How To Think About Making Travel Plans Now

I am making fully refundable bookings using points. However I’ve been avoiding transferring American Express and Chase points when I do not have to, because while awards can be redeposited into an airline frequent flyer account the points cannot usually be moved back from the airline account to Amex or Chase. When you transfer flexible bank points there is a cost in lost flexibility.

Domestic travel should be mostly doable this summer, especially for the vaccinated. The current vaccines seem likely to be less effective against the South African and Brazilian Covid-19 strains which don’t appear to be common here – that’s tentative because the U.S. does very little genomic surveillance – and Pfizer and Moderna are working on boosters and reformulations.

International travel remains a question mark, at least for most destinations that are currently closed to Americans.

I’ve got a couple of award trips booked to visit my family in Australia later this year, but I have no idea whether I’ll be able to take them – Australia may not open its borders.

  • Countries that have largely kept the virus at bay remain almost completely at risk, since their population doesn’t have a base level of immunity. They need to stay closed longer because they’re highly vulnerable to spread.

  • Countries that aren’t vaccinating quickly will remain at risk, too.

  • Some will open to those who are vaccinated, even though it’s likely that vaccination only reduces risk of spread rather than eliminating it. Expect vaccination plus a negative test to be a common requirement for countries that re-open to travel.

My bet on the data is that March will be a lot better here than February, that by end of May or June the virus will be at a very low level in the U.S. By that I mean a few thousand cases per day in the U.S., rather than six figures of cases a day we’ve seen the past few months. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a more or less virus-free summer here, and in Europe. How things look in the fall depends on vaccinations and mutations in the virus. (I believe this with a 75% probability.)

But I wouldn’t spend non-refundable cash (or trust cash to companies I wasn’t really confident of staying in business and honoring refunds) because too much remains uncertain. All of my bookings – to Europe, Asia and Australia – are on points. All of my hotel stays are on points, or fully cancellable and booked direct.

There’s simply been too much uncertainty. No change fees helps, but with travel credits there’s breakage and of course you wouldn’t want to get stuck with Norwegian vouchers. And carriers like Air Canada have proven themselves too untrustworthy to buy tickets from.

We need to do everything possible to vanquish the virus. The FDA should approve the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been approved already in the U.K. and Europe, perhaps prioritizing it for younger people. There’s a leased vaccine factory in Baltimore we should be relying on to get U.S. doses quickly. Travel will resume even though business travel won’t completely come back.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. NO!

    “Domestic travel should be mostly doable this summer, especially for the vaccinated.”

    The vaccines don’t make you Superman. If 100 million people get the vaccine, maybe 8 million will get Covid-19, of which 50,000 will die. 50,000 is a high number even though it’s not like 500,000.

    The AstraZeneca vaccine is already showing weaknesses for the B.1.153 strain (often called “South African variant”). If you get that vaccine, you will think you are Superman when, in fact, you are Mr. Weakling.

    No, the stupid will act like Superman after they get the vaccine but the responsible will still try to stay home and should upgrade to N95 masks for all of 2021 and at least half of 2022 then see how it is.

    I predict that 150 million Americans will not get the vaccine, perhaps 180 million. That will mean continued problems. Basically, 100% of Americans need to get the vaccine to account for children and teens, which the vaccine is not authorized for (18 years and over for the Moderna vaccine, 16 years and over for the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine).

  2. Gary, I am in a clinical trial right now for another mRNA vaccine Phase 2 and I want to bring some of these points to attention, because I asked about travel.

    Specifically, because I am in a blind, randomized trial, I will not know if I got the vaccine or not–although I am having side effects since vaccination 4 days ago, so I KNOW I did not get the placebo. Anyway, I asked about proof of vaccination, if I want to travel in the future. I was told that my medical record can only be released, with my signature, IF and WHEN a mandate to my required destination goes into effect.

    That brings us to the question: will a proof of vaccine ever be mandated? Although it sounds great and I am all for it to get global travel going again, the reality is that it’s going to be impossible to enforce. I’m in the process of (thinking about) planning a European fall trip as I write this, and the odds are pretty darn good that some of those destinations I am planning to visit will not have been able to complete their vaccine regimen. Thus although I am free to travel, the employees and services in my destination certainly won’t be operating at full capacity. I will still have to wear a mask, etc etc. And how about countries like South Africa, where I usually spend 2 months on safari every year? How do they mandate that my vaccine includes the South African variant, whereas another vaccine may not include it?

    Not only that, I can foresee the need for an annual booster to this nasty, nasty virus.

    I cringe at the thought of how on earth this nation of ours is ever going to recover if 50% of the population doesn’t get the vaccine.

    If any of your readers has a guestimate on how this will play out in the future I would love to hear it.

  3. Recent projections have been that most EU countries (including the largest ones by population like France and Germany) will at best vaccinate 1/3 of their population by the end of 2021. Regardless of what’s going on here in the US, that alone isn’t promising in terms of the EU reopening borders.

  4. The good news is that fewer people like derek will be competing for those award seats. The bad news is that many travel-related companies may go out of business because of Covid and once you get to where you’re going many of the restaurants will be out of business as well.

  5. @KimmieA – it will be interesting to see how countries handle this, some have said they will open to people who have been vaccinated, perhaps they will accept CDC vaccination cards.

  6. One important issue will be reciprocity.

    As long as the U.S. continues to ban foreigners from entry, it’s unlikely other countries will be willing to open their borders to American passport holders.

  7. @Gary Leff – they will surely have to accept the CDC card or the tourist dollars they so desprtely need will be even longer coming. I don’t see how we are going to get the “health passports” people keep talking about, anytime soon. I am still going ahead with my plans for Europe this summer – I can cancel all of it without fees.

