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Itching to make travel plans already? Here’s 5 guidelines to follow

No one knows when the Covid-19 outbreak will end. What does that mean for making future travel plans?

Fess up. How many of you have been daydreaming of a beach in Bali, or wine tasting in Margaret River, or a road trip in Southern California while working from home the past week? I know I was.

Like many others, I’m getting a severe case of travel withdrawal. I caught myself rearranging lunch to look like an airline meal the other day, and The Milelioness is growing weary of my insistence that we refer to the toilet as the lavatory. I miss everything about flying, from the cold, sterile airport lounges, to the warm embrace of the TSA full-body patdown.

And yet, there are two things that are clear right now.

First, no one should be flying out of Singapore at the moment without a very good reason. The government has made their stance on non-essential travel very clear, and if you happen to contract Covid-19 while overseas, you’ll be liable to pay the full costs of treatment back in Singapore. They’re not messing around with this, and neither should you. In the words of Captain Sulu:

Second, no one knows when the Covid-19 outbreak will end. Any dates you may hear on TV or in the news or from that uncle who always has all the answers to the world’s problems are purely speculative. Some say we’ll be fine once the warmer temperatures of summer set in. Others say we’re in it for at least 18 months, or until a vaccine is developed. Your guess is as good as mine.

So how do you go about planning travel when the situation is so uncertain?

My general rule for making travel plans

Here’s my approach to booking travel in the current climate:

Make all the bookings you want, but retain the flexibility to cancel them if needed

It follows that you should not be putting yourself in a position where you feel financially obliged to travel due to the sunk costs involved. Flexible bookings are the way to go, with calendar reminders set for cancellation deadlines. Don’t make any non-refundable bookings unless you’re prepared to lose them.

It goes without saying that you should absolutely abide by all relevant travel advisories in effect at the time of your trip. If we’re in the clear by then, great! If not, do the right thing by cancelling and staying home. As it is, there are way too many people playing stupid games, and winning stupid prizes in the process.

What does that look like, in more practical terms?

(1) Make airline bookings with miles, not cash

SWISS has conveniently decided it’ll ignore EU regulations regarding refunds

If there were ever a time to book your air tickets with miles, it’s now.

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I get that the rock bottom airfares we’re seeing may seem enticing to some, but with airlines in a cashflow crunch, more and more are looking for ways to avoid giving cash refunds, even if passengers are entitled to them.

Therefore, it’s a lot safer to make your bookings with miles, because you can cancel them for a relatively small penalty (versus spending thousands in cash and getting an airline voucher instead). I’ve listed the refund fees for several of the more popular mileage programs in Singapore below:

Cancellation Fee (Per Pax)
KrisFlyer US$50-75
Asia Miles US$120 or 12,000 miles
Alaska Mileage Plan US$125
British Airways Executive Club S$69 (or the amount of taxes actually paid, whichever is lower, must be >24 hours before departure)
Emirates Skywards Free-US$75
Etihad Guest 10% of miles (must be >24 hours before departure)
EVA Air Infinity Mileagelands US$50
LifeMiles US$50-200
Qantas Frequent Flyer 6,000 points 
Turkish Miles&Smiles US$25

Remember that many airlines are offering change fee waivers on all newly-booked tickets. In the case of Singapore Airlines, this applies to tickets issued between 6-31 March 2020 (a date I’m quite certain they’ll extend), including redemptions.

In other words, you’ll get an “enhanced Saver” ticket if you redeem now- one that carries the lower price of a Saver, but allows you to make date changes for free instead of the usual US$25 fee (cancellations still cost the same US$75, however). 

If nothing else, I imagine it’ll be much easier to find award space now, on account of booking volumes being way down.

(2) Keep itineraries simple

SIN-BKK: Good. SIN-CGK-KUL-BKK: Probably not good.

Given how frequently airlines are changing their routes and schedules, it’s probably best that you keep your itineraries fairly simple. Booking a multi-leg, multi-carrier itinerary across three separate tickets right now is just asking for trouble.

Remember: unless all your flights are booked on one itinerary, the airline is not obliged to re-accommodate you in the event of a schedule change.

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For example, let’s say you fly from SIN-NRT-LAX, with SIN-NRT on Singapore Airlines and NRT-LAX on ANA. Subsequently, Singapore Airlines reschedules the SIN-NRT leg in a way that makes the NRT-LAX connection impossible.

  • If you booked this as a single Singapore Airlines partner award, the airline will need to re-accommodate you (or refund, as applicable)
  • However, if you booked this as two separate awards, you’re on your own

This applies regardless of whether the two airlines are part of the same alliance, or have interline agreements. So think twice about booking that long haul flight with a separate budget connection at the end. That might be a fairly safe bet during normal times, but what we’re going through now is anything but normal.

(3) Take advantage of the additional flexibility offered on hotel bookings

All Marriott property bookings made by 30 April can be cancelled up to 24 hours before arrival, regardless of actual stay date (Photo: W Bali)

It may be a good idea to book air tickets with miles, but for hotels, cash rates are the way to go.

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That’s because refundable bookings work very differently with hotels as they do airlines. With airlines, you pay at the time of booking (so there’s a risk they may hold on to your money). With hotels, you pay at the time of check-out (so there’s no money to hold on to). Furthermore, since hotel rates are currently depressed, it doesn’t really make sense to redeem points.

The exception to this rule is Accor Live Limitless, which offers fixed value redemptions of 2,000 points= €40. Lower rates therefore mean fewer points.

