Can You Trust Those “Book Now, Fly Later” Promotions?

Months of staring at the same four walls is a powerful motivator to book one of the rock bottom airfares available right now. But are they legit? Here's how to tell a good deal from a scam, and where to find some of the best airfare prices around.

We get it, you’re bored at home and the wanderlust has hit hard. Then you see an ad for an unbelievable flight deal and you’re pretty darn tempted. Here’s what you need to know before you click “book.”

Read the rules

“Before you commit to anything, read every bit of fine print attached to that fare,” warns Daisy Miller, who owns Forest Lake Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Columbia, South Carolina. “Change waivers and exclusions vary widely by airline and aren’t necessarily part of every fare.” American Airlines, for instance, is offering fares to the Caribbean for under $200. But read closely and you’ll see that since seats are only offered in Basic Economy, they’re not eligible for the change fee waiver that applies to other higher fares. You can’t choose your seats at the time of booking either, which could be a real problem for families traveling with small children. If you feel the need to cancel all together and don’t want e-credits to use on a future flight, these tips will improve your chances of getting a refund when you get in touch with your airline.

Check dates twice

A quick scan of British Airways’ web site shows a plethora of round trip flights to London available for well under $700, all under a banner proclaiming the airline’s flexible change policy, which waives change fees on travel through April 2021. Book a ticket for May 2021, and, although the banner still appears, a quick scroll to the bottom of the page reveals that a change fee of $275 will apply to any modification to the itinerary.

Determine the true price of your ticket

Don’t press “Book” until you’ve done the math: add-ons—confirmed seats (often a must for families), carry-on luggage, checked luggage, and even printing your ticket at the airline’s kiosk in the airport—could drive the price of your ticket well past what you thought you were paying. “This is one way a travel advisor can save you money,” notes Marion Huiberts, travel advisor and independent affiliate of Travel Edge, A Virtuoso Agency in southern California. “There are no surprises.” You’ll also want to know 13 secrets airlines won’t tell you.

Join the airline’s frequent flyer program

Frequent flyer benefits can go well beyond earning miles toward future travel. Travelers between the ages of 18 and 22 who join United’s program, for instance, are eligible for exclusive discounts; while all frequent fliers get early notice about fare specials. According to Huiberts, becoming a member of an airline’s loyalty program can also give you a slight leg up should something go wrong during your trip. “There’s absolutely no downside—and they’re free to join” she notes.

Stay informed

This ever-changing list of countries that won’t allow Americans to enter (or require a negative test for COVID-19) isn’t the only thing that can muck up your travel plans: Within the United States, some locales are requiring certain visitors to quarantine as well. Even the most discounted airfare is no bargain if you have to spend a long-awaited vacation quarantining in your hotel room.

toy airplane on calendar backgroundgyro/Getty Images

Look closely at airports

A number of U.S. cities—including Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, Houston, and Dallas—are served by several airports scattered around the region. It’s a great perk for residents, but can be a nightmare for travelers who unwittingly book a connecting flight through, say, Washington, D.C., that arrives at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA), but leaves out of Dulles (IAD), 30 miles away. Though shuttles between airports keep costs down, the extra time (it can take more than two hours to travel between Houston’s airports) could mean a missed connection and thousands of dollars to rebook on a later flight. “If you choose this route, remember to build enough time into your itinerary to get yourself between the two airports, pass through TSA screening again, and still be at the gate on time,” notes Huiberts.

Choose your resort wisely

Even if your destination is open and welcoming visitors, Huiberts suggests checking to see how the amenities are operating at the resort where you plan to stay. “Many large resorts are limiting pool time to two hours so they can maintain distance between chaise lounges, others have limited capacity at restaurants to the point that you’ll need to make a reservation long before you arrive,” she explains. If you’re staying stateside, these top resorts for social distancing make it easy to stay healthy.

Don’t bet on small airlines

“I’m confident that the large, U.S.-based carriers will continue to fly, but less so about some of the smaller airlines based overseas,” says Huiberts. “If you’re booking later into 2021, I’d suggest sticking with a larger airline, just to be safe.” Regardless of which airline you choose, adding these air travel tips to your pre-flight reading list will help make your trip go more smoothly.

Use the right credit card

If you want to elevate your experience with perks like early boarding, discounted luggage fees, and access to airport lounges but don’t want to pay for them, use a credit card affiliated with the airline you’ve chosen to purchase your ticket. You’ll earn miles, too. Depending on your needs, these are among the best credit cards for travelers.

Look here for deals

If you’re loyal to one or two airlines, do your digging on their web sites. Another option is to create an account with an online travel booking site such as airfarewatchdog.com, kayak.com, or googleflights.com all of which will scour the internet for deals based on the parameters you set. But don’t skip traditional travel advisors. “We have relationships with airlines and can often get perks added on at no charge,” says Heilburts. “You also end up with a real advocate in case something goes wrong.” When you do travel, make sure you own these 11 things you’ll want if you’re traveling in the next six months.

Katie McElveen
Katie McElveen is a contributor to Reader’s Digest, where she covers travel, pets and lifestyle. Her work has also appeared on Sherman’s Travel, Travelocity, Islands, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Virtuoso and other sites and in publications including Global Traveler, AAA GO and Montage Magazine. A graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, Katie lives in Columbia, South Carolina.