TripIt is teaming up with our friends at Thrifty Traveler, a site that helps you travel more for less, to share strategies for booking 2021 travel.
I don’t need to tell you that 2020 has been a hard year for travel. Heck, it’s been a hard year, period.
Most of us travelers have been grounded for months. And while we can’t wait to take to the skies again, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic can make it difficult to plan. But I’ve had a mantra for months that I keep coming back to: Book now, travel later.
While it might feel like now is the worst time to be an avid traveler, it might actually be a good time to be booking flights for 2021 and beyond. Here’s why.
Low (and Ultra-Low) Fares
When the pandemic first brought travel to a near halt, a common question bubbled up: Will airlines eventually be forced to raise prices?
So far, the opposite has been true: Many flights are cheaper than ever. And not just to get on a plane next week or next month, but for fares as far as 11 months in advance—out to November 2021 and beyond. At Thrifty Traveler, we spend all day, every day trying to find the cheapest flights possible. And the flight deals we’ve been finding over the last several weeks are—as they say of these times—unprecedented.
How cheap is cheap?
Domestically, major airlines like Delta, American, United, and Southwest have been reducing airfare prices for popular winter and spring vacation destinations. Think discounted flights to Phoenix (PHX), Las Vegas (LAS), Southern California, and the Florida coast. In just the last few weeks, we’ve seen:
- Nationwide flights to Phoenix for around $80 roundtrip
- Flights to Las Vegas down as low as $50 roundtrip through the spring and even into summer 2021
The savings go beyond the States. Earlier this month, American Airlines launched a massive fare sale to the U.S. Virgin Islands, with flights from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), and all the major East Coast cities for less than $100 roundtrip. Those flights are typically closer to $600 or more, according to Thrifty Traveler’s records.
In November, Delta briefly sold roundtrip flights through next October to Santiago de Chile (SCL) for as low as $63 roundtrip. No, I didn’t miss a zero.
We’ve even seen deeply discounted sales to Europe in the middle of summer 2021, with flights scratching the surface of $300 to $400 roundtrip from cities small and large alike—and sometimes even less. Those prices are typically unthinkable, but as we all know, these aren’t normal times.
Now, this doesn’t mean every single flight you search for will be discounted. But the one-off flash sales from airlines are more plentiful and widespread than any time in recent memory. If you’re flexible, you can score the deal of a lifetime—literally—to travel again next year.
Flexible Change and Cancellation Policies
Booking a flight for next year’s vacation doesn’t have to feel like a gamble.
Since the early days of the pandemic, airlines big and small have responded to the uncertainty clouding travel by offering some unprecedented flexibility to change or cancel almost any plane ticket.
“Booking a flight for next year’s vacation doesn’t have to feel like a gamble.”
While the rules vary, for most U.S. airlines if you book any fare before Dec. 31, you can change it without paying a fee. Or cancel your ticket outright and you can get a voucher for the value of your ticket to use on another trip. American has extended their worry-free booking window to January 2021; both Delta and United have extended it until the end of March.
It doesn’t matter if you’re booking flights for next month or next October: You’ve got an escape hatch to change or cancel your trip without losing your money should you not feel comfortable to fly. It takes a lot of the guesswork and risk out of booking a trip for next year. Even the cheapest basic economy fares qualify.
Monitor all of your future travel plans in TripIt.
In the meantime, airlines have made some even bigger, long-term moves. One after another, nearly every major U.S. airline eliminated change fees on most domestic flights this summer … for good. And just recently, American, Delta and United took it a step further by axing change fees for most international fares, too. In this case, those changes don’t cover the cheapest basic economy fares.
Feeling ready to start booking flights? Keep a few things in mind:
- Booking directly with an airline will make it more straightforward to change or cancel your flights, if necessary.
- Look for similar flexibility in your accommodations, such as hotels or vacation rentals with full refund policies.
- Make sure your other travel plans offer flexibility in their cancellation or refund policies, or wait until closer to your trip to book. You don’t want to saddle yourself with a bunch of nonrefundable trip expenses in case your trip doesn’t pan out.
- Consider sticking with U.S.-based airlines (or airlines based in your home country). Why? If you need to cancel your flight, it’ll be much easier to use up any vouchers or flight credits the next time you plan travel.
- Consider booking with a credit card. If something goes seriously awry (and I’m not saying this is likely), booking with a credit card is your best bet to easily get your money back.
The ability to change or cancel most flights for free is a great source of comfort for travelers to score a bargain. But there might be an even better way to book travel right now.
Use Your Miles Instead
Using miles takes the flexibility of booking a flight now and turns it up to an 11. That’s because many airlines are also allowing free cancellation to any award ticket. Get your miles (and any cash you paid in taxes or surcharges) right back to your account without paying a big fee. It can be much simpler than trying to use up an airline voucher.
- American Airlines recently ditched its usual $150 cancellation fee on award tickets. Previously, this was a perk reserved only for flyers with top elite status.
- Delta allows full refunds of any SkyMiles award ticket booked by March 30, 2021—and canceling online is easy.
- Southwest has always allowed free change and cancellation whether you use cash or points, so using your Rapid Rewards points is a safe bet.
Many other airlines have temporarily gotten rid of their usual “redeposit fees” when canceling an award ticket to get your miles back.
Track your points and miles with Point Tracker in TripIt Pro.
Tip: Point Tracker in TripIt Pro stores your reward account numbers, balances, and expiration dates in one place. The feature has been recently redesigned with an improved view of your point balances and history to help you manage your reward programs.
Looking to splurge with your miles for a fancy business or first class seat next year? While booking these expensive seats was a challenge a year ago, the availability to book some of the world’s best business class seats using miles is currently unparalleled—and just one example of the dozens of cases Thrifty Traveler has found to use points and miles.
For example, hitching a ride in a Qatar Airways Qsuite (one of the world’s best business class seats complete with a fully-closing door for unrivaled privacy while you sleep in a lie-flat bed) is typically challenging when using miles—and paying in cash would cost a small fortune. But you can currently book Qsuites for two from many U.S. cities to the Middle East most days next summer through the fall of 2021 for just 70,000 American AAdvantage miles apiece.
Thanks to widespread flight deals, flexibility to change or cancel, and some unprecedented ability to use your miles, thinking about travel in 2021 just got a little more exciting.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by TripIt. The author may include references to products from advertisers. For an explanation of this contributor’s advertising disclosure, please click here.