Is It Safe to Book Winter Holiday Travel Now?

If you’re itching to plan a post-lockdown vacation, these tips can help minimize the risk that your trip might be canceled.

We’ve skipped our spring-break vacays, and we’ve canceled our summer trips. But is it finally safe to start scheduling our winter getaways? Or will we just end up on the phone with customer service, haggling over deposits again? No one knows for sure what will happen, of course. Even when stay-at-home orders are lifted, some places won’t fully reopen, and there may be a second wave of the novel coronavirus that hits in the fall. In general, the future is still very uncertain. But travel experts have some ideas of what we can probably expect—and how you can plan a trip that’s less likely to be canceled.

Focus on domestic travel

There’s been an uptick in travel bookings for November through February, according to Nicolas Bergengruen, cofounder of Jubel, a personalized experiential travel planning company. But is it a good idea? It depends on where you’re going. Bergengruen suggests that travelers stick with destinations within the United States like Arizona, Utah, Hawaii, and Oregon, as these are all spots where social distancing is relatively easy and outbreak numbers might be significantly lower than in other places. “In the U.S. specifically, the sentiment is to enjoy the many national parks, interesting cities, the desert, or the coasts that have had some room to breathe during this pandemic and are ready to be explored responsibly, rather than going abroad with still so much relative uncertainty,” Bergengruen says. These are the states hardest hit by coronavirus.

Look into “backyard travel”

There are plenty of opportunities for staying local and still having a blast. For example, you can hop in the car for a weekend road trip, stay in the city, or check out one of the national parks when they reopen, says Jennifer Dienst, a travel designer with Row33 Travel Co. “There are some fabulous home-rental companies, like OneFineStay and Luxury Retreats, and many hotels and resorts have amazing villas, cabins, and homes on [the] property if a client wants their own standalone space along with resort amenities,” she says. Your trip is safer if you’re not going too far since you won’t have to worry about a flight. That said, you should still consider the refund policies of the rental companies, which vary widely. Since we don’t know yet if another wave of COVID-19 is yet to come, it’s important to make sure you can get your money back if necessary.

Make sure there’s flexibility

If you decide to book, you first need to understand deposit and refund policies, says McLean Robbins, founder of Lily Pond Luxury, a full-service luxury travel advertising practice based in Washington, D.C. Every airline and hotel has its own policy, so you’ll need to do your due diligence. Look specifically at the fine print: How many days in advance will you have to cancel in order to receive a refund? Is it a full refund? Do you only get a refund if travel is outright canceled by the local government? As we learned from this round of cancellations, there’s no uniform refund response. Everything is up in the air, so it’s up to you to do your research before booking. Here are more thoughts on when it will make sense to travel again.

Think about booking closer to your desired travel date

Travel refunds are tricky, Dienst notes because they are constantly changing, depending on the supplier. “For example, I’m now hearing reports of travelers unable to get refunds from hotels in Italy on refundable bookings,” she says. “I think it’s wise to keep a close eye on the financial health of suppliers and airlines right now, both domestic and international.” That’s why you may want to book later, closer to your travel date, even if the offers available now are amazing. Some of the airlines or hotels might fold, and if they do, getting your refund will become even more difficult. Essentially, booking now for winter travel is a gamble: You’ll get a fantastic price, but it’s a risky move.

Consider less populated states

Less populated states are likely to reopen first, so we may see a lot of people looking to visit destinations like Montana or other Western states where it’s easier to practice social distancing, says Lauren Doyle, EVP of The Travel Mechanic, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, a consortium of more than 700 independent travel advisors in the United States and Canada. “Major cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago will likely not be fully open by the fall in terms of theater and cultural experiences, so those looking for the full city experience are most likely going to postpone that kind of trip anyway,” Doyle says. Plus, since densely populated areas are more susceptible to an outbreak, it’s a safer bet to book travel in places with fewer people. Take it one step further by choosing a place you can get to via driving rather than flying.

Check the status of the destination

If you have your heart set on international travel, only consider countries that have seemingly contained the virus, suggests Mark Whitman, founder of Mountain IQ, which helps travelers book hiking holidays. “For example, parts of Asia seem to be over the worst, and assuming they don’t have a second peak, then travel there is worth considering,” he says. Still, nothing is certain yet—and the status of a destination can change at a moment’s notice. If you’re looking for the safest option, it’s still best to wait until the last minute to book a big trip unless your travel is 100 percent refundable.

Opt for an outdoor trip

Focus on travel excursions that don’t involve groups or big crowds and are predominately outdoor-focused, Whitman says. He suggests trekking and safari holidays versus Disney World or a packaged European holiday. The larger the crowds, the higher the risk. For some inspiration, check out these 15 panoramic webcams that let you virtually travel the world.

Remember that every government is different

Different governments have given different timelines on when we’ll be allowed to travel freely again. “For the time being, keep safe at home and follow the updates to stay informed on what’s going on in the world of travel,” says Will Hatton, founder and CEO of The Broke Backpacker. Right now, there are no countries open to U.S. visitors for tourism purposes, but the restrictions are expected to ease by summer. Spots like the Caribbean haven’t been hit very hard, so that could be a smart choice for winter travel. Already, places like South Korea will allow you to travel there, as long as you undergo a 14-day quarantine, according to the New York Times.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at www.Daniellebraff.com. You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.