Ask a travel nerd: what changed while I ignored travel?

LLook, I don’t blame you for ignoring travel industry news during the pandemic. Who cares if Hilton has gone bankrupt (it hasn’t) or if Alaska Airlines joined an alliance (it did) when you’re not traveling?

If it wasn’t for my job, I would have ignored this stuff as well.

However, there are plenty of changes under the radar that have dramatically altered the travel landscape in 2021. Beyond the obvious – more cleaning, more masks – other updates have rippled throughout the industry, including including lower fees and new credit card benefits.

Anyway, it’s good to see you again. Here’s what you missed.

Key Changes in the Travel Industry in the Age of COVID

Airline change fees (almost sort of) are gone

If you didn’t know the airline change and cancellation fees before the pandemic began, you probably got to grips with them from its inception. These charges have always been a pesky nuisance, but when everyone had to cancel their flights at the same time, they became intolerable.

Believe it or not, the airlines seem to have done us some good on this front. Many not only waived the change fee early last year, but also deleted them of most tariffs indefinitely.

What does that mean:

  • On most US airlines for domestic flights, you can now change or cancel basic non-economy fares at no additional cost.
  • You can book a flight and then rebook it if your plans change, without having to pay a lot of fees.

What it does not mean:

  • You can change and cancel tickets willy-nilly. You will have to pay the fare difference if you change your ticket for a more expensive ticket. And if you cancel it, you’ll get a voucher back in the form of credit rather than cash.
  • You should not assume that a ticket is editable. Read the fine print before clicking “book”.

Rental cars have gotten weirdly expensive

It’s strange, but it could have a major impact on your summer travel plans and expenses. A combination of supply issues and spikes in demand led to the so-called rental car apocalypse, driving costs through the (solar) roof in many popular destinations like Hawaii and Glacier National Park.

What does this mean for travelers? Reverse planning your summer trip and investigate car rental costs first, then look at hotels and plane tickets. Otherwise, you could end up scoring a lot on flights, only to pay several times as much for a rental car when you land.

The old invisible hand of the free market should eventually solve this problem, but for now: Beware of the bumps of rental car stickers.

Your travel credit card has experienced a midlife crisis

In the days before, travelers would pay high annual fees on travel credit cards which offered perks such as airport lounge access and free checked baggage. But those perks were rendered irrelevant last year, and those cards scrambled to offer new perks and features that made some semblance of sense during a global pandemic.

The fallout from this identity crisis is a bunch of travel credit cards that now offer benefits that are completely unrelated to travel.

Some American Express credit cards offered perks for streaming services like Netflix and then a $ 30 PayPal credit each month. Other Chase Bank credit cards offered bonuses on groceries instead of airline tickets and hotels. Basically every premium travel credit card has become a premium credit card for a living.

Some of these changes are temporary. Others were temporary, but continue to drag on as travel plans are postponed. The result for you? Don’t be surprised to see some unusual and flexible perks when looking for traditional travel rewards cards.

Other things that happened

Alaska Airlines has joined American Airlines in the Oneworld Alliance. Most travel agencies have received huge federal checks in order to stay afloat. The cost of flights went down when no one was paying attention. Now they are going up.

Let’s see, what else?

Some airlines have handled the pandemic in a user-friendly (Delta hat tip) manner, while others have not. Same as hotels. To be fair, most airlines and hotels have merged their COVID-19 policies to the point where they are fundamentally indistinguishable from each other. There’s no point in wondering whether to stay at a Hilton or an IHG for safety reasons – they’re both going to be soaked in sanitizer.

The bottom line

I understand. You weren’t traveling, so you stopped paying attention to all the travel blogs and websites you used to frequent. Who can blame you?

Considering that the entire industry has effectively taken a hiatus for over 12 months during a time of unprecedented turmoil, you haven’t missed anything overwhelming. There have been no successful bankruptcies or mergers, and the reward points value hasn’t changed as much as one might expect.

Still, some of the changes, like the welcome release of airline change fees, have added to a new travel reality that is worth checking out before planning your next vacation.

More from NerdWallet

Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samsambutdif.

The article Ask a Travel Nerd: What Changed While I Ignored Travel? originally appeared on NerdWallet.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


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