How to book a holiday during coronavirus (COVID-19): What you need to know

Plenty of travellers from Victoria and NSW were looking forward to an escape to the Northern Territory when its borders reopened, originally scheduled for July 17. Following an increase in the number of infections in Victoria and the Sydney region, any traveller coming from those "hotspots" can now enter the NT, but only if they undergo 14 days of quarantine, at a cost of $2500.

These state-to-state border closures are yet more evidence of the seismic shift in travel. There are now many factors in play that can destabilise your travel plans. As well as greater risk, the pandemic has brought uncertainty to our travels, and that requires new strategies that allow you to vary your travel plans without too much pocket pain.

Flexibility is key

Plenty of would-be travellers – myself included – have made travel bookings for 2020 that aren't going to happen and we're out of pocket. It's a sharp lesson, and the ability to change your travel plans at short notice and without penalty is now a high priority. It's vital to know what happens if events beyond your control force a change of plans. Will you be entitled to a full refund, a credit or will your booking evaporate, with no compensation?

GoodLiving illustration by Dionne Gain 21/07/20. Booking holidays during COVID-19 Michael Gebicki column.

Illustration: Dionne Gain

As soon as you've found your dream trip, the hotel that fits your needs or the flight you'll be taking to get there, check the cancellation terms and conditions. The gold standard is a full cash refund, but the next best scenario is a booking that allows you to defer to another date, with no expiry date, no penalty and no additional cost, within reason. If you book a European river cruise in March 2021 and that booking is cancelled, you can't expect to take that same cruise in August, when high season rates apply, at no extra cost.

Flexibility might come at a higher price. Hotels will often discount their room rate if you accept a pay now, non-refundable option. Given the current uncertainties, that could be a painful choice. If you accept the higher rate that allows you to cancel your booking with no penalty, you might also find that no prepayment is required, and that's an appealing option for these changeable times.

The same applies to car hire and flights. When you book a flight using an airline's own website you'll usually be offered a choice of a flexible fare. They cost more, but you can change your booking either at no cost or for a lower penalty than a non-flexy fare.

Pay direct to the service provider

Who you pay for your booking is more important than ever. If it's the operator that is providing the service, you're in a stronger position if you need to rearrange your booking than if it's a third party, such as an online travel agent who is simply selling the hotel stay, the tour or the flight. They often have cancellation policies that are more restrictive than the operator and that can add an extra layer of fees if you cancel. Third party operators will usually take much longer to refund any money you're due in case of cancellation.

Another point to remember, if it becomes impossible for you to take a trip, such as the lockdown that has prevented Australians from travelling overseas, you're better off if you wait until the operator cancels the booking than if you do it yourself.

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Overseas holidays are looking cheap in 2021 – should you book now?

Booking an overseas holiday comes with greater risk than a holiday within our own shores. For one, we don't know when we'll be allowed to leave Australia for leisure purposes. We also don't know when Australia's quarantine restrictions, requiring all incoming travellers to undergo 14 days in a hotel room at their own cost, will be lifted. Even after those restrictions are removed, they could return in the face of another wave of infections.

Without a proven vaccine to protect against COVID-19, travelling just about anywhere overseas carries a greater risk of infection than travelling in Australia. The virus is more widespread in most other countries and if you develop symptoms overseas you could end up in a foreign hospital. Even the best possible outcome from that situation carries potential long-term health effects. It's also likely to be expensive.

Check the cancellation policies for self-contained accommodation

Self-contained accommodation from websites such as Stayz and Airbnb offers greater opportunity to self-isolate than a hotel or caravan park. An isolated cottage or a farmstay might be a better option for families, since the temptation to hang out with other children might be too hard to resist. Just be aware that cancellation policies are set by the owner and they vary. Some offer a full refund even if you cancel just a few days before the stay commences, with others the cooling off period is as short as 48 hours after making the booking.

Travel insurance policies have changed

Since COVID-19 became a "known" event in late January, travel insurers are not offering cover for any claim that arises as a result of the pandemic. That applies to delays, cancellations and any health problems that you might suffer, and that's another good reason to plan holidays in Australia until it becomes safe to travel overseas.

See also: Others can, so why can't Australians travel overseas?

See also: The era of cheap travel for the masses is over

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