The Points Guy on why now might be the best time to buy plane tickets even amid coronavirus

March 13, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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Let’s be clear: Unless it’s absolutely necessary, you’re probably not getting on an airplane anytime soon. The reach of the new coronavirus, a.k.a. the COVID-19 virus, is expanding by the minute, not only infecting people—more than 133,000 worldwide, at the time of this writing—but also affecting the way we travel, with some countries on lockdown (Italy), others not accepting those with foreign passports (India), and President Trump suspending travel from Europe, with the exception of the United Kingdom, to the U.S. for 30 days.

That said, if you’re willing to bet that—like every pandemic to date—this, too, shall pass, then it’s a great time to book future travel. Airline stocks are down, many of the flights that are in the air are close to empty, and mileage redemption deals abound.

Below, Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy, an online how-to guide for maximizing airline miles and credit card points, shares his advice for availing yourself of deals now in hopes of kicking back, sans face mask and hand sanitizer, in the months ahead. “As much as I want to be on the front lines saying it’s fine to travel, right now, it’s not ideal,” says Kelly. “I think things will start rebounding over the summer.”

Look for airline mileage redemption deals

“There has, frankly, never been a better time to redeem miles at the low ‘saver’ level,” says Kelly. “If you’ve got miles, and you’ve been dreaming of going to Australia, now is the time to go the website of your carrier of choice and look for deals. It’s just like the stock market—when there’s fear, that’s the best time to get in. You can even book 11 months in advance. For January and February 2021, we’re seeing a lot of availability on routes where it’s normally tough to get award tickets: New York to Singapore, for example.”

Nick Ewen, a senior editor at The Points Guy, also notes that some airlines that are typically stingy with their business-class awards, like United, are opening up historic amounts of inventory. Take United’s nonstop flights from Chicago-O’Hare to Frankfurt, Germany, in July and August: 50 of the 62 days have business-class awards for up to eight passengers, which, he says, “is unheard of—especially during what is typically peak summer travel season.”

Check your status

If you have elite status, book an award ticket now and worry about whether you have to change or cancel later.“With elite status, it’s max $150 if you decide to cancel and want to reinstate your miles,” Kelly explains. “I’m executive platinum with American Airlines, and if you have that status, they’ll let you change or cancel for free.”

If you’re booking domestic travel, consider Southwest

“Even before coronavirus, they let you change and cancel for free,” Kelly says. “That policy is why Southwest shines. Southwest and Delta have been the most generous so far, in terms of changing or canceling flights you’ve already booked.”

Keep your eye on the prize

If the price of a ticket you previously booked has dramatically dropped, call the airline, you might get a credit or a voucher. “It depends on the airline and how much the fare has dropped,” says Kelly. “With Southwest Airlines, if the fare drops, you can always call back and re-ticket for no charge and get a credit for the difference. For international travel, most airlines charge a change fee of around $300, so if the price of your fare dropped $500, it might make sense. It’s got to be a substantial drop to make it worthwhile. If what was a $600 ticket is now $150, call the airline. You’re not going to get a refund, but they’ll re-ticket you at the lower price and give you a voucher for the price difference minus the change fee.”

If you have to travel now, it’s not doomsday

“The No. 1 thing to do is limit your close contact with other people,” says Kelly. “If you have miles, upgrade to sit in a seat that will have you around fewer people—think about the difference between a first-class suite with a closable door and a middle seat in economy. We have a writer who just flew first class on Japan Airlines from Tokyo to New York, and he was the only person in the cabin. On routes like JFK to LAX, where it’s usually impossible to get a free upgrade, cabins are wide open, so if you have status, you may not even have to use miles to get more space. Whatever cabin you’re in, a window seat is better than an aisle, in terms of virus transmission.”

Call a hotel and name your price

“Hotels are hurting, which is a shame, but it means that consumers have more power than ever,” Kelly says. “In New York, the Hyatt Union Square is usually $450 on a good night—I know someone staying there right now for $150 per night. You can always call a hotel, ask to speak to the general manager, and say, ‘Look, I have 20 different options of places to stay, can you make me a deal I can’t refuse?’ If you see a cheap, nonrefundable rate online, call the hotel and ask for that rate with a 24-hour cancellation policy. You’ve got the power. No matter what, 2020 is going to be the year of travel deals. For those who have health and an appetite for risk, there are upsides to be had.”

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