A full reopening for travel is still many months away, but as new vaccines make their way to people, we finally have a reason to dream again.
Even if we aren't quite ready to pencil in vacation dates on the calendar, travel sellers are eager to help us pin places on the map. A raft of incentives are being introduced by vendors to convince customers to choose their next destinations now—and in many cases, the when can be figured out later.
This pause in travel has been excruciating, but there's a silver lining for some of us. Whereas many put a big-ticket vacation purchase on their credit cards and pay it off after the fact, the current slowdown provides the time—and, increasingly, the structure—to pay for travel according to our personal financial schedules.
In the early days of the pandemic, when nearly no one was traveling, some hotels tried to cope with the halt in business by introducing vouchers for future stays.
Hotel vouchers function a little like bonds do. If you spend $75 with a hotel today (helping the business meet costs and pay employees), then in a predetermined length of time—say six months—the voucher matures and is worth a higher value, like $100. You don't have to choose the dates for your stay when you buy. You just have to agree to wait until the investment matures to use the voucher.
If you know a hotel or destination that you have your heart set on, buying a voucher is a great way to support a business while making a promise to yourself to stay there one day.
Gift certificates are nothing new, but this idea may be new to you: Gift cards don't necessarily have to be given to someone else. If you buy them for yourself, they're another solid way to set future vacation plans by taking care of early payment today. Happily, gift cards also serve to keep businesses in the black until the time comes that you're ready to redeem.
Most of the major hotel chains issue their own gift cards, including Hyatt, Marriott, Kimpton, Best Western, Choice Hotels, and many others. Some larger individual properties may even offer cards of their own, such as Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek near Walt Disney World, the Conrad Dublin, Lotte New York Palace, California's Madonna Inn, Louisville's Brown Hotel, and countless others.
If there's a specific hotel you have your eye on, check directly to see if it sells gift cards. (Sometimes the hotels call them "vouchers" even though they don't mature like the aforementioned vouchers—and that can be confusing, so double-check the rules to ensure what you're buying doesn't require a waiting period before use.)
You can also buy gift cards from third-party booking sites such as Hotels.com, Bnbfinder, Airbnb, and many others, but bear in mind that in these cases, the money stays with the website and doesn't go to any specific property until the card is redeemed.
Hotels are the big player in this category, but you may be surprised at the variety of travel providers that will furnish gift cards, ranging from PADI scuba diving certification to the airlines (such as Delta, Southwest, and Alaska) to national U.S. rail carrier Amtrak.
This old consumer-friendly booking loophole is more useful than ever, so keep an eye out. A hotel or vacation package that allows for free cancellation gives you the power to dream now and change your mind later.
Penalty-free cancellation (and, to a similar extent, penalty-free scheduling changes) have become common across the board in travel. Look for confirmation of the policy in the fine print—setting you free to plan trips without fear of losing your funds if you need to make changes.
If you set your travel date well into the future, you can often begin making monthly payments in advance, preventing your budget from getting busted when safe travel finally rolls around.
Many of the big full-service vacation packages allow for payment plans. Look at Funjet, Apple Vacations, Disney Parks, Beaches and Sandals Resorts, Expedia's Deposit vacations, the Southwest Vacations payment plan administered by Uplift, and others. Many travel agents will also facilitate a plan with a down payment.
Sometimes when you agree to a payment plan, you give up benefits such as free cancellation (Disney, for example, is tough on customers who pull out), so it's imperative that you know the rules before agreeing to embark upon a monthly payment system.
Adventure tour operator Exodus Travels recently offered what it termed "Dateless Departures," which allow the first people who pay deposits on some upcoming packages to hold off on deciding when they actually plan to join a trip.
That perk has a snappy name, but even without the clever branding, the concept is becoming more common. Vacation-selling platform Travelzoo now has a long menu of fully refundable deals for tours and hotels around the world. Customers can choose a date today, but unlike most vacation purchases in pre-pandemic times, these allow for date changes or full refunds at any time.
Because no one can name the exact day when travel will again be worry-free, many travel vendors are willing to hedge accordingly. So if there's a company or a destination that you have always been thinking of, go ahead and check what the terms and conditions are right now—they might very well be looser than they were a year ago, and the new policies could indeed allow for flexible dates.
But don't assume that these privileges are forever. The cruise lines and the airlines loosened their cancellation requirements at the very dawn of the pandemic, but those changes were only meant to be temporary. As business picks back up, don't expect companies to remain so lenient. If you do make a cruise or airline booking, ensure that the terms and conditions stipulate that cancellation and date changes will be honored forever, not just within a specified time frame.
FlexiPass by Travelstride
Nearly two dozen companies that operate adventure tours all over the globe have banded together to support a special voucher known as the FlexiPass. Customers can buy one at three different tiers: $750, $1,500, and $2,500. But you don't have to select a vacation anytime soon. The 2021–2022 pass gives you until January 1, 2023, to apply the funds toward making a reservation for a chosen trip. And the vacation doesn't have to be taken until the last day of 2023.
The complete list of participating companies currently includes big escorted tour names such as Intrepid Travel and Collette along with smaller tour specialists in desirable destinations such as Namibia, Egypt, Ecuador, Serbia, and Morocco.
The cancellation rules aren't as totally flexi as the name suggests: Although they're fully refundable for 90 days after purchase (fees of 10–19% apply after that), once a FlexiPass holder makes a reservation with one of the companies, the funds are locked into the cancellation rules of that company and must be spent there.
Still, if you know for sure that you'll want to take a vacation with one of the tour leaders on the list of vendors, it's a good way to pay for a chunk of that trip early, or to gift a sizable payment to someone else.
Having future travel plans can do wonders for a person's optimism and state of mind—but knowing those plans are already paid for can feel like a personal miracle.
Editor's note: Since this feature's publication, FlexiPass revised its posted Terms and Conditions. This article has been amended to reflect the current rules.