It’s no surprise to anyone that the coronavirus pandemic has changed basically everything about the way we live, and travel is no exception. Travel was basically at a standstill in 2020, but with news of vaccines being distributed, many of us have hope that 2021 can include a bit more traveling than last year did. If you’re plan travel for 2021, though, there’s a few things you should know about. Knowing how to plan a trip—safely and responsibly—has probably changed a bit since the last time you got on a plane!
Here’s all the things you need to know before you plan travel for 2021! Whether you’re hoping to start planning a summer vacation or looking to getaway next fall, here’s 12 tips for planning travel in 2021.
1. Choose flexible fares and booking options
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that flexibility is key. Same thing goes for 2021—travel guidelines and restrictions are still changing. Even if you’re pretty sure your plans are set in stone, a positive Covid test or Covid outbreak in your destination can change them pretty quickly. As a result, it’s a good idea for 2021 to make sure that your plans are flexible. Many airlines have done away with change fees, making it easier (and cheaper) than ever to reschedule your flight if needed. (Keep in mind that fare differences may apply, and not every flight is eligible for free changes.) Booking more flexible fares makes it super easy to lock in a good deal but also retain the flexibility to change your plans if needed without being hit with expensive fees, or worse, just losing your flights altogether.
Be sure to check cancellation policies on other travel plans too, such as accommodations or activities. Most hotels have generous cancellation policies, but be sure to double-check. If you’re booking alternate accommodations, like Airbnb, make sure there are flexible cancellation policies in place so you can change plans if needed.
2. Stay up-to-date on travel guidelines and restrictions
Travel guidelines and restrictions can change in an instant (as we all learned last March), so it’s really important to stay up-to-date on current guidelines for both your country of origin and your destination country. We’ve outlined the guidelines for countries currently welcoming American travelers so you can get an idea of what’s required—but make sure you’re checking in on any updates or changes before your trip. You’ll be responsible for making sure you have the documents and testing you need, and will be denied boarding if you don’t.
FYI: Beginning January 26, 2021 all travelers returning to the US on an international flight—including US citizens—will be required to show proof of a negative Covid test taken within 3 days prior to departure or will be denied boarding.
3. Don’t forget travel insurance
Travel insurance was always kind of optional, depending on how high your risk-tolerance is and how important your trip was, but post-Covid, it’s kind of a must. Travel insurance can protect you (in case you need medical care abroad) and your trip (in case you need to cancel or if your trip gets cancelled). However, you need to make sure you buy the right kind of travel insurance. Not every travel insurance covers everything you might need. We recommend buying a Cancel for Any Reason insurance, which will allow you to, well, cancel for any reason. Whatever plan you decide to go with, make sure you read the fine print closely so you understand exactly what it does and doesn’t cover.
FYI: many insurance policies don’t cover any changes related to a “known event,” which now includes Covid. If you have this kind of a policy and your destination country suddenly closes borders, for example, your trip likely won’t be covered since the reason the borders were closed (Covid) is now a “known event.” Sneaky, sneaky—read. the. fine. print.
4. Check in on your flight & get airline updates
If you book through a third-party, the airline may not notify the online travel agencies about cancelled flights, especially if it’s a last-minute change. While in many cases if you need to make a change, you’ll need to call whoever you booked the ticket with, we recommend signing up for text alerts or notifications directly from the airline so you can stay up to date with your ticket and any last-minute changes.
You can typically do this either by creating an account on the airline’s website and signing up for flight status notifications, or by downloading the airline app and signing up for notifications through their app. Either way, make sure you keep an eye on your flight, as changes lately have been frequent!
5. Understand the policies of your ticket.
Airline ticket policies can be confusing, and while new flexible policies have implemented better flexibility policies across the board, there’s still room for confusion when booking.
One important thing to keep in mind is the difference between change and cancellation fees. Most major airlines have waived change fees—for now, or indefinitely (see above). However, this doesn’t apply to voluntary cancellations. If you need to cancel your flight and wish to receive a monetary refund, you’ll still need to pay a cancellation fee (usually $200+). In addition, some flights (like Basic Economy) aren’t eligible for refunds—at all.
