However you slice it, the airlines messed up this summer. They overpromised and can't deliver, and we're the ones paying the price.
More than 14,000 U.S. flights were canceled or delayed over the holiday weekend last week. Some 900 flights were canceled outright on Sunday alone. The carriers simply can't get a handle on their own staffing and scheduling shortcomings, and yet despite such teetering unreliability, airfares are about 47% higher this summer than a year ago.
When you head to the airport in 2022, you never know if you're actually going to get where you're going according to your original plan. Simple one-way routings may be canceled and replaced with circuitous journeys that require three flights over several days. Delays may bump your arrival time hours or days beyond the itinerary you paid for.
That's why it has never been more important to make sure all your travel plans can be easily canceled.
The airlines' statistics speak for themselves: You stand a fair chance of not getting to your hotel, cruise, rental car, restaurant, or escorted tour on time. It's crucial that you'll be able to wriggle out of your plans without a penalty.
The travel industry has made nonrefundable purchases into a high-risk game that, should things go wrong, mostly benefits the vendor. As in all gambles, the house has the upper hand.
Nearly every airline, online travel agency (OTA), and hotel chain has a set of discounted rates that require full advance payment that you can't get back if you don't show up on time. By dangling lower prices for prepaid purchases, travelers are enticed to spend money they have no chance of getting back if things go wrong.
Nonrefundable advance purchases were less of a risk in 2019, but in 2022, the travel industry is having trouble holding up its end of the bargain and getting you to your reservations on time.
Unless you want to risk losing payments forever while you twiddle your thumbs in some random airport, don't book nonrefundable rates if your vacation plans depend on flying—at least until the airlines get their terminal disarray in order. Pay the few extra dollars for the peace of mind that flexibility brings.
The exception: If you have travel insurance or credit card coverage that will pay you back for purchases you miss because of travel delays, then you'll have better protection from the airlines' current reign of mayhem.
A good travel policy will also buy you a hotel in your destination if your flight home is delayed, and that's important because the airlines are forcing more people to find last-minute hotels at steep last-minute prices.
The travel industry's hard lines on nonrefundable cancellations have never made less sense. Transportation disruptions, Covid outbreaks, extreme weather, and more have obliterated the ability for us to travel on slim timetable margins. Cancellations not only do happen, but sometimes they also should happen, especially in cases of a positive test result.
If anything, vendors should be making it easier for us to cancel, because they know firsthand how disrupted the employee situation is.
But the practice is yielding a lot of easy income in the travel industry. People are paying money for products they never use, so the situation is unlikely to change.
As travelers continue to book vacations using the same purchasing logic they used before the pandemic—buying flights that land too soon before their travel plans begin, giving in to the temptation of discounted nonrefundable rates, and other tactics that worked better in 2019—the travel industry will continue to make revenue by exploiting the gap between how consumers used to travel and how they ought to be traveling now.
Besides having insurance that will cover you if you miss your plans, also make sure to purchase tickets for flights with the airlines and not with a third-party OTA. That way, when you're stuck an an airport, it will be much easier to go directly to a customer service representative and get booked on an upcoming flight.
Also, if you can afford to add an extra day to your travels, try to get where you're going a day ahead to give your schedule some padding in case your flights are changed against your will.
And if you're saddled with a reservation that is about to expire, taking your hard-earned cash with it, look into whether you can postpone the reservation instead of losing the funds entirely.
As long as the airlines can't be trusted to get you there on time, none of your other travel plans should be nailed down, either. To save stress and sleep, flyers in 2022 should set up their entire travel experiences to be as flexible as possible.