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Flights are dirt-cheap. Should you book travel amid coronavirus?

Flying right now may not be top of your to-do list, but what about later this year?

Dori Zinn Contributing Writer
Dori Zinn loves helping people learn and understand money. She's been covering personal finance for a decade and her writing has appeared in Wirecutter, Credit Karma, Huffington Post and more.
Dori Zinn
5 min read
Airplane seats
Getty Images

If you were planning on taking a trip anytime soon, the coronavirus has probably put a dent in those plans. 

On March 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a level 3 warning travel advisory, which restricts nonessential travel to certain countries. In response to the pandemic, airlines across the world implemented travel restrictions and have had to implement policies for rebookings, cancellations and fees for the influx of changes. The ever-evolving policies and uncertainties about the constantly changing situation can be hard to stay up-to-date on, making future airline travel difficult to book at the moment.

Buying flights for a future date when coronavirus lockdowns end is tempting -- especially when flight prices are dirt-cheap. Before you buy your flight, however, make sure you know the most up-to-date rules, regulations and policies to see if booking travel -- even for the distant future -- is worth it.

What are the current cancellation policies?

Every airline has a different policy when it comes to how they're handling flight changes and cancellations during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Points Guy has an ongoing list of airline policies for you to keep track of as you consider booking travel. Here are a few:

  • JetBlue: Fees are waived through June 30 if you cancel or change your flight before Jan. 4, 2021. If you cancel, you'll get a travel waiver to use within 24 months of when it was issued. If you rebook, you may have to pay the difference in fare costs.
  • Southwest: You can cancel or change your flight for no fee. If you have a nonrefundable ticket you'd like to cancel, you'll receive a travel credit. Unused travel funds are available until Sept. 7, 2022, but when you book, the standard expiration date -- 12 months -- will go into effect (even if it's before Sept. 7).
  • Delta: Change fees are waived on all flights through Sept. 30, 2020, and any tickets purchased from March 1 and May 31. If you book a new flight, you might have to pay the difference in fare costs. If your new flight is cheaper, you'll receive a credit for the difference.

While most airlines are defaulting to issuing travel credits to consumers, you are still entitled to a refund on your flight. The Department of Transportation enacted a policy whereby airlines are required to refund passengers if there are significant schedule changes, flight cancellations or other travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 crisis. This includes nonrefundable tickets. 

Read more: Best airline credit cards of 2020

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How much have flight prices dropped?

It depends on the destination and time of day -- both when you're browsing and when you're booking. I found a flight from Boston to San Juan for $23 and Dallas to LA for $31 -- both flying as early as the first week of June. In February, you would've paid around $300.

Flight prices aren't the only thing to drop. The total number of flights has plummeted, too. Flightrader24.com shows 109,732 commercial flights occurred on Feb. 28. On April 12, that figure dropped to 23,926. Normally, costs might be higher with such a limited selection, but flight prices are at record lows.

The lack of demand for travel has caused many airlines to reduce flights and others to shut down completely. United Airlines, for example, announced a 90% schedule reduction for April and May while American Airlines will drop capacity by 60% through May. Most airlines are updating policies and notices as public health and government officials release new information on the COVID-19 crisis, so summer and fall travel might have difficult regulations compared to spring.

When should you travel again?

Answering this question is a lot like playing the lottery: you're hopeful but there's no sure way to get it right. With government travel restrictions, low customer demand and stay-at-home guidelines, flying is still, well, up in the air.

Right now, the White House has stay-at-home guidelines in place through April 30, some states have extended orders that go into May, including Connecticut (May 20), Massachusetts (May 4) and Maryland (until further notice). Depending on the state you live in and where you're traveling to, traveling could mean breaking social distancing guidelines, presenting a health risk to yourself and others. So while flights do exist, and you can probably book them, traveling will largely depend on geography and the current state of the outbreak. 

The CDC shares some helpful information on its website about potential travel scenarios and how they could unfold for you. For instance, depending on where you travel to, you could come home to a mandatory 14-day quarantine or, worse, get stuck in another country. 

One way to gauge whether or not you should travel is to look to travel experts. Scott's Cheap Flights, an airfare deals website, is only sharing deals for flights that are three to four months out and is concentrating on airlines that have customer-friendly cancellation policies. Traveling right now (and while your area is sheltering in place) is strongly inadvisable, but you could take advantage of cheap flights that adhere to very flexible coronavirus cancellation policies and optimistically book for the future. 

It's hard to know when (or if) taking a vacation, flying to visit family members or booking a weekend getaway will ever get back to normal. Traveling for family or business will continue to exist in some limited form, but many events around the world have been canceled due to COVID-19. Sporting events, music festivals and conferences are all closing down or rescheduling for a later date. Coachella, for example, was originally scheduled for April but moved to mid-October. 

If you're unsure about booking a flight, ask yourself:

  • Am I comfortable traveling? Even if you're safe at home right now, think about what you do when traveling: threading through the airport, exchanging cash, running a credit card, using public restrooms and other areas that many people frequent. While you might do your best to stay healthy, consider if others all do the same. Follow the CDC's guidelines for travelers while the outbreak is active.
  • Will I be able to cancel if I change my mind? You're entitled to cancel, change flights or get credit to book at a later date. If the airline isn't consumer-friendly, consider waiting to fly until you're comfortable or find another airline.

Before you take to the skies, take any precautions needed to keep yourself and others safe. Flying is already tiring; you don't need the added stress of combating a virus on top of it.

See the emptiness as coronavirus closes landmarks, stadiums, amusement parks

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