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The holiday travel season is going to look very different in 2020.

Many people will be weighing whether they should go anywhere at all, not just because of safety, but because of social responsibility.

And while some will stay home, others will still plan to travel by plane, train, or car to see loved ones after months of separation, or to take a long-anticipated vacation. After all, exceptionally low prices are being promoted right now on everything from flights to hotels and vacation packages, adding serious temptation. 

“In normal years, the holidays are one of the most expensive times of year to travel,” explains Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “That’s because it’s such a popular time not only to see family, but for many students, teachers, and families with kids, it may be one of the few coordinated vacation breaks they get. With all those people traveling at the same time, fares are bound to go up.”

He cautions, however, “But this isn’t a normal year.”

Because far fewer people are booking holiday travel, Keyes says the opposite has occurred, and holiday fares have precipitously dropped. “We have found more cheap Christmas flights in 2020 than the past five years combined. So while people mistakenly assume that all cheap flights these days are a result of the pandemic, the one area where cheap fares are directly attributable to coronavirus is for holiday travel.”

And while many travelers will want to take advantage of such lucrative deals, the situation surrounding the novel coronavirus is fast-evolving. While one destination may seem safe right now, it could easily emerge as a new hotspot in two to three months if a second wave of the pandemic occurs, and as cold and flu season begins. 

For those that want to book travel, but lack confidence that they will actually be able to go, or may not ultimately feel comfortable doing so, it’s important to know that your travel purchase is protected amid so much uncertainty.

Fortunately, right now is also a good time to find more generous cancellation policies than ever before, with flexible options that allow travelers to back out without added fees, for any reason at all.

Like airlines, major hotel brands and third-party booking engines are offering similarly lenient policies, competitive pricing, and refund options for both new and holiday bookings. They’re also promoting stringent new cleaning procedures in an attempt to reassure concerned travelers.

I did some heavy online digging to see how this side of hospitality is responding, and while few travel outlets are publishing special cancellation periods specifically targeted at holiday travel, some do specify a mid-December cutoff — approximately the week before Christmas — for refunds.

That means most Thanksgiving travel may be booked right now, worry-free.

For an at-a-glance guide to cancellation periods, we rounded up the current published policies from major hotels, online travel agencies, and home rental platforms.

And if you do decide to book, here’s what experts say you should know about whether it’s safe to fly over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the holiday season, specifically.

Keep reading for key dates and cancellation policies from hotels and online travel booking platforms for 2020 holiday travel.

Grandma and Granddaughter preparing turkey for thanksgiving

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

  • Airbnb hosts set their own cancellation policies, which vary depending on the listing as well as the amount of time from booking, or until check-in. Individual cancellation details are available towards the bottom of each listing page, and you can also search by this filter for more flexible options.
  • Available policies hosts can choose include Flexible, Moderate, and Strict. For some places, hosts offer a choice of refundable or non-refundable booking with a different price and terms.
  • Reservations for stays and Airbnb Experiences made on or before March 14, with a check-in date between that date and October 31, are covered by Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances policy and may be canceled before check-in. Guests who cancel their bookings will see cancellation and refund options: Airbnb will either refund, or issue travel credit that includes, all service fees for covered cancellations.

  • Look for bookings that state flexible cancellation policies; if you don’t book a flexible rate, you may not be entitled to a refund.
  • If you already have a booking that is non-refundable or no longer free to cancel, you may face a cancellation fee if you cancel. You may also try calling the hotel property booked directly as they may be willing to change your dates at no additional cost. 
  • If your reservation ends up being a no-go because of pandemic-related events — like a border closure — sign into your account and check your options. In these situations, the property must provide a refund, offer a free date change, or a credit for a future stay.

  • For future travel, look for the filters labeled “free cancellation” (for lodging) and “no change fee” (for flights) to avoid penalties. Car rentals are flexible.
  • For existing travel, many reservations made through Expedia already qualify for either free cancellation or no-fee change. Sign into your account and check your itinerary. If you qualify, you can change or cancel your reservations from within your itinerary. 
  • If you booked a package vacation, you’ll have to cancel your lodging and your flight separately, subject to the cancellation policies of your specific booking. If you don’t have an account, you can use your itinerary or confirmation number.

