Should I book travel for 2021 now?

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Dear Cashing In,

Is it a good idea to book travel for 2021 right now? Or do you think I’m being too optimistic? – Claire

Dear Claire,

Will it be safe to travel in 2021? And is it smart to book travel for this year now? These are great questions, and probably the most popular questions being asked by all travelers right now, as we begin to look forward to the possibilities of life after widespread vaccination.

My advice—it certainly doesn’t hurt to be optimistic in travel planning for 2021, especially if you’re looking to book trips for the second half of the year. With vaccines in the pipeline, greater knowledge about the coronavirus and improved safety and sanitation measures across the industry, there are plenty of reasons to hope that our passports will be useful later this year. Plus, we’ve all been saving up our travel rewards points for a whole year!

On the flip side of this optimism, you’ll also want to be realistic if you’re booking travel in advance. New vaccines won’t necessarily mean that things in the travel industry are going back to normal right away.

International travel options will likely remain limited for a few more months, at least as countries retain border restrictions and impose requirements for testing, quarantine or proof of vaccine. Likewise, the airline and hotel industries will take time to get their operations back to full schedules and capacity. You’ll still need to be flexible and do your homework.

Have a rewards question for Stephanie? Drop her a line at the Ask Bankrate Experts page.

2021 travel outlook

Travel in 2021 will still be largely impacted by COVID-19, but we’re already seeing an uptick in travel every day. And those studying the numbers tell us that things are continuing to move in the right direction.

According to Destination Analysts—a research firm that has been studying how the coronavirus impacts people’s perception of how safe it is to travel—travel morale is at a pandemic-era high, likely due to the vaccine rollout. An April 2021 survey found that 71.6 percent of Americans plan on taking at least one leisure trip in the next three months.

Just one in ten of those travelers will be traveling abroad, but that number might increase in coming weeks, following a major announcement from the president of the European Commission. On April 25, New York Times reported that all 27 member states of the European Union will be open to fully vaccinated American tourists this summer.

Outside of the EU there are a few other destinations you might be able to visit this summer, including Barbados, Belize and Thailand. Many “open” countries require vaccine proof or a negative COVID test prior to entry, so be sure to know the entrance policies before booking your trip.

All U.S. states are now open to domestic travelers, though some may require a quarantine upon arrival. Bottom line: If you’re planning to travel anywhere in summer 2021, make sure to do your research.

Tips for canceling or rescheduling trips

For 2021 travel, you can plan like you’re definitely going, but you should also plan like you’re definitely going to cancel!

You’ll want to make sure that any ticket you book is flexible, changeable and refundable. If you’re booking with your credit card points, make sure you look up the rules for the program through which you’re booking (not just the rules of the airlines).

If you can, book directly through the airlines where possible, rather than a third party (like Expedia, Kayak, etc.). It isn’t that third-party sites don’t have great deals, they just make it more complicated to get a refund or make a change cancellation if it is required down the road. The rules are changing all the time for individual airlines, so you’ll definitely want to do your due diligence.

Learn more: Guide to refunds and elite status during coronavirus

Airline cancellation policies

Airline Policy
Alaska Airlines For travel purchased through March 31, 2021, you can cancel your trip without a fee. For Saver fare tickets, you can receive a credit certificate for future travel or have funds deposited into My Account.
American Airlines For travel booked by March, 31, 2021, you can make a change to your trip once without the change fee waived.
Delta Airlines Change fees are waived for travel booked through March 30, 2021.
JetBlue Change fees are waived for most fares.
Southwest Airlines Southwest does not charge fees to change a flight.
United Airlines United Airlines has permanently removed change fees for most tickets.

How to take advantage of 2021 travel deals now

If you come across a domestic travel deal for 2021, there isn’t much reason not to snatch it up—especially if you’re thinking summer vacation or getting ahead on planning for 2021’s holidays.

International deals, if you find them, can be booked with caution—just do your homework on the airline terms and conditions on the deals. And remember that the airlines will happily sell you a ticket to a destination regardless if you can legally enter.

Best credit cards for 2021 travel

Another great way to plan for 2021 travel is to ensure that your credit card rewards strategy is optimized. If you’re still eagerly awaiting the day you feel safe to travel again, you might be wondering if you should get a travel credit card right now.

It depends on which card you’re eyeing, but if you’re looking forward to a trip in three months, six months or even a year, it makes sense to start earning points to fund it now. Plus, many travel credit cards have added extra opportunities to earn points during the pandemic.

You can also take advantage of a sign-up bonus, many of which are worth enough points to get you at least one domestic return trip anywhere in the U.S.

Learn more: Best travel rewards credit cards

Is it safe to book 2021 travel?

As we get back to travel planning and actual traveling, the question at the top of everyone’s mind is this: “Is it safe to travel during the Coronavirus?” I think it’s pretty safe to say that airlines, airports and hotels aren’t operating under the same sanitation standards that they were back in March 2020. We’ve come a long way with filtration, cleaning and social distancing.

On the ground, some hotels and attractions are even beginning to undergo safety certifications. You’ll still want to check the COVID numbers and restrictions at the destination you’re looking at and take action accordingly. Remember, to be safe anywhere, we must be safe and take appropriate precautions everywhere we go.

Bottom line

With 2021 ahead of us, increased safety measures in place and a vaccination giving us hope, it’s nearly guaranteed that there will be an uptick in deals to encourage people to return to travel. It might not be time for hardcore traveling just yet, but a little dose of travel booking might just be what your optimism needs!