The Morning Call (Sunday)
Rebook or cancel your trip?
Would-be travelers spend hours dealing with refunds; others simply move dates
A 50th birthday, 50 new places: That was Allison Andrews’ plan for the year.
Her roster included a dog-sledding adventure in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in March, a trip to Spain in April and May, and a Bahamas cruise with a former college roommate in June.
She got as far as Switzerland, in mid-March, before boomeranging home to Mooresville, North Carolina.
“I couldn’t ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ this — I have a kid, I have a job and I had already planned out a lot in order to get good deals,” said Andrews. “I just spent weeks just canceling stuff.”
With the pandemic foiling her yearlong bonanza, Andrews has ostensibly spent more time this year disentangling herself from her trips than actually taking them. In doing so, she has earned a rightful place in a club of “cancelers” — those would-be travelers who have spent hours on hold, learning the ins and outs of refund policies.
This is a large cohort, according to multiple data sources. In a November survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers by Suzy, a market research platform, 60% of respondents said they have canceled at least one trip because of COVID-19. At Hosteeva, a vacation-rental company, around 22% of bookings were canceled from February through mid-November
(up from 5% during the same period last year).
To be sure, these would-be travelers realize they are lucky to be dealing with refunds while so many Americans face job losses or grieve for family members.
Major adjustments by the operators
Travel companies have traditionally been able to predict busy and quiet periods. Not so in this year. Since March, waves of cancellations have reverberated — sometimes with little notice — because of rising infection rates, travel restrictions, and state and local rules.
“There were cancellations in the beginning — March and April were huge,” said Hana Pevny, who owns the Waldo Emerson Inn, a boutique inn in Kennebunkport, Maine. “Then in May and June, people who had already made summer plans realized they couldn’t execute on them. And now, with COVID cases rising again, it’s like I was fully booked for Christmas one day and had to process $3,000 in cancellations the next.”
From March to June, Dave Karraker had 26 cancellations between his two Airbnb properties: a country house in Sonoma, California, and an efficiency apartment at his home in San Francisco.
“First it was because Sonoma County prohibited vacation rentals,” said Karraker. “As that eased up, the cancellations continued from folks not wanting to risk traveling across the country or around the world.”
When state restrictions were lifted in June, the Sonoma house got a rush of new bookings, all from people within a 60-mile radius. It was rented solidly through New Year’s until recently, when California announced sweeping new travel restrictions. Karraker said he expects another wave of cancellations.
The experience has given him a broader perspective on how to handle cancellations.
“No one doesn’t want to go on a vacation to wine country, so if they need to adjust their reservation because of the pandemic, we completely understand,” he said. “We are all in this together, so you should demonstrate compassion and caring every chance you get.”
The value of rebooking
From January to October, the 11 largest U.S. airlines issued $11.75 billion in cash refunds, according to Airlines for America, a trade group. That’s an 86% year-over-year increase from the $6.3 billion issued in 2019.
But plenty of travelers got vouchers and chose to rebook instead.
In March, Megan Stribling, 37, received a voucher — which she was told was a “one-time change” — from American Airlines when she canceled her May anniversary trip to
St. John. A couple of months later, with numbers looking marginally better, she used the voucher to rebook the trip for November: another “one-time change,” she was again told. With infection rates iffy again in October, she called back a third time and held her breath, hoping for another “one-time change” that would push the trip to May 2021.
“The new ‘No Change Fees’ policy had been announced, but I wasn’t sure if our flight would count,” said Stribling.
“But it was super easy and they were very accommodating.”
Wendy Patrick, 52, also had a relatively easy time bowing out of the year’s planned three cruises: The cruise lines did the canceling. Most ships have been docked since March, a no-sail order by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. Although that order was lifted in October, most cruise companies are still working through their health and safety protocols and won’t sail again until well into next year.
Yet for Patrick, who lives in San Diego, those canceled sailings presented not a loss, but an opportunity.
When a Princess Cruises voyage in October was canceled, Patrick rebooked using a special offer. Among its perks: Princess matched her deposit in the form of a future cruise credit, industry “currency” that can be applied toward the balance of the fare, onboard items or future sailings.
Because cruise cancellation policies are more flexible than ever, thanks to the pandemic, Patrick sees little downside in having several sailings on the horizon for next year.
“If you don’t grab cabins while they are hot, you will be left out on the dock — as the ships will be full in no time,” she said. “We want to go anchors-aweigh the second we can get that vaccine.”
‘Just pick a date sometime in the future’
Andrews, of the 50-for-50 plan, originally canceled in March through July, holding out hope that a fall trip to Greece would be doable. (It wasn’t.) She canceled a large family Thanksgiving gathering in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in May. In September, she was hit with a short-lived burst of optimism.
“As the pandemic dragged on we thought, well, maybe we should look to see what’s available now because everyone was getting stir-crazy,” she recalled. “Then we decided: Nope, not safe.”
That folder system gained a new purpose: tracking Andrews’ domestic and closer-to-home travels, which she has been chronicling on Milemarker 50, her aptly named blog.
Stribling, who moved her St. John trip twice (so far), also has a good-natured outlook: “I told our Airbnb host that we didn’t want a refund,” she said. “We just said, ‘Can we move our dates again?’ And she was like, ‘Yep, just pick a date sometime in the future. And let’s cross our fingers.’”