  • For any future arrival date, reservations (even pre-paid ones) qualify for any changes or cancellations at no charge up to 24 hours before arrival, as long as the change or cancellation is made by December 31 — which generously includes the entire 2020 holiday period.
  • But some exclusions do apply during holidays, so check your individual rate rules when booking to confirm.
  • Changes to any reservations will be subject to availability as well as any potential rate differences.

  • All reservations made through September 30 can be changed or canceled at no charge, up to 24 hours before check-in date.
  • If you’re booking a new reservation now (in other words, past that cutoff date), your reservation is subject to published cancellation policies.
  • If you are a Hilton Honors member, and cancel an advance purchase rate, you may be eligible for a free night certificate for each canceled night, to use by August 31, 2021.

  • If you haven’t yet made your booking, look for rates stating flexible cancellation policies. If you have already booked one that offers free cancellation, you’ll get a refund for the amount that you paid.
  • If you made a non-refundable booking, but your destination is considered inaccessible, you qualify for a full refund or a hotel voucher if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance.
  • But that’s just under those circumstances: If your destination is considered open for travel but you just want to cancel anyway, your booking’s original cancellation policy applies.

  • New reservations booked on or after July 1 for arrival dates through July 31, 2021, can be canceled at no charge up to 24 hours before your scheduled arrival (with few limited exceptions), making all holiday travel flexible. 
  • Find a list of change and cancellation fee waiver exceptions online to check before booking.
  • Some individual hotel properties may adjust this cancellation policy during high-demand periods like holidays, so review the rate rules when booking. These will show the current cancellation and deposit policies for your specific stay.
  • Reservations can be changed or canceled on hyatt.com or via the app. Changes to existing reservations are subject to availability and possible rate differences.
  • Note that these policies apply to reservations made directly through Hyatt directly. Online travel agents or other third parties may have different policies.

  • The hotel group offered more flexible cancellation policies due to COVID-19, but those are mainly not applicable to the 2020 holiday period because all non-refundable and pre-paid bookings from October 1 onward will be subject to the terms and conditions stated during booking.
  • Some rates do have flexible cancellation built-in, so check your booking for the details.

  • Langham will provide a full refund (including related fees) on cancellations for bookings as long as they’re made at least 24 hours prior to arrival date. This applies for stays up to and including December 18.
  • Outside of that window, policies differ for individual Langham hotels.
  • If you made your booking through a third party, you’ll have to contact that entity, as their policies will apply.

  • Lowes’ flexible policy allows cancellation with 24 hours notice for any new and existing reservations. 
  • Pre-paid and non-refundable reservations may not be included in this policy.
  • Reservations made through a third party are subject to that entity’s terms.

  • Existing reservations for future travel are subject to the policies stated at the time of booking. Late cancellation booking may be equivalent to the room night cost.
  • For guests with reservations made on or after July 6 for arrival dates through December 30, Marriott will allow changes or cancellations without a fee up to 24 hours before the scheduled arrival date.
  • Pre-paid reservations and a few other exclusions will be subject to the policies stated at the time of booking, such as the responsibility to pay the nightly room rate if canceling late.

  • Travelocity doesn’t charge its own cancellation fees, and as long as you’re canceling with three days’ notice of your stay, most hotels in your itinerary won’t charge one either.
  • If you need to cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking it, most airlines don’t charge a fee, and neither does the online agency.

  • Note that Vrbo and HomeAway are now the same platform, except in name, and as such, they have the same cancellation policies.
  • With the summer COVID-19 policies now past, the host’s standard cancellation policy currently applies. It falls into three categories.
  • The first is called Relaxed. Bookings canceled at least 14 days before the start of the stay receive a full refund. Those canceled at least seven days in advance receive a 50% refund. 
  • The next category is Moderate. Bookings canceled 30 days or more from check-in receive a full refund. Two weeks or more from check-in and guests can receive a 50% refund.
  • The most stringent policy is Firm. Bookings canceled 60 days out receive a full refund; then guests can receive a 50% refund until 30 days before check-in. 

  • For new or existing direct bookings, all properties are required to accommodate non-cancelable rate reservation changes without penalty if the request is received at least 48 hours prior to arrival, and the same number of room nights or more are booked for a future stay.
  • This policy does not apply to group bookings, such as meetings or events.
  • Guests who are prohibited from traveling to their booked hotel will have their cancellation or change penalties waived on direct bookings.

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