The following chains are offering free cancellations for any future arrival date, up to 24 hours before your scheduled arrival (even if you book an advance purchase, non-refundable rate):

Other chains have slightly more restrictive policies- they’ll offer free cancellation for stays by a certain arrival date, up to 24 hours before your scheduled arrival:

Unfortunately, other large chains like IHG, Radisson and Shangri-La still require you to book flexible rates if you want to cancel without penalty.

Be particularly careful in situations where the hotel requires a “refundable” deposit, because there have been reports that hotels in Italy are refusing to refund them. To be clear, providing your credit card number to secure a reservation is not the same as paying a deposit- a deposit is a clearly stated amount charged at the time of reservation.

(4) Don’t book any attractions or tours first

Feel free to make rental car bookings that don’t require a deposit

Since so many things are up in the air, it doesn’t make sense to lock in smaller activities like tours or attraction tickets until closer to your travel date. It’s not like you’ll save a lot by booking in advance anyway, and you’re just one flight cancellation away from wasting your money.

Even if the attraction offers a full refund policy, there’s still a chance they may drag their feet about processing the refund, and the last thing you want is to have to make a whole bunch of overseas calls. Just settle the big pieces like flights and hotels first; everything else can wait.

The exception would be rental car bookings, where a deposit isn’t required. I’ve never seen a major rental car company charge a no-show fee (although you should, as a matter of courtesy, cancel your reservation if you don’t intend to show up), so feel free to lock in rates first.

(5) Get cancel for any reason travel insurance

Aviva Travel Insurance

Covid-19 is considered to be a known event by every travel insurer, so there’s no chance of getting any related claims approved if you buy a policy now.

However, if/when Covid-19 winds down, we may find ourselves in a bit of a strange in-between situation, where there may not be a travel advisory against a given country, yet you have second thoughts about going.

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Perhaps a loved one develops an unrelated health issue, which puts them into the vulnerable category. Or perhaps the attractions you wanted to visit haven’t yet re-opened. In those cases, it’d be good to retain the option to cancel your trip for any reason.

Aviva’s travel insurance features a cancel-for-any-reason feature that covers 50% of your unrecoverable travel, accommodation, and entertainment costs should you decide not to travel. This is capped at one claim of up to S$5,000 per policy year. I get that no one wants to lose 50% of their money, but it’s better to lose 50% than to lose it all.

If there’s any other travel insurance out there that offers a cancel-for-any-reason feature, please let me know so I can stop sounding like a shill for Aviva (they’re not paying me a cent, for the record).

What trips do I have planned for the rest of the year?

At the moment, here’s the trips I have planned for the rest of the year:

July: 4-day trip to Bangkok, purchased with the AMEX Platinum Charge’s S$400 travel credit last year. No hotels booked. I’m 99% sure this trip won’t be happening, although on the plus side, AMEX has been very reasonable about extending travel credits on account of the Covid-19 situation. Be sure to ask for an extension if necessary.

September: A 24-hour turnaround in London, booked as part of a First Class PVG-SIN-LHR-SIN itinerary back when Alaska Mileage Plan still allowed stopovers on one-way awards. No hotels booked. Although this would make for a fun trip report, I’m fully prepared to cancel if the UK doesn’t sort its tea and crumpets out by then. At worst I’ll be on the hook for US$125.

November: A 7-day trip to Dubai to visit the famous Al Maha Desert Resort. Air tickets booked in Emirates First, hotel booked with Marriott points, so no issues cancelling if it comes to that. This is the one trip I’m really looking forward to this year though.

In addition to these, I still intend to do a few reviews of various cabin products, subject to travel restrictions. I’ll be keeping an eye out for award space, and booking accordingly.

Conclusion

It’s not wrong to have dreams about traveling right now, provided you act on them only when the all clear is given.

If you’re the kind of person who hates disappointment, then maybe it’s better to sit tight for a few months. But if you can keep your expectations in check, I see no harm in making some flexible plans for the future. We all need something to look forward to, after all.

How is everyone else approaching this?

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bluepanda

Rule #1 requires you to have miles in these airlines or programmes. Or at least believe they are at least 50% likely to survive the crisis. What makes you think AS, EK and SQ are worth the risk, and how about others like CX/AM? Can you use your management consulting mind to help us make that case to say 80/90%?

Risk

It’s in the news. SQ will have largest airline-specific support package (S$15 billion for a 150-plane airline, essentially underwritten by the SG gov). Also, they are 55% owned by SG gov and are an essential part of the country’s business plan (they make up > 30% of Changi Airport passenger traffic, numerous local supply and service companies in the loop). Failure is not an option unless current gov plan to lose the election. Ditto for QTR (but full support package not announced yet?). Also FWIW, EY backer has deeper pockets than EK. CX is owned by Swire and given HK… Read more »

freedom

Booked la premiere for October the other day. Hope delta does not cancel in view of current mess.

ithh

For travel up to May 2020, CX is allowing full cancellation of tickets with redeposit of miles at no charge. This is very generous of them. In contrast, SQ is allowing only a free change of itinerary with revised travel to be completed by March 2021. Those who want to cancel their flights will have to pay the cancellation fee.

Masan

I had a reservation for the SilkAir flights to Hiroshima in late May. But I got a notice from SQ that the operation of the route was suspended indefinitely. At first SQ tried to make the booking into open instead of cancelling and refunding. But I insisted the full refund and finally succeeded. It took over three weeks to draw out mere two replies from SQ customer service. I guess they are totally swamped with inquiries and requests from thousands of customers at once.

RTK

Increasingly, governments and firms are talking about grappling with this situation for next 1 year.. about dealing with waves of lockdowns when fall/winter arrives.. until a vaccine becomes available.

While we are itching for a vacation (I certainly am!), I wouldn’t book anything until we are in the clear.

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