Wednesday, January 19News That Matters

5 reasons you should book summer travel now

(CNN) —  

It’s been over a year since the coronavirus pandemic landed on US shores, and in that time, the travel industry has taken a major hit. Even now, with international borders mostly closed, people social distancing and business travel reduced to a fraction of its former self, airlines and hotels are still seeing only a sliver of the travelers they had at the beginning of last year.

But with vaccines now rolling out widely, travel is showing signs of returning with a vengeance. And if you’ve been eager to book a summer trip, you’ll want to start looking at your options now instead of waiting to see how things unfold. That’s because there are a number of reasons that booking today could be a better choice than holding off until the summer is practically upon us.

1. Most flights can now be changed for free

There aren’t many silver linings to the pandemic cloud we’ve been living under for over a year now, but one of the few bits of good news is that the major US airlines — American, Delta and United — have dropped their change fees on all domestic tickets and most international itineraries departing from North America.

The one exception is basic economy fares, and even many of those can be changed without a fee if you purchase your tickets before the end of March — specifically, March 30 for Delta, and March 31 for American and United. That means if you generally book the cheapest fares but want the added flexibility of being able to change your flight without a fee, you need to buy your tickets very soon.

(Also, let’s give credit here to Southwest, which has never had basic economy or change fees in the first place. If you’re looking for a passenger-friendly airline, Southwest continues to have some of the best policies of all the US carriers, including easy-to-change tickets and free checked bags.)

Now, that doesn’t mean all airline tickets are suddenly refundable. There’s a big difference between “changeable” and “refundable.” Basically, the new policies mean you can change your ticket before departure and not have to pay an extra fee. But unless you specifically pay more for a refundable flight, you still can’t get your money back on most tickets unless there’s a cancellation by the airline itself.

And while there are no longer fees for changing your flight, you’ll still have to pay any difference between the original fare you bought and the price of the new ticket if it’s more. Conversely, if the price of your new flight is lower, both American and Delta will give you a credit for the difference. (United just pockets it, so keep that policy in mind when you’re choosing an airline.)

Still, the new rules offer a lot more flexibility and make it more attractive to go ahead and book since there’s no risk of losing your money if you can’t get a vaccine in time to travel. It also means it’s worth locking down a great deal for the future if you find one. Speaking of which…

2. Great deals are everywhere…for now

Unsurprisingly, struggling airlines and hotels are doing everything they can to get people to book. And while you may not be ready to jump on a plane right this moment, you can take advantage of deals now for trips in the future.

What kinds of deals can you get? Well, just as an example, as of this writing, New Yorkers can get themselves to Maui on either American or United for just $426 round-trip, with flights available from May all the way to December. And it’s even cheaper to Hawaii from the West Coast, with nonstop flights this summer as low as $348 round-trip from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Head to Maui on a cheap airfare and hike the Waihe'e Ridge Trail this summer.
PHOTO: iStock
Head to Maui on a cheap airfare and hike the Waihe’e Ridge Trail this summer.

Even though most international borders remain closed, there are a number of countries in the Caribbean that are open to American tourists, and Iceland recently announced that vaccinated travelers can now enter the country without quarantining or even a coronavirus test. East Coast residents can currently score round-trip fares as low as $385 to Reykjavik, the nation’s capital.

To find cheap airfares, either use Google Flights or an online travel agency to search for trips, or sign up for notifications from a deal site, such as The Flight Deal, Scott’s Cheap Flights or Thrifty Traveler. Or try a data-driven app like Hopper to find the ideal time to book.

And if you’ve been sitting on a stack of frequent flyer miles, now’s the time to use them. Award availability is more open than it has been in years as airlines try to fill seats, and most US airlines no longer charge a fee to cancel an award ticket and get your miles back (again, United is the exception if you cancel less than 30 days from departure). So put aside some time to search the airline’s website and see what sorts of mileage deals appear.

3. But demand is already picking up

While it’s impossible to predict when international destinations will start to lift travel restrictions, domestic travel is already on the rebound — and climbing fast. Airline and travel agency executives report a significant increase in bookings in the last few weeks, and the Transportation Security Administration is screening more passengers each day than it did a year ago at this time.

As demand explodes, great airfares and award availability are likely to taper off. That doesn’t mean deals will completely disappear — industry leaders are projecting that business travel, which is the most lucrative part of the market for airlines, won’t fully return for several years.

But it’s no surprise that with so many people cooped up in their homes for so long, there’s a palpable desire to get to an exotic destination as soon as possible. So if you want to lock in a great deal, it’s better to do it now while airlines and hotels are still ramping back up.

Related: Should I travel? Expert advice on what to consider.

4. Travel credit cards can protect you if you get sick

You may already be eligible for various forms of travel insurance by using the credit cards in your purse or wallet.
PHOTO: iStock
You may already be eligible for various forms of travel insurance by using the credit cards in your purse or wallet.

Even with changeable flights, there may still be some aspects of a trip that are difficult or impossible to change, and you don’t want to lose money if you get sick and can’t travel.

You could buy a travel insurance policy to cover you in case the worst happens, but they can be expensive, and not all of them will cover claims related to the pandemic. Fortunately, a cheaper and better way to protect yourself might already be in your purse or wallet: your credit card.

Many travel credit cards include various forms of travel protection, such as trip cancellation and interruption coverage, travel accident insurance, emergency evacuation coverage and more. While these protections generally don’t cover you if you voluntarily cancel your trip due to the pandemic, they often do cover you if you personally get sick from the coronavirus or can’t travel due to unexpected restrictions put in place by a governmental authority.

Every credit card offers different levels of coverage, and some don’t have any travel protections at all, so it’s important to check the fine print before you book your trip with a specific credit card to know exactly what you’re being protected against. But if you want to be sure that your travel investment is safe, choose the right credit card to book your post-pandemic vacation.

Related: Read CNN Underscored’s guide to the best credit cards with travel insurance protections.

5. Give yourself something to look forward to

It’s been a tough year, and even though we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, there are still a few more months until summer arrives. By booking yourself a trip now, you’ll have something to look forward to between now and then. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health, and the idea of an upcoming trip may help get you through the slog.

After the last year, everyone could use a vacation.
PHOTO: iStock
After the last year, everyone could use a vacation.

And even with all of the above in mind, if you just don’t feel comfortable booking future travel at the moment, don’t feel bad about that either. Many people don’t have a flexible enough family or work schedule to allow themselves to book speculative travel with so many unknowns still out there.

If that’s you, there’s one other thing you can do while waiting for travel to resume: earn extra travel rewards on your credit card. Many cards are offering record-high sign-up bonuses to new card holders, including up to 90,000 bonus miles on Delta credit cards, up to 125,000 bonus points on Marriott credit cards and as much as 150,000 bonus points on Hilton credit cards.

Those bonuses alone can be enough to book a trip when the world is finally more stable. Plus, you can use a credit card to earn rewards on the everyday things you buy while you’re stuck at home.

So, if you aren’t ready to book travel yet but want to make sure you have enough frequent flyer points or miles to go somewhere great when you finally can, check out our list of the best travel credit cards and see if one of them might be a good fit for you.

Looking for a new credit card? Check out CNN Underscored’s list of the best credit cards of 2021.

Get all the latest personal finance deals, news and advice at CNN Underscored Money.