The coronavirus pandemic has been a part of our world for over a year, and during that time, we’ve had to adjust the way we go about our daily lives — from dining out with friends to seeing family and traveling for vacation. Even now, with vaccines readily available, many rules about traveling internationally change weekly and some people remain unsure about safety when flying.
However, with the holiday season coming up and restrictions on international visitors to the US being lifted soon, demand is expected to pick up again, so now may be the time to start looking at your travel plans for the November and December holidays. Regardless of whether you’re planning to go abroad or just across the country, here are five reasons you may want to get to booking your flights now.
1. Most flights can now be changed for free
There aren’t many silver linings to the pandemic cloud we’ve been living under, 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 most domestic tickets and 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 the year — specifically, Dec. 31 for Delta and United. American, however, is not allowing newly purchased basic economy tickets to be changed without a fee. That means even if you generally book the cheapest fares with Delta and United, you can safely book holiday travel and then change it later if it becomes necessary.
(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 end up traveling for the holidays. 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
After a major increase in travel over the summer, demand ratcheted back down in the fall, so airlines are eager to get people back to booking travel again. And even if 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 — especially around the holiday season.
What kinds of deals can you get? Well, just as an example, as of this writing, New Yorkers can get themselves to Los Angeles for just $171 round trip around the Thanksgiving holiday. And for those on the West Coast looking for a getaway to Hawaii, there are nonstop flights around the December holidays from both Los Angeles and San Francisco to destinations in the Hawaiian islands from $318 round trip with Alaska Airlines.
With a number of international borders now reopen and several countries welcoming fully vaccinated Americans, you could even consider a trip abroad. The United Kingdom no longer requires a quarantine or a pre-departure Covid-19 test for fully vaccinated Americans — though you will need to prebook and take a Covid-19 test within the first two days of arrival. Right now we’re also seeing round-trip fares from New York to London in December from $590 with JetBlue.
Alternatively, many destinations in the Caribbean have been long open to Americans. As of this writing, we’re seeing round-trip flights from Miami to Montego Bay, Jamaica, for $214 with American over the Thanksgiving holiday.
To find cheap airfares, use either 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 could be the time to use them. While award availability is generally more open than it has been in years as airlines try to fill seats, you may have more trouble finding availability around the holidays. Before committing to buying a ticket outright using cash, we recommend checking to see if you can find availability to use those points and miles. Put aside some time to search the airline’s website and see what sorts of mileage deals appear.
3. Demand for travel to the US is picking up
On Sept. 20, the US announced that for the first time since March 2020, noncitizens coming from Europe, the UK, Ireland, China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa and India will be allowed to enter the country. International passengers must be fully vaccinated in order to gain entry to the US, but the decision marks a major step forward in the reopening of the US to tourism.
The anticipated pent-up demand from noncitizens who haven’t been able to enter the US since before the pandemic began to see family, to see friends or to vacation in the country is already being felt. Virgin Atlantic reported a 600% increase in bookings to the US after the announcement, with the biggest jump coming from travel to New York.
As demand from these travelers increases, great airfares and award availability are likely to taper off around the holiday season. 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 planes are likely to be more full than they are right now.
4. Travel credit cards can protect you if you get sick
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 travel home for the holidays.
5. Give yourself something to look forward to
It’s been another tough year, and many people still haven’t seen their families in a long time. As the holiday season approaches — and it will be here before we know it — this could prove to be the perfect opportunity to return home or head away on a vacation.
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.
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 and up to 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 holiday 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.