How to build flexibility into your summer vacation
As they begin to plan their summer vacations, travelers don't just want flexibility, they need it. That includes Katy Kassian. She doesn't know where she's going yet, but she knows how she'll get there and where she'll stay.
"I'm going to drive, because it gives me the most flexibility," says Kassian, a small-business consultant from Max, Neb. "We can stop when we want and go when we want. Yes, it can take a little longer, but the comfort and perks are worth it."
Kassian avoids hotel chains, which have already begun tightening their cancellation policies as travel restrictions ease. Instead, she prefers independent hotels. "Many are generous with last-minute cancellations," she says.
Experts say travelers are looking for policies like this as they plan their vacations.
"Flexibility is no longer a luxury," says Jeffrey Galak, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. "It's a requirement."
Several recent policy changes reflect this requirement:
— Pre-pandemic, only first- or business-class airline tickets offered the flexibility to change your itinerary without paying a fee. Now, all but the cheapest economy-class tickets are changeable.
— Many hotels and vacation rental sites modified their refund rules as a result of the pandemic, allowing guests to cancel their stays without a penalty.
— Cruise lines once held to rigid refund rules that rendered tickets nonrefundable the closer you got to the sailing date. Today, many allow customers to cancel and receive a credit and, in some cases, a full refund. Many cruise lines still don't have cancellation fees unless you book a special fare.
How do you find flexibility in an industry that, until recently, prided itself on being inflexible? One way is to hire a travel adviser.
"In uncertain times like these, it becomes more and more important to book through a reputable travel adviser who has relationships with vetted and reliable travel operators," says Robyn Davis, chief executive of Global Eventures, a corporate event company.
Davis urges travelers to choose their adviser carefully, making sure they're licensed, insured and accredited through the International Air Transport Association. A knowledgeable travel adviser will spell out the full cancellation policy of a trip in writing, recommend a travel insurance policy with every booking and be there to help if you have to cancel, she says.
You can also look for flexible policies. For example, the Vrbo site and app allows users to filter properties by cancellation policies, with its most lenient policy offering a full refund up to 14 days before check-in. If you're flexible with your travel dates, you can also try an undated search to find more available properties in the area.
Some companies are being extra flexible this summer. JetBlue Vacations, for instance, allows customers to change their flights without any fees up to seven days before departure when they book round-trip flights and a hotel together. For cruise passengers, it also has a "Plane to Port Commitment."
"If a customer misses their cruise departure due to a JetBlue flight delay or cancellation, we'll help them get to the next port of call," says Andres Barry, president of JetBlue Travel Products.
Shelley Ewing, president of TierOne Travel, is a fan of Disney Cruise Line's flexibility. The company modified its cancellation fee schedule, widening its refund window to allow some guests to cancel up to 60 days before sailing on selected sailings.
Ewing also recommends Royal Caribbean, which allows some travelers to cancel up to 48 hours before their sail date and get back the full amount paid as a future cruise credit. (As always, these terms are subject to change.)
A travel insurance policy can offset some of the cancellation risks, experts says. "There are certain types of travel insurance that will provide maximum flexibility for your trip," says Joe Cronin, president of International Citizens Insurance, a health insurance site for expatriates.
There are two types of insurance. Standard travel insurance covers named perils, such as an unexpected cancellation or a death in the family. A cancel-for-any-reason policy is exactly what it sounds like, and it allows travelers to recoup a large percentage of their expenses.
"You can cancel for any reason whatsoever, usually up to two days before departure, for a reimbursement up to 75 percent of prepaid nonrefundable expenses," says Chelsea Capwell, a spokeswoman for Travel Insurance Master, an online travel insurance aggregator. But you have to buy the policy early to get cancel-for-any-reason coverage — usually within one to 21 days of the initial trip deposit.
Everyone wants flexibility this summer, because no one knows what will happen. We could get another wave of coronavirus cases. The war in Ukraine could spread. And you can do all of these things — hire an agent, research the most flexible policies, buy insurance — and still find yourself on the wrong end of a strict policy.
Too often, travelers throw their hands in the air and walk away. But that overlooks the most effective strategy for making your vacation as flexible as possible: Ask. If you need a late checkout, ask the front desk. If you need to cut your stay short, ask. If you have to reschedule your stay or want a refund, there's no harm in asking.
For the first time in years, maybe even decades, the travel industry wants to be as accommodating as possible. Galak, the Carnegie Mellon professor, suspects the travel industry's unprecedented flexibility is a limited-time offer. But although he believes policies will tighten again as summer approaches, he doubts they will return to their pre-pandemic rigidity.
"Consumers simply won't stand for it," he says.