What to Know About Booking Holiday Travel in 2020

It's not too early to come up with a plan—just make sure it's one with some flexibility.

With so much going on right now, it can be hard to think ahead to booking holiday travel. But thanks to all the new regulations and policies enacted because of COVID-19, it’s not too early to start making plans for any upcoming trips for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Kwanzaa, or the other festivities of the season. Here’s what you need to know now about booking everything from flights to car rentals, to hotels and travel insurance for the 2020 holiday season.

Flights

The global pandemic has completely changed the air travel industry, meaning that this year’s holiday travel season will be unlike any other. With COVID-19 outbreaks constantly popping up in different parts of the country, is it even safe to fly this year? (Here’s what one nurse has to say on that matter.) And if so, when should you book your trips?

First of all, with so much uncertainty, there’s no way to definitively predict what travel restrictions will look like in November and December. It is, however, safe to say that agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will continue to recommend avoiding air travel if at all possible, and checking on local travel restrictions in your destination.

But for those who plan to fly over the holidays, pandemic or not, it’s important to keep in mind how you can stay safe during your flight, as well as when to book. According to Jesse Neugarten, the founder of Dollar Flight Club, a subscription service using data to monitor flight prices, the short answer is that you should book flights right now. “Airlines have usually sold a huge percentage of available seats for holiday airfare at this point in the year, but due to the pandemic and travel restrictions that just isn’t happening,” he tells Reader’s Digest.

Though many airlines have cut back the number of planes and routes they fly, Neugarten says that we can expect airlines to bring some of those back at a slow pace as travel demands start to rebound, because airlines want to make sure they focus on revenue-generating flights. To get a preview of what your holiday travel might look like, take a look at these photos that show the “new normal” of air travel.

And expect prices to be lower than usual for both Thanksgiving and December holidays, Neugarten adds. “We’ve seen some of the cheapest peak season fares this year than we’ve seen in over a decade,” he explains. “In a recent study, we found that airfare prices for both international and domestic flights worldwide will decrease by 35 percent on average through 2021 and then sharply increase 27 percent on average (above 2019 levels) through 2025 as demand rebounds.” On top of that, Kelly Soderlund, travel trends expert at TripIt, recommends trying to fly either on the holiday or the Monday of the holiday if you’re looking to avoid crowds.

In addition to reduced prices, those who opt to fly for the holiday season also have the benefit of cancellation policies that are far more flexible than previous years. “Airlines have made historically rapid updates to their change and cancellation policies to adjust for the pandemic,” Neugarten says. “Policy changes vary by airline and can range from free flight vouchers for canceled flights, waived change fees on new itineraries, or full refunds on existing bookings. At the end of the day, we currently live in a time where we have risk free airfare booking, unlike anything we’ve seen with no change fees or cancellation fees.”

Airport parking

If you typically drive to the airport and park there, it’s also time to start planning that part of your holiday travel. Like flights, this is another case of booking sooner rather than later. And like some airlines, which have made cutbacks to their routes, airport parking is now operating in a more limited capacity, Jeff Foland, CEO of The Parking Spot tells Reader’s Digest. Once you’ve booked your flight, he recommends booking your airport parking spot online three to six weeks before you travel to get the best rate. Plus, “booking flexibility isn’t reserved for airlines,” Foland notes, explaining that many airport parking companies now offer additional ways to cancel bookings or modify travel dates. Want to know more about what travel looks like right now? A flight attendant shares what it’s really like to fly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bus and train travel

Like the other types of holiday travel, it’s best to book your bus and train trips as soon as possible, Staffo Dobrev, budget travel expert at bus and train booking platform Wanderu tells Reader’s Digest. “That’s especially true during the holiday season when a large number of people hit the road, and buses, trains, and flights sell out pretty quickly,” he explains. “While it is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has kept prices across all modes of transportation relatively cheap—even for last-minute bookings due to a drop in the number of people traveling—that will most likely not be the case during the holidays.”

With states continuing to ease restrictions and travelers becoming more comfortable going on trips, Dobrev says that it’s expected that prices will climb the closer we get to Thanksgiving and the December holidays. Being flexible with your travel dates can also be helpful when it comes to avoiding crowds and keeping your budget tight, he adds.

And don’t forget to look at a company’s cancellation policies before booking anything. “Fortunately, many travel operators have recently introduced flexible change and cancellation policies that allow you to have some peace of mind,” Dobrev says. “While you most probably won’t get a refund, you would be able to change the date of your trip or keep the money you spent as credit that you can apply toward a future trip with the same company.” Finally, take a look at the train and bus companies’ social distancing policies before booking anything to ensure you’ll be safe on board. It’s too early to tell if bus and train travel will become more popular as people avoid flying, but here’s what we do know about what travel could look like after coronavirus.

Hotels

When it comes to booking hotels for the upcoming holiday season, Bruce Rosenberg, president of the Americas for HotelPlanner, says there are two different approaches. The first is to shop now and book the hotel once you find the right one, ensuring that the room can be canceled prior to arrival without penalty. The second is to shop now to get an idea of the rates, but hold off on booking until around two weeks before your trip.

