While Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas trees are probably the furthest thoughts from your mind, a rule of thumb in booking travel is to look two seasons ahead for the best deals. So, with summer winding down, it’s in your budget’s best interest to start thinking about your winter travel plans.
“Just as swimsuits are cheapest in the winter and down coats are cheapest in the summer, so, too, are cheap winter holiday flights most likely to pop up now-ish,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of “Take More Vacations.” “If you wait until October to book flights, your odds of getting a good deal will be slim.”
While it is exceedingly difficult to predict the pandemic’s trajectory, people seem more willing to roll the dice on holiday travel plans this year than they were last year. According to booking data from Guesty, a vacation rental management software company, November and December reservation volume for 2021 is already higher than it was in both 2020 and 2019.
To help start wrapping our heads around holiday travel logistics, we spoke to health and travel experts to get their latest insights.
Plan with pandemic precautions in mind, even if you’re vaccinated
Brian C. Castrucci, the president and chief executive of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health charity, said thinking through pandemic precautions should be as important as focusing on trip details such as hotels and restaurants for the foreseeable future.
“You may feel safer going to a place where they have a mask mandate or where they’re enforcing indoor masking versus a place that doesn’t,” Castrucci said.
As you decide where and whether to go, Castrucci encourages travelers to look up their destinations’ local mandates, vaccination rates and hospitalization rates. One tool he recommended is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s county-level coronavirus data tracker .
For now, Castrucci said he is not discouraging vaccinated people from traveling the rest of the year. “If you’re vaccinated and you follow some basic common sense precautions, it’s still safe to travel,” he said.
Castrucci said it’s even more important to reduce risks for unvaccinated children, people with underlying conditions and the elderly. “I would say maybe you should go see Grandma instead of bringing Grandma to you,” he said.
Some of Castrucci’s harm-reduction strategies include choosing to drive rather than fly to your holiday destination, avoiding indoor dining, masking whenever you’re inside or in crowded settings, staying in places where you can avoid taking elevators with strangers, continuing to social distance, and calling establishments in advance to see what coronavirus rules they have in place.
Castrucci’s main piece of advice, though, is more straightforward: “If you’re planning any travel in the next few months, you’ve got to make sure that you’re vaccinated and anyone in your family who can be vaccinated is vaccinated.”
Be prepared for expensive transportation and lodging
Despite concerns over the delta variant’s surge, travel-industry pricing trends look a lot like they did before the pandemic, according to a consumer airfare index report from the travel booking app Hopper. That means airfare should be cheaper for trips in the shoulder season (think early fall for better deals) and expensive for flights departing right around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you’re hoping to find those crazy-cheap travel deals we saw in 2020, don’t get your hopes up.
“Don’t expect airfares to be so cheap, or hotels to be cheap, or rental cars,” said Elizabeth Blount McCormick, president of international travel management company Uniglobe Travel Designers. “The hospitality industry lost billions of dollars, so they’re not giving you a deal.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be strategic with your holiday travel planning. Alisa Cohen, founder of the Virtuoso travel agency Luxe Traveler Club, said if you can be flexible with your holiday travel dates, planning a trip or family gathering outside of Dec. 18 to Jan. 5 can save you a bunch.
Or, instead of tinkering with your dates, rethink your destinations: While Thanksgiving is one of the most expensive times to travel domestically, Keyes said, it is the best week for deals on international flights.
Reserve a rental car now
While the rental car situation has leveled out in some parts of the country, not everyone has seen an improvement.
“It’s just awful,” Blount McCormick said, citing recent headaches in booking cars for clients traveling to Martha’s Vineyard. “The supply is so low, and the demand is high.”
To be safe, those who need a rental car for holiday travel should book their reservation as far out as possible to get a good rate.
Consider travel insurance, but know what it covers
To prepare for the worst, purchase coronavirus-specific travel insurance if you’re planning any big trips for the holidays. You don’t need it for a flight across the country to stay with family, but you should cover an expensive beach vacation that you have to pay for upfront.
It’s important to remember, however, that travel insurance won’t protect you from every pandemic worry.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand that,” Cohen said. “They’re buying travel insurance thinking that it will cover everything that changes, and there are a lot of covid limitations.”
Look for coverage that offers protection in case you get sick before the trip or during it. Unless you get “Cancel for Any Reason” coverage, a policy won’t help with the cost of canceling a trip over coronavirus worries, nor if borders close to the destination you would like to visit.
Do your homework to find out exactly what different policies include to ensure you’re getting a beneficial plan for your trip.
Don’t book anything you can’t cancel or change
Travelers around the world are still lamenting the money they lost on trips they had planned for 2020. You can avoid that expensive frustration, though, by booking holiday travel with flexibility in mind.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in a couple of months. This is dynamic,” Castrucci said. “This is not over, and until we can bring protection to everyone through vaccination, there is going to be a risk.”
Jen Moyse, senior director of product for the travel app TripIt, encouraged travelers to remember that “new mandates may require changes in travel plans, so look for flexible booking options and wiggle room in cancellation policies,” she said in an email. “For example, if you’re searching vacation rentals, look for options that allow cancellations and full refunds closer toward the trip stay.”
Her other word of warning: “Keep in mind that some cancellation policies do not refund service fees, so read the fine print.”
Keyes said air travelers are in a better position for flexibility, since most airlines are offering free changes on all flights booked in main economy or higher.
To avoid potential cancellation fees, meanwhile, Keyes recommends booking your holiday flights now, while fares are cheaper, with frequent flier miles. While details can vary from airline to airline, doing so should mean that if something doesn’t work out with your plans down the line, you’ll be able to cancel your award flight and get your miles back, without any extra fees.