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Here’s how to change, cancel or even book upcoming travel plans

Taking a trip is the last thing on many people’s minds.

Roughly 94 million Americans have cancelled or plan on canceling travel plans due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent survey by personal finance site WalletHub.

Given the circumstances, many airlines are relaxing cancellation policies and major hotel chains are waiving fees.

“There is pretty unprecedented flexibility from all travel providers right now,” said Melanie Lieberman, travel editor for The Points Guy.

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However, reimbursements can range from full refunds to travel vouchers for a future trip, depending on the airline, hotel or tour operator. Sometimes, the type of reimbursement varies depending on the customer service representative you speak to.

“There is no consistency, which is part of the problem,” Lieberman said.

To successfully navigate unbooking a trip — or even snagging a deal for future travel — experts offer this advice:

1. Go directly to the source. If you would like a refund on an upcoming trip, reach out to the airline carrier or hotel directly. AmericanDelta, JetBlue and United have suspended change and cancellation fees for now. Hilton, Marriott and Airbnb have also relaxed their restrictions. 

Keep in mind that other refund policies are continuously changing so your best move may be to “sit tight and wait,” according to Lieberman.

It is likely that the airline or hotel will become more flexible as the departure date approaches, she said.

Further, if your flight is ultimately canceled, passengers are then eligible for a refund as opposed to a travel credit.

Frans Sellies

If you booked through a travel site, such as Expedia, check the individual policies for each airline and hotel.

“Actual hotels, airlines and cruise ships own the cancellation policies,” said Yatin Patel, CEO of Reservations.com.

“Online travel agencies like Reservations.com, Expedia, Booking.com and travel agents have no choice other than to abide by their policies.”

Otherwise, your credit card may offer benefits, as well, such as cancellation protections.

2. Follow up — but nicely. If you are canceling your plans but not getting the type of compensation you would prefer, follow up in an email, phone call or message through the app — sometimes just talking to a sympathetic agent or trying a different avenue could yield different results, Lieberman said.

But be compassionate in your persistence, she added.

“These customer service agents are dealing with an unprecedented number of calls,” Lieberman said. “Being kind is really your best recourse right now.”

Being kind is really your best recourse right now.

Melanie Lieberman

travel editor for The Points Guy

3. Accept credit. Amid the spread of COVID-19, the travel industry has been among the hardest hit.

Rather than trying to get a refund, consider taking a credit for future travel, especially if you are booking with an independent tour operator or a boutique hotel, Lieberman said.

These businesses are suffering and opting to reschedule or accepting a voucher for a date down the road is a way to offer a lifeline.

“It is almost like a small business loan and it is one way to show support for the travel industry,” Lieberman said.  

4. Shop for deals. Similarly, “if you are thinking about a dream vacation, maybe now is the time to look for deals,” Lieberman advised.

Currently, “most of the travel industry has gone into hibernation,” Lieberman said. However, “we expect that when we get out of this, we will see a lot of deals,” she added.

Already, many airlines and hotels are slashing prices to spur demand. (Even luxury resorts are suddenly surprisingly affordable.)

Sunset from the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora.

ShutterRunner.com (Matty Wolin) | Moment | Getty Images

But proceed with caution: It is nearly impossible to know whether a flight booked today will be available in a few months, or even weeks, as well as what the travel restrictions could be then.

Before you book, review the cancellation policies and any fees that may apply.

A lot of airlines are building in more flexible options on future travel and some websites are trying to make it easier to understand the fine print.

Kayak, for example, is adding a filter to show which providers offer free cancellations (in the form of travel credits) and those waiving the change or cancellation fees.

5. Consider travel insurance. Buying travel insurance is another way to account for the uncertainty that something could happen before your next trip, including flight suspensions or having to cancel your plans.

However, if you decide you just don’t want to go after all, that’s not typically covered by the standard policy. In that case, you would need a “cancel for any reason” rider, which lets you off the hook up to 48 hours before departure.

“If you see a deal you can’t resist, now is a great time to consider one of those policies,” according to Lieberman.

Buying the “CFAR” benefit does cost extra. Expect to pay about 50% more than a typical travel insurance policy. In return, you’ll get about 75% of your trip reimbursed – plus peace of mind.

“That’s the kind of policy that can protect you if things get even crazier around here,” Lieberman said.

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