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Here's how to book holiday travel with no risk of losing money and a full refund if you have to cancel

Business Insider logo Business Insider 11/12/2020 tpallini@businessinsider.com (Thomas Pallini)
a large air plane on a runway at an airport: Travelers should book with caution this holiday season as there are still so many unknowns about the pandemic. Shutterstock.com © Shutterstock.com Travelers should book with caution this holiday season as there are still so many unknowns about the pandemic. Shutterstock.com
  • Travelers are preparing to take to the skies this holiday season should book their flights carefully to avoid losing money if the pandemic worsens. 
  • Airlines are waiving change and cancellation fees but that doesn't mean a refund if you have to cancel.
  • Using airline points and miles or travel credits can help ensure maximum flexibility and help get the best deal.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The onset of the pandemic in March saw thousands of travelers rush to cancel flights as the global outbreak decimated the ability to travel. Non-essential travel was discouraged and outright banned internationally as borders swiftly closed, and staying at home became en vogue.

With the public settling into a pandemic entering its eighth month and Thanksgiving fast approaching, many are pondering a return to the skies to visit friends and relatives. The winter holiday season, after all, has historically been the busiest travel time of the year for Americans thanks to the cluster of family-oriented holidays in a three-month span. 

But the pandemic has inflicted an ever-changing new normal and US cities and states that are currently a low-risk could become the next epicenters in a matter of weeks, casting doubt on future travel plans. Airlines realizing this have done away with some change and cancellation fees while providing new tools that are making it easier to hedge travel plans this holiday season, if used properly.

Travelers booking flights should follow a basic principle of avoiding shelling cash – or avoid it as much as possible –since the possibility of a refund is slim for a customer-initiated cancelation. If paying with cash is the only option, flyers should consider a refundable ticket or settle for the fact that they'll likely only receive a travel credit for future travel.

Cash tickets can also be refunded if an airline initiates a flight cancellation or makes a change to a flight after you've booked it. Our guide to schedule changes outlines under which circumstances a flyer can get a refund for a non-refundable ticket.

Here are two ways to protect your wallet during the holiday travel rush. 

Using a travel credit or gift card

graphical user interface: A Delta Air Lines gift card. melissamn/Shutterstock.com © melissamn/Shutterstock.com A Delta Air Lines gift card. melissamn/Shutterstock.com

Flyers who've canceled a flight due to the pandemic are likely sitting on a pile of travel credit from the airline with which they booked. It's like a gift card in that the value can only be used on that one airline. 

Using up these credits for the holiday can help avoid a cash purchase and prevent a loss if the flight needs to be canceled for any reason. Airlines may just issue another credit if the trip ultimately needs to be canceled and no cash will be lost, though that depends on the airline.

Credits also have an expiration date so it's better to use them now if a trip is guaranteed to be a go. They usually expire after a year from issuance but some airlines are extending those dates as travel still remains questionable as new outbreaks crop up across the US.


Gallery: How to use travel credits when booking a flight on all 11 major US airlines (Business Insider)

Delta Air Lines, for example, is allowing flyers to rebook flights for travel up to September 30, 2022, if they canceled a flight booked before April 17 for travel between March 2020 and September 2020. United Airlines is also extending some electronic travel certificates while future flight credits still have a one-year expiration. 

Other airlines are allowing flyers to rebook using travel credit but they'll need to use the entire amount or forfeit the difference.

Each airline is different in how they treat travel credit and flyers should call their prospective airline before booking to confirm the details. But using up travel credit should be a priority before paying with cash.

Using airline points or miles

a airplane that is parked on the side of a road: American Airlines and Delta Air Lines aircraft in Los Angeles. Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com © Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com American Airlines and Delta Air Lines aircraft in Los Angeles. Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com

This holiday season is also the perfect time to use some of those frequent flyer miles that have been piling up as the major airlines are giving the most flexibility to those tickets. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are both offering free cancellations with full mileage refunds for tickets booked until the end of the year, providing the most flexibility for the holiday season. 

United Airlines, on the other hand, is waiving the fee to refund the miles – known as an award redeposit fee – only if flights are canceled at least 30 days prior to departure. 

Here's a rundown of policies from the big three US airlines:

  • Delta Air Lines: Award flights booked until the end of the year, regardless of cabin class, can be changed or canceled and miles can be refunded with no redeposit fee.
  • American Airlines: Award flights booked until the end of the year, regardless of cabin class, can be changed or canceled and miles can be refunded with no redeposit fee. Web special awards cannot be changed but they can be canceled with no redeposit fee and a new flight can be booked.
  • United Airlines: Award flights booked until the end of the year, regardless of cabin class, can be canceled with no redeposit fee as long as the change is made at least 30 days before departure. Changes can also be made to any ticket without a fee until December 31, at which point only economy class tickets and above for travel in the US, Mexico, or the Caribbean will be eligible for free changes. 

Again, each airline is different and flyers should consult their prospective airlines with questions before booking. 

No more buyer's remorse

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a tarmac at an airport: A Delta Air Lines Boeing 767-400ER. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider © Thomas Pallini/Business Insider A Delta Air Lines Boeing 767-400ER. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Travelers can also use the new change and cancellation fees to their advantage and ensure they're getting the best flight deal. Airfare is constantly changing and while we all think we're getting the best deal at the moment, prices can drop just a few hours later. 

Normally, an airline wouldn't be willing to refund the difference but the new policies might force their hand. For example, if a flight that was purchased for 10,000 Delta Sky Miles is now available for 8,000 miles, a flyer can cancel their original ticket and immediately rebook on the same flight, pocketing the difference in miles.

This strategy works best for award tickets since those points or miles can be immediately refunded but can be used on a cash ticket. Depending on the airline, a flyer can cancel their existing ticket, have it converted into a travel credit, and immediately rebook. The difference will stay in the travel credit and can be used for a future booking but, again, that depends on the airline.  

It involved a little more work and checking the airline's website occasionally to see if prices have changed but could help get the best deal for holiday travel. 

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