U.S. health experts are bracing for record coronavirus numbers this winter due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, and travelers are debating whether to rethink their trips over the holidays.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease specialist, said this weekend that all travel presents risks, but vaccinated and boosted people can go ahead with their trips, as long as they’re following precautions. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CBS he wouldn’t advocate against travel, “but you should do so very carefully.”
Betsy Ball, co-founder and partner of the travel agency Euro Travel Coach, said she has not had any customers cancel since the omicron variant emerged in late November, but a few potential clients said they will wait and see how the surge goes before committing to a trip. Overall, she said, inquiries for spring trips are way up.
Tara Cappel, founder and CEO of the For the Love of Travel agency, said her company is seeing requests to cancel or postpone trips in the near future, but ones set for February and onward remain untouched.
“It’s also destination-specific,” Cappel said in an email. “We’re not seeing cancellations for trips to Central and South America at this point.”
Jen Moyse, senior director of product for the trip planner and flight tracker app TripIt, said that now that we are entering the third year of the pandemic, more travelers have prioritized flexible bookings in preparation of unexpected surges.
For insight on how omicron will impact travel, we can take a look at the delta variant surge. In a TripIt customer survey, more than 28% of users said they canceled or changed plans because of the delta wave, and 27% lost money (some up to $5,000).
For people considering canceling or rescheduling an upcoming trip, note that travel companies are much less likely to shell out a refund if you change your mind about going. By now, we are expected to know that booking comes with risks. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to lose your vacation. Here is some advice to get you started.
— Canceling a flight
Airlines largely instituted flexible cancellation policies during the pandemic, but you aren’t likely to get a cash refund. Expect a voucher or credit instead.
During the delta surge, Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes advised travelers to hold off on canceling flights as long as possible. Whether you cancel a month out or a few days, you will probably only get an airline credit. But if you wait, you can see if the airline cancels first. Should your flight get canceled or significantly delayed, you are entitled to ask for a refund, per Department of Transportation regulations.
Unless you cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking, which entitles you to a full refund, results for canceling will otherwise vary depending on what type of ticket you purchased.
With the exception of a few airlines, booking basic economy traps you into a fare that’s nonrefundable and can only be changed with a fee. Delta Air Lines announced earlier this year that you can make changes on basic economy flights without charges through the end of the year.
With airlines still dealing with staffing issues, wait times to speak to a representative can be hours long. If you want to cancel over the phone, you can review some tricks for getting through faster at tinyurl.com/bdfvnb66. Your best bet may be trying the airline through their online chats, text or social media.
— Canceling a hotel
Hotels have very different cancellation policies because big chains operate differently from independent and boutique businesses. For example, at Hilton, cancellation policies can change based on the rate or dates you booked. Marriott also advises customers to check cancellation policies on a rate by rate basis. Hyatt hotels says its properties may adjust their cancellation policies during high-demand periods, so guests are encouraged to review cancellation, deposit and refund policies for the specific dates they have booked.
What you’re able to do will come down to the terms at the time you booked.
Are you striking out when you try to negotiate a refund with the hotel? Keyes says that when all else fails, call your credit card company.
“Every credit card and bank has a process where you can dispute a charge if you’ve paid for something and you didn’t receive that service,” Keyes says.
Card protections are in place for these very reasons, although there are limits to what a credit card dispute can get you. Keyes uses this step as a last resort, because the process can be more of a bureaucratic hassle than going to a merchant directly.
— Canceling an Airbnb
Airbnb instituted more flexible booking policies on listings earlier this year, but a coronavirus surge doesn’t guarantee you a refund. Normally, getting your money back from an Airbnb is between you and the host.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Airbnb did adjust its policies to adapt to the new reality. Now Airbnb says the majority of listings have “flexible or moderate cancellation policies, both of which allow for full refunds of the nightly rate for cancellations made at least five days prior to check-in, regardless of the circumstances.”
While Airbnb created a COVID-19 Extenuating Circumstances policy, it says reservations for stays and experiences after March 14, 2020 aren’t covered “except where the guest or host is currently sick with COVID-19.”
Note what the policy does not cover: “transportation disruptions and cancellations; travel advisories and restrictions; health advisories and quarantines; changes to applicable law; and other government mandates — like evacuation orders, border closures, prohibitions on short-term rentals, and shelter-in-place requirements.”
As The Washington Post has reported before, it is not impossible to get an Airbnb host to give you a refund outside of the listing’s policies. While hosts might not be obligated to make any exceptions, you can still ask nicely and may end up getting what you want.
— Canceling a rental car
Luckily, most rental cars offer refundable reservations.
Your refund may depend on whether you prepaid for your reservation. With companies like Enterprise and Alamo, if you didn’t prepay, you will not be charged a cancellation fee. If you already paid, you will get hit with a cancellation fee that varies by your timing.
— Canceling a cruise
The pandemic has led to changes in many cruise booking and cancellation policies. As a result, Ball said, it’s easier now to make changes without incurring extra fees. Deposits may be nonrefundable, but you may be able to get a voucher to use at a later date.
“If a risk-free guarantee policy was in place when the reservation was made, it is not difficult to change the reservation by contacting the cruise line,” Ball said. “It’s even easier if you have a travel adviser who will take care of you and make those changes and arrangements for you.”