Airline change fees being waived can also help. This means that if you need to change the dates of your ticket, you’ll be able to do so without an additional fee. In most cases, you can also receive a travel credit good to rebook your trip later. However, changing origins and destinations may or may not be available, depending on the airline. And you still may be responsible for a fare difference if your new ticket is more expensive than your original ticket.
TL;DR: read the terms and conditions of your ticket before you purchase it to make sure you understand your options should you need to change your flights. (On our site, you can view these by clicking “Rules and Restrictions” under “Important Flight Information” on the right-hand sidebar while checking out.) When in doubt, avoid Basic Economy fares, as they’re the least flexible.
6. Know when your travel credit expires
Have a trip that got cancelled due to Covid last year? You probably got (or may be eligible for) a travel credit to use sometime in the future. At the beginning, most of these travel credits were good for only 1 year (either one year from the booking date or the departure date). However, some airlines extended these waivers. As a result, your travel credit may be expiring soon—or it might actually be good until 2022! Log in to the airline website with your reservation number to view the waiver that applies to your credit and double-check when it expires. If you need to book, make sure to do so if you don’t want to lose it!
Most airlines are accepting bookings through November 2021, so you’ll have the choice of basically anytime this year to travel. And, with new no-change-fee policies, even if you book your flights now and still need to change them later, you’ll be able to—and that’s much better than losing them completely!
7. Choose a destination that’s already open for US travelers
Popular tourist destinations—London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney—will be in high demand and ‘booked up’ almost as soon as they reopen. Book in advance if you’re hoping to make it to plan travel for 2021 to one of these destinations. Better yet, book a trip to somewhere a bit more off-the-beaten-path to avoid crowds and rising prices. Not sure where to go? Start with planning a trip to somewhere that’s already welcoming US travelers or check out our list of best places to travel in 2021.
8. Think local…
If you’re looking to avoid some of the additional hassle (and costs) of international travel, there’s no reason to write off a summer trip altogether. The US has some incredible destinations and definitely something for everyone to enjoy. Whether you make a cross-country road trip, jet off to a new city or explore some National Parks, there’s lots to enjoy right here in your backyard. Plus, we’ve had amazing deals on domestic flights, with flights between popular destinations starting around $20.
9. …or dream big
Of course, if you’re ready to seriously get away, now’s a great time to start planning a big dream trip, too! With so much time to plan before you can make the trip, it’s the perfect time to start sorting out details and planning out all the logistics and details to make your trip truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Even just planning a future vacation can boost your mood and give you some wanderlust-inspired energy, so whether it’s a road trip around New Zealand or a South African safari, now’s the time to start planning a big dream trip for later this year or even 2022. If you need some inspiration, here’s our top dream trips that you finally have time to plan.
10. Book early if you want a great deal
Think about it: once popular destinations reopen, it’s going to be like Black Friday—everyone’s going to want to hop on it and book flights to get out of town ASAP. If you want to take advantage of cheap deals while you plan travel for 2021, book early. We recommend booking around or before March/April if you want to take advantage of flexible airline policies while also “beating the rush” for airline tickets once the vaccine makes its way to the general public and (hopefully) begins to open up the world again.
11. Take care of small details now.
Your travel plans may still be far off, but now’s a good time to make sure you’re all set to go once travel starts back up again. Some things we’re doing right now to make sure we’re good to go later this year:
- Renewing our passports. Passports need to be valid for at least six months after the dates you want to travel, so yours will need to be good through at least the end of 2021 if you’re planning to travel this summer.
- Checking visa requirements. Planning to visit somewhere new this year? Check visa requirements now so you won’t be surprised and scrambling to get the visas you need at the last minute.
- Update your luggage. If you’re dragging around luggage with broken zippers or duct-taped seams (looking at…ourselves), it’s time to update your luggage set. Invest in a good-quality suitcase or backpack—bonus points if it’ll fit in the overhead bins, too!
- Get a travel credit card. If you’re new to the world of credit cards and travel points, now is a good time to sign up for a credit card that’ll give you points for your regular purchases. There’s several credit cards that have great travel rewards, from no international fees to travel insurance to rewards points and more.
- Get an international drivers license. If you’re renting a car internationally, an international drivers license is most likely going to be required. You can apply for one at your local AAA office—they’re $20 and valid for a year, so it’s easy to get one in advance and have it on hand for travel later this year.