Will Coronavirus End Cheap Air Travel?

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Have you ever flown across the United States for $99?

You can right now. One unexpected impact of the coronavirus is the increase in cheap flights.

Airlines, hotels and online travel retailers are pulling out all the stops to fill airplanes. Priceline is currently offering July travelers a three-night hotel stay and round trip-flight from Boston to Miami for $219. In October, you can fly from Chicago to Los Angeles on United Air for $74 round trip.

“Reducing fares is the fastest way for airlines to entice customers to book,” said Adam Aronson, co-founder of travelhelix, a Global Rescue Safe Travel partner. “They need to capitalize on any opportunity they have to turn things around after a historically disastrous first half.”

With prices this low, airline ticket deals might seem hard to resist and have you wondering if you should you take advantage.

Know Your Travel Strengths
If you’re a frequent traveler and able to roll with the punches as airlines find their footing during the pandemic, yes, you should take advantage of the current deals — many of which are available for 2021 travel.

“Taking advantage of low fares depends very much on your risk appetite — both financially and with regard to health and safety,” Aronson said. “A flash deal on summer flights may be tempting and if you’re comfortable with the idea of flying in the next 1-2 months, then maybe a low-cost flight is worth considering.”

Although the price may be a steal, be prepared to pack some extra patience. Travel will be more inconvenient, with less choice, fewer routes, limited nonstop options and longer lines. Frequent travelers, used to the changes in air travel, may be able to build extra time into their schedule to compensate. A family of six headed out on a much-needed vacation may not have the time or experience to cope with a cancelled or re-routed flight.

In addition to low fares, you might find offers like a free checked bag and seat upgrades as well as improved loyalty programs, but don’t be distracted by these enticing perks. Before purchasing, familiarize yourself with both the airline’s change and cancellation policy, as well as any terms and conditions that may be specific to the deal.

Aronson notes that April and May brought “shockingly low fares and screaming deals,” but often the travelers who took advantage of the deals may have never boarded those flights.

“Those whose tickets were ‘involuntarily’ canceled by the airline are legally entitled to a cash refund. But for those who ‘voluntarily’ canceled their ticket, the most they can expect is a voucher for future use. Jumping on a too-good-to-pass-up deal means they’ve got cash tied up with an airline, potentially for years.”

How Do Airlines Decide Pricing?
Airlines take many factors into play before deciding the price of a flight. The coronavirus pandemic added new considerations — decommissioned planes, reduced routes, fewer flights and discontinued sales of the middle seat — all of which affect the price equation.

According to Scott’s Cheap Flights, “airfare is generally lower as a result of COVID-19, though there’s a lot of variance across routes and dates. Flights aren’t just cheap for travel in the short-term, but as far out as next winter in many cases. There’s likely a limit to how far they’ll go, though.”

Consumers can watch the marketplace and check airline prices. Here’s what will keep fares low:

  • Lower oil prices mean lower fuel costs, helping airlines slash fares.
  • Decommissioned planes taken out of storage and put back into service will add capacity and decrease prices.
  • Boeing 737 MAX planes are set to make a comeback soon, which means airlines have more planes to fill — and help reduce fares.
What will increase the price of flights?

  • Technology — such as biometric identification, broader use of CT scanners for luggage inspections and touchless check in kiosks — will raise ticket prices.
  • Maintaining social distancing on planes by removing the middle seat will increase fares. The International Air Transport Association warned if governments ordered airlines to adopt physical distancing onboard aircraft, at least a third of seats would remain empty and airlines would have to raise their ticket prices by at least 50% or go bust.
  • Fewer routes can drive up prices. JetBlue and Spirit SAVE suspended trips between Atlanta and Denver until September, which increased fares for that route on other airlines by 25%.
Right now, airlines are cutting prices to get passengers in seats, but it’s not a long-term solution and pricing will eventually creep back up again. One indicator is the number of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) check-ins at U.S. airports. As more people are comfortable flying — and you can watch the numbers — the more likely fare prices will normalize. In general, airlines respond quickly to the slightest uptick in consumer demand.

“The decisions airlines make now will determine their short-term public perception and their long-term staying power in the industry,” Aronson said. “And this goes well beyond ticket prices. Passengers need to feel like their personal health and safety is being prioritized over profitability. That’s the only way trust can be maintained.”

Look for Lenient Change and Cancellation Policies
What will encourage consumers to buy that cheap flight? The cancellation policy.

“Customer loyalty to airlines is often very personal. Factors like status, upgrades, waived bag fees and other perks all play a role — as do practical considerations like, ‘Do they offer frequent or nonstop service to the cities I travel to most?’” Aronson said. “But now more than ever, travelers are concerned with one thing before booking their next flight: ‘Can I make changes without incurring fees and, if I need to cancel, what happens to my investment?’”

According to the Department of Transportation, “If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation — even for non-refundable tickets.”

Airlines might offer a voucher to use for a future flight and that’s up to you if you want to take it. The Points Guy notes, “if your canceled flight was to or from the United States (on any airline) you’re actually owed a cash refund if you want one.”

Be sure to do your research before making a purchase. In recent months, every major airline has modified their change and cancellation policies.

“In the beginning, most waived changed fees, regardless of fare class. In June, certain carriers started excluding Basic Economy fares from their ‘no change fee’ policy,” Aronson said. “For travelers using points or miles to book flights, it’s important to check if the airline charges a reinstatement fee for points or miles. It’s not just ‘What’s the cancellation policy?’ so much as, ‘What’s the cancellation policy for the fare class that I’m booking and for the medium of payment that I’m using?’”

This is a huge distinction for today’s travelers.

“In this economy, there’s a big difference between a $500 airline voucher ‘to be redeemed at some point between now and the end of 2021’ and $500 cash, credited back to your bank account,” Aronson said.

How Can Global Rescue Help?
Travel restrictions and changing quarantine requirements make a travel protection service membership a necessity. A Global Rescue membership provides advisory and evacuation services, plus access to up-to-the-minute travel information.

IMG Signature Travel InsuranceSM  is the perfect add-on to a Global Rescue membership, providing coverage against a variety of unexpected expenses while you’re traveling.

Even if you have travel insurance, it’s not always applicable to coronavirus cancellations. Travelers should look for a travel insurance policy with Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) benefits, which allows you to cancel your trip for any reason not included in your base insurance plan.

Global Rescue offers IMG Signature Travel Insurance and an optional upgrade to the IMG Signature Travel Plus policy, which includes Cancel for Any Reason. Learn more about Global Rescue travel protection memberships by clicking here.

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