here are the basics: If your flight is changed and you won't arrive at your destination within "X" number of hours of when you should have, you may be entitled to a refund.
The airline gets to determine the X factor. Not all are the same. Each airline has its own terms and conditions, usually called a contract for carriage (or conditions) that specifies that number.
Delta's Rule 19 in its contract pegs X, the length of delay, at 90 minutes. United's Rule 24, which bounced from two hours to 25 hours to six within the last two weeks, has settled at 30 minutes.
Even Spirit Airlines, the low-cost carrier that once prided itself on how much people hated it, offers, in section 10.2.3 of its contract, refunds for flight cancellations that inconvenience passengers by more than two hours.
Because airlines generally will offer refunds if they cancel the ticket, it's wise to wait and see whether your ticket is canceled instead of canceling it yourself, Kaplan said. Just remember to do so.
Some airlines have tried to wiggle out of providing refunds, despite their own rules, offering a credit instead, which means they're holding on to your money. Some are offering sweeteners to get you to do that: Delta gives you up to two years to use that credit. Singapore Airlines has just announced it is offering flight credit bonuses if you choose a voucher; they begin at about $53 for an economy-class ticket and can be as much as $353, based on the current value of Singapore's dollar.
What you need to consider before deciding to purchase your flight: What's your risk tolerance? What's your financial situation? What is the airline's financial situation? If your flight has been canceled and you'll need the money, take the money. If your airline is in a shaky financial position, take the money.
If you don't follow airline financial news, know that the survival of the fittest airline isn't necessarily the rule, Kaplan said. Some airlines are subsidized by the country whose name they share (Alitalia); others are not (Norwegian). Some airlines have more international flights, which increases the risk; others, including Southwest, are more domestic.
What you need to do before deciding: Read the contract or terms and conditions to understand what you can and cannot expect.
WHAT IF I GET SCARED AND WANT TO CANCEL MY AIRLINE TICKET?
If you decide to cancel, you're more likely to get a credit than a refund, but legacy airlines have been generous in allowing cancellations without penalties or change fees.
So have, surprisingly, Alegiant and Frontier, low-cost carriers that sometimes feel as though they're in a game of gotcha with ticket changes. Not this time. They're being generous with credits; just be sure to check dates of travel that are being covered.
CAN I GET A REFUND FOR A HOTEL STAY?
Again that depends not only on the property but also on the kind of reservation.
These days, many hotels will allow you to make a reservation that saves you money if you choose "nonrefundable." Make sure you understand what you are booking.
The Travelzoo example above for the Handlery Hotel in San Diego is a refundable stay, so you should be able to get your money back. Read the terms and conditions.
What you need to do before deciding: If you're asked to choose between saving money and getting your money back, again, it depends on your risk tolerance. On the other hand, if the difference is $10 to $20 for a fully refundable stay, pay the extra and consider that a mini-insurance policy. Also make sure to read the cancellation terms before you commit to either, and if it's a hotel that charges resort fees, be sure those are covered as well.
SHOULD I BOOK AN ACTIVITY NOW?
Although you may well get a discount if you book early as some Colorado rafting companies are doing, you may not get a refund if something goes amiss and you can't go. Better to wait until you are at your destination.
There are exceptions, of course. The Oberammergau Passion Play, which occurs every 10 years in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, was scheduled for May 16-Oct. 4. It has been postponed until May 14, 2022, and will continue through Oct. 2, 2022. The website offers refund information if you cannot make it.
Likewise, the 2020 Olympics have been postponed until July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021. Already purchased tickets will be available for the new dates, but if you can't be there, you can get a refund. Details on how to get a refund have not yet been explained.
ONE FINAL STEP
After evaluating the risks, just when should you book your summer travel? "I would say wait as long as you can," said Sara Rathner, a credit card expert at NerdWallet, a personal finance site.
Check with your credit card company to see whether it's offering travel insurance that may help; many policies will not because the coronavirus is now a known event and has been since mid-January, making it ineligible for coverage. Rathner also suggested, especially for international travel, considering cancel-for-any reason insurance. It costs more and doesn't refund as much, but you won't be left holding the bag - at least, not all of it.
(Assistant Los Angeles Times travel editor Mary Forgione contributed to this report.)
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