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Should you book holiday travel now or later?
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Should you book holiday travel now or later?

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If your holiday travel plans change later, it is much easier to cancel or re-book your trip than in past years.

Conventional wisdom usually suggests booking holiday travel early. After all, popular destinations book up early in a typical year, and there are hardly any last-minute deals anyway.

But 2020 is not a normal year, which means conventional wisdom need not apply.

This year, last-minute bookings are becoming as commonplace as toilet paper hoarding was in March. Hotel chain IHG said that 63% of bookings this summer happened within two days of the stay, significantly up from 39% during the same period last year.

Should you follow the last-minute trend and book your next trip on such short notice? Here are some factors to consider when weighing booking holiday travel early or late.

Pros of booking holiday travel last-minute

Last-minute bookings aren’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in 2020. Here’s why it’s a smart move to go against the usual travel advice and book your holiday travel at the last minute this year.

Travel policies continue to change

Maybe you booked a flight home on Southwest because you liked that middle seats were being left open. Too bad that policy is now only through Nov. 30, 2020, after which middle seats will be filled again.

Whether it’s airline health policies, hotel health policies, state quarantine requirements or international restrictions on where U.S. citizens can travel, it can be tough to keep up with ever-changing travel rules.

Waiting to book means your travel plans stay flexible, and you can adjust them based on a destination's case counts or requirements for visitors.

You may actually have more options the longer you wait

Waiting to book typically means fewer options as seats and hotel rooms book up. That may not be the case this year. That’s because many places that had been closed are starting to reopen.

The famous Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco only reopened in September. Had you browsed in August for holiday hotel rooms, then the Fairmont probably wouldn’t have even shown up in your search results.

And for travelers who factor in airport lounges when deciding where to fly, many lounges that had been closed are now back open. American Express Centurion Lounges began reopening in phases this fall. Knowing airport lounges are back open might create the possibility of booking a flight and taking refuge in the airport lounge if you're worried about potential holiday crowds at the terminals and feel more comfortable in an occupancy-controlled lounge prior to your flight.

And if you’re basing your trip on activities like visiting certain restaurants or museums, you may find that tourist attractions that had been closed over the summer and early fall are open now, meaning more potential places you might travel to.

The easiest trip to cancel is the one you never booked

You’re probably not going to want to travel somewhere where coronavirus cases are on the rise. Put off booking your trip, and you won’t find yourself with a trip booked when it’s otherwise unwise to travel.

As cases spike in the U.S. and worldwide, you might end up not traveling for the holidays, period. Although canceling or changing trips has gotten easier than ever, it still takes time and effort (and a complete refund might not be a guarantee). Save the headache and don’t book to begin with, knowing you will have last-minute options for 2020 travel.

Pros of booking holiday travel sooner

Unlike most years, in 2020, there’s often not a ton to lose by booking now (even if you cancel later).

Cancellations are easier in 2020 than ever before

Canceling travel reservations is notoriously difficult. On some airlines, egregious change or cancellation fees often meant the cost to cancel a flight could be more than the the flight itself.

That largely changed during the summer of 2020, when many major airlines including United, American and Delta did away with change fees on most airfares (typically excluding basic economy).

Hotels have generally been more flexible than airlines about cancellations, and policies are more generous since the pandemic started. Hyatt reservations for arrival dates through July 31, 2021, can typically be canceled at no charge up to 24 hours before your scheduled arrival. Marriott is allowing guests to cancel most reservations for arrival dates through Dec. 30, 2020, at no charge up to 24 hours before the scheduled arrival date.

For hotels and airlines booked on points, most hotel chains will redeposit award points on canceled stays. Meanwhile, most airlines will allow you to change your flight for no fee, even if you booked on points.

Given that flexibility, it might make more sense to book travel now and potentially cancel last-minute versus procrastinating and scrambling to book.

Availability isn’t necessarily as broad as you might think

Sure, the number of overall travelers is way down, but travel availability is also way down. In the last week of October, there were 46% fewer scheduled airline flights than for the same week last year, according to airline analytics provider OAG.  Flights aren’t necessarily totally empty; there are just fewer of them.

Similarly, it might seem like a great idea to head to Disney World — where attendance is way down — but less than two-thirds of the hotels on property are open. What’s more, park hours have been reduced.

Amidst the coronavirus, the usual laws of supply and demand still apply. The difference now is that while demand is indeed down, supply has been cut too. So don’t expect to get any "clearance deals" on unfilled hotel rooms or unsold tickets.

You still might end up experiencing the best part of travel — even if you don’t actually travel

Even if you plan a trip that you end up canceling, it wasn’t all for naught. A 2010 Dutch study analyzed 1,530 people, some of whom had gone on vacation and others who didn’t. And the results were surprising for people who tout travel as the key to happiness.

Indeed, in the period leading up to the trip, the study found that soon-to-be vacationers reported higher degrees of happiness than those who would be staying at home.

But after the trip, both the vacationers and nonvacationers reported relatively similar degrees of happiness, suggesting that much of the joy from travel comes from the anticipation leading up to the trip.

So even if you plan a trip to Hawaii that ends up getting canceled, it’s okay. You got to browse the pictures of the pools at all the resorts on Waikiki. You scouted out the hike you’d take after watching the sunrise at Haleakala National Park. You imagined what it would be like to see whales breach from Kaanapali Beach. And you saved a bunch of money and miles by not actually going.

The bottom line

It might not be a bad idea to book now, even if you end up canceling the trip later. If the trip pans out, then your 2020 just got a lot more exciting. But even if it doesn’t work out, you’re likely looking at one of the most flexible years for trip cancellation policies. Plus, you got what might be the most valuable aspect of travel for your happiness anyway — imagining and planning your next trip. Not to mention, by getting refunded for the trip you canceled, your wallet is a lot happier too.

RELATED: Is it safe to fly for the holidays? Airlines working to convince virus-wary travelers

Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: sfrench@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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