“You may want to consider a prepay rate if you know your travel plans are 100 percent solid,” Rosenberg tells Reader’s Digest. One exception to this is if you plan on booking a stay at a resort for the end-of-December holidays: Rosenberg says that these rooms will book up quickly, so you should consider making your reservations earlier rather than later, and, again, making sure your rate is cancellable/refundable.

According to Rosenberg, the current trend is for travelers to stay in suburbs versus major downtown hotels. “Travelers are booking smaller hotels versus big-box hotels,” he explains. “Hotels in the three-star range are proving very attractive these days—[they have a] smaller number of rooms, easier parking, less public space, and good rates.”

And while at this point, the vast majority of hotels and motels have already implemented enhanced COVID cleaning procedures, you still may want to look for those with safer check-in policies. “Select hotels have no-contact check-in procedures, some of which let you bypass the registration desk altogether if you have a credit card on file, and social distancing mandates in public areas are pretty much universal at this point,” Jeff Klee, CEO of travel booking platform Qtrip tells Reader’s Digest. “It’s worth doing a little research if you have serious concerns or health challenges that add an extra layer of caution to your planning because often you can find a hotel that goes above and beyond.” If you are going the hotel route, take a look at these things you shouldn’t do at reopened hotels.

Vacation rentals

Even with hotels enacting new cleaning and social distancing policies, vacation rentals have continued to be a popular option during the pandemic, and Soderlund recommends booking this type of accommodation as soon as possible for the holiday season. This is especially true if you are looking for a larger home, according to Jennifer Frost, senior operations manager at vacation rental management company Vacasa.

“Our booking window has changed a lot in general, with more people booking closer to their vacation, but if you are looking for a bigger home for Thanksgiving you’ll still want to book months or even a year in advance,” Frost tells Reader’s Digest. “For condos—which are often easier to come by, but don’t offer the extra space of a large home—you can probably get away with booking 30 to 90 days in advance.” In other words, if your holiday plans involve a vacation rental, that’s something you need to look into immediately. But are Airbnbs actually safer than hotels? Here’s what you need to know.

Car rentals

When it comes to holiday car rentals, shopping around is key. Dana Marineau, consumer and money-saving expert at shopping rewards program Rakuten, recommends comparing prices on the car rental companies’ individual websites, as well as on aggregated booking sites such as Expedia to see who has the best deal. Like flights, there can be a benefit of booking early. “Many rental car companies will reward travelers with lower prices for their advance planning, as it helps car companies estimate demand,” Liana Corwin, consumer travel expert for booking site Hopper tells Reader’s Digest. Also similar to air travel, car rentals now come with improved cancellation policies, which is one of six ways car rental companies have changed forever.

And if you have some flexibility, check to see if there is a price difference between booking a car at an airport, versus other locations. Finally, while it may be tempting to use points to book a vehicle for the holidays, they don’t always offer the best bang for your buck. “Don’t be too quick to use your hard-earned travel rewards points for car rentals as you don’t always get the best point conversion rates,” Marineau tells Reader’s Digest.

RV rentals

So far, 2020 has been an unprecedented year for RV travel, with VacationRenter reporting a 350 percent increase in RV rental searches during the pandemic. This trend is expected to continue throughout the holiday season, which means that you’re going to want to act fast if you plan to book an RV rental and/or a campsite, according to Zander Buteux, the head of organic growth for VacationRenter. When booking, he suggests looking for discounts if you’d like to opt for a longer stay. “Most travelers will rent for only three to four days, but many owners offer deals for longer trips,” he tells Reader’s Digest.

Buteux strongly recommends calling campsites and parks ahead of time to secure a reservation in advance. “That way you can ensure you get the campsite you want for your trip and it reduces some stress having a solid itinerary before you hit the road,” he explains. Finally, he suggests asking the following questions for every RV rental situation:

  1. What’s the expected fuel efficiency?

  2. Which type of fuel does it require – gasoline or diesel?

  3. When was the last time the vehicle was serviced? Any quirks in operation I should know?

  4. How does the RV handle in snowy conditions? What about forest roads?

  5. Can you show me how to fill and drain your plumbing system?

  6. Can you tell me where the ground power cable is for when I’m in an RV park?

Travel insurance

If you’re usually on the fence when it comes to booking travel insurance, it may be something to seriously consider for the 2020 holiday travel season, given all the uncertainty thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the experts at The Points Guy, even though there is more flexibility in terms of cancellations right now, it wouldn’t hurt to have travel insurance this year—specifically, a comprehensive cancel-for-any-reason (CFAR) trip insurance policy.

“The holidays are an unpredictable time to travel, with severe weather and seasonal illness adding to a list of concerns ahead of this year’s unprecedented holiday season,” Daniel Durazo, marketing and communications director at Allianz tells Reader’s Digest. “It’s important to plan ahead and look for travel insurance with trip cancellation and travel delay benefits, which can reimburse you for non-refundable, prepaid trip costs if you have to cancel or interrupt a trip for a covered reason or experience a significant delay while traveling.” Next, read on to find out all the ways the holidays will look different in 2020.

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Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.