    @derek, I doubt most who get the vaccine will think they are superman, more likely is the ones who refuse to get the vaccine already think they are superman or think the virus is “like the flu”. I will get it and I will behave as I should but I won’t stay home forever – once I have protected myself and others have had the opportunity to protect themselves. If a large portion of the population chooses not to get the vaccine, then they are taking a high risk and I won’t stay home to protect them. They are likely the same ones who have flaunted the rules and refused to wear masks, thus spreading the virus to so many. I am speaking as a person who had Covid at the beginning before we could even beg a test from the hospital because we hadn’t been to China but had been to Spain. We took one trip this past summer and have sat at home every since. By this summer “most” of us should be able to be vaccinated and after that, while I will take precautions and wear a mask wear I am told to wear a mask, I won’t set home anymore. Situations change but that is how I see it for now.

  8. I gotta say, I don’t know if you are right or not (who does?!) but I do love your optimism!

  9. The vaccine certificate needs to *replace* the testing requirement. It has to. Otherwise, int’l travel will continue to entail an unacceptable uncertainty. Imagine if a certain test comes up with 3% false positives. That’s a half-dozen people stranded somewhere. For every flight.

    Fortunately, according to another major travel site, a handful of countries have already begun to embark on the path to requiring only proof of vaccination from eligible travelers. Now, the same thing of course has to happen with this country – but given the existing testing exemption for folks who can prove that they have already had covid, that seems like the next logical step.

  10. I teach a college class where we have been tracking the case count per 100K in the US since the start of this semester, which just so happens to have coincided with inauguration day this year. That day it was 60.8, and today, Super Bowl Sunday (may God rest the KC Chiefs’ souls) the case count per 100K is 36.1. It has been steadily declining–usually about 2 per day (one day it went up something like .3, but went right back down). So while we have no idea what will happen, the US data certainly is dramatically falling. We cannot definitely correlate that with ANYTHING yet unless we want to proclaim bad science, as correlation does not equal causation. But the numbers are hopeful, nonetheless.

    By the way, I realize that even our nation’s scientists like to say “it’s because of the post-holiday decline in travel.” Maybe so, but saying that without proper data is actual bad science too–and they know it. Some will say it’s Biden’s 100 day mask mandate and at the end of 100 days we will be in single digits and he can remove the mandate (not that they ever end the mandates). We can assign ALL SORTS of reasons, but none as yet is backed by any real causation. Meanwhile, it is nice watching the data. The source my class is using, of course, is the main CDC page, here:

  11. lolol, look at these comments.

    Fiance and I are in the middle of a 2+ year trip all over the world.
    2020: hit 25 countries, 6 continents, 19 US states. Zero issues.

    2021: already hit 3 countries, and will likely get to 20+ more.
    Plan is for 5 continents again this year.

    Anyone who is slowing down their travel, frankly looks uneducated and silly to us at this point.

    The world has moved on. Not only are cases plunging at a never before seen rate (with nothing to do with a vaccine).. but does anyone outside of the 1st world actually care anymore?
    I just don’t see anyone who cares. It’s a non-factor, unless you are hooked up to a television feed in Europe or North America.

    Life your life people. You all remind me of ‘Crazy Aunt Betty’ – who went to NY City one time in 1935. And she’s been telling everyone not to go since then.

    And none of you have ever gone, because you believe her and you don’t want to take the risk.

    It’s just… a sad state of the first world, to be so terrified of life, that everyone is ok not living.

    In Colombia now, heading up through Central America over the next month, then over to Asia, then into Europe, then back to the US, then to Asia again, then to Africa, then through middle east.

    I just can’t imagine why anyone would waste years of their life, on account of being scared.

    Maybe the same reason people have jobs in cubicles, never start their own companies.
    Never do anything but the same stuff everyone else does? It’s just so weird.

    Group think is, indeed, real. And it’s so much more scary than another coronavirus in the world.

  12. @Angela, and @Marco, I will adhere to the rules in place wherever I go, but you are both correct. I was vaccinated in the Moderna trial. I believe it will be soon that it will be established that vaccinated people do not spread the disease. That is the case with other vaccines, and there is no reason it will not prove to be true for this one. At that point there will really be no reason not to let vaccinated people travel freely, with, of course, a proof of their vaccination that cannot easily be forged. Many countries desperately need tourism income and will not sit back and let their people starve (in a vast number of countries poverty kills many times the number of people that COVID does), but will welcome back vaccinated people with open arms. We are about three to five months from the point when everyone who wants a vaccine will able to have one. Of all the people who got the leading vaccines in all the studies, none has died of COVID or entered an ICU. Almost none have been hospitalized at all. I can’t travel immediately because of the demands of my job, but like you I will not stay at home indefinitely just because COVID still exists and some people are too stupid to get vaccinated. It is the deaths and hospitalizations that we really care about; the mild or asymptomatic cases are not what are ruining and often ending their victims’ lives.

  13. Editing my earlier comment – the three to five months until everyone who wants one can get a vaccine refers to the U.S. I recognize that vaccine distribution is inequitable globally, and intend to make donations to organizations that will help to get them out in poorer countries. Such countries, though, often do rely on tourism income and will not need to wait until all of their own citizens are vaccinated to welcome visitors to boost their economies.

  14. Gary-

    What about South America travel? What about traveling with your kids who may not be able to get vaccinated?

  15. With international restrictions bouncing around and so much closed, I am not planning that, but will certainly plan some when things settle down. We’ve done some domestic travel.

    But like you, I am mainly using miles and only booking things that are refundable. I don’t want to be caught out like last spring.

  16. @Samsiro

    Between those two events, WHO observed that high PCR counts give false positives and others have followed.. Cases are down because they changed how they count cases.

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