It's hard to know when the world will go back to 'normal', but with vaccines starting to roll out worldwide, and governments looking ahead to when and how they can safely reopen to global travel, eager travellers are looking ahead to 'someday soon' and trying to decide what to book and when, even if only to have something on the calendar to look forward to.
That's a big conversation with many moving parts, but today we'll focus on how to use frequent-flyer points to make post-COVID travel plans that are often far more flexible and refundable than cash fares. For example, Aeroplan are offering free changes and cancellation to any award ticket booked before the end of February 2021 - no matter when the flights are.
This is much more attractive than Air Canada's current policy for tickets bought with cash, in which they keep your money and issue a 'future travel credit' unless you paid hundreds of dollars extra for a 'refundable' economy Comfort or Latitude, or thousands of dollars more for a 'flexible' Business ticket.
Similarly, airlines like Alaska have permanently eliminated all change or cancellation fees, followed soon after by American Airlines and Delta, with United taking a slightly-less-flexible approach.
There haven't been a lot of good-news developments in the travel industry in the last year, but this is a positive, (nearly) industry-wide change that will benefit travellers for years to come.
Step One - When?
"When can we travel again" is the biggest question in travel this year - when will it be safe to travel again, and when will you be able to travel to [insert your favourite destination]?
While obviously I don't have a crystal ball, by now most Western governments are starting to publish at least rough guidelines to when each part of the population can expect to be scheduled for a COVID vaccine. Without presuming to give medical advice, I can say that governments worldwide appear to be looking ahead to widespread vaccination as the biggest factor in reopening for tourism, and late summer 2021 looks possible for many destinations.
"When should I book" is a bit easier - to me, the answer is "soon, but carefully". Think ahead to a few different options, and consider making refundable bookings you're ready to walk away from.
Step Two - Why?
Why am I encouraging you to book now? Two main reasons. First, I'm writing this in the middle of January, while it's -15 C outside, everyone's in lockdown and many of us have hit our lowest mood of the whole pandemic. It can be incredibly valuable to build something to look forward to, and if everything's refundable, you can do this risk-free.
Second, airlines are starting to make their award seats available now for late 2021 and early 2022, and smart travellers will use these rules to grab the best flights quickly, long before anyone actually knows whether we can travel or not. Normally, I'd call it irresponsible to book without a reasonably solid plan for your trip, but in this case the rules have been changed specifically to make it possible to do that safely.
Besides, while we're all stuck inside binge-watching bad TV, what better way to spend your down time than planning the vacation you've wanted to take since March 13th? Even if you need to change your dates around as conditions evolve later this year, you'll have the flexibility to do it.
Step Three - How?
Since nobody can say for sure what's going to happen next, the smart play will be to book flights, hotels etc. in ways that let you make changes or get a refund if your first set of plans don't work out.
Personally, I'm planning to make several plans - more trips than I'll actually want to travel - fully expecting that some of them won't work out. If this means paying a slightly higher rate for hotel rooms that allow cancellation right up to the night before check-in, and don't require any payment up-front, that's a small price to pay for a little flexibility. Better still, book with hotel-program points, and most major hotel loyalty programs include free cancellation!
I wish I had all the answers about how to plan for 2021, but since we don't, the best alternative is to build flexible, movable plans and get comfortable with change. Used properly, your miles portfolio can be a powerful tool to make this possible!