No matter how thoroughly you plan your trip, last-minute changes to your personal schedule can still happen. If you need to alter or cancel your travel plans it can be a serious headache—and a lot of lost money might be next. Still, in many cases, cancelling a trip is unavoidable. A sudden family emergency may come up, your work may need you for a huge assignment, or you or your travel companion might unexpectedly fall ill. Life happens — coronavirus pandemics happen. While some cancellation fees are unavoidable, there are a few simple things to keep in mind when these things happen.
If you need to cancel an upcoming trip, don’t panic. There are steps you can take to mitigate your losses, reduce your money stress, or even secure a rescheduled vacation. Check out these tips that can help you avoid paying full cancellation fees the next time you need to cancel a trip.
Know the Policies
First things first: when booking big ticket items for travel, it’s important to make sure you read the fine print. Ideally, you should make sure you know the ins and outs of the airline, hotel, or travel agency’s policies before you enter any credit card info. This includes their cancellation policy.
Cancelling a Hotel or Rental
For hotels, I usually book with Hotels.com or a similar service—that’s because their cancellation policy often includes general refunds at most hotels if you cancel before a certain date, and sometimes a voucher for a future stay for cases where refunds might not be available.
If you’ve rented a vacation home from a site like Airbnb, always check the trip cancellation policy listed on the rental profile. While the service might have its own general cancellation policies, individual property managers likely have their own set of requirements and deadlines for cancellation too.
I also usually go a step further and always make a note on my calendar on the last day it is free to cancel.
Cancelling a Flight
For flights, you should know that federal law states you have 24 hours to cancel your trip from the time you book your flight if you book it at least seven days before the departure date without having to pay a fee—you can check Transportation.gov for further details. Bear in mind that this only applies to flights booked through the carrier itself, not flights booked through third-party websites. Some airlines, like Southwest, have much more generous cancellation policies than others. Though, in many cases, you’ll at least be able to put the money you spent on your flight toward a trip in the future. This varies significantly from airline to airline, so checking trip cancellation policies ahead of time is a must whenever you book a flight.
Cancelling a Rental Car
If you have booked a prepaid rental car at your destination, you should be able to find their cancellation policy on their company website. Most—like Avis and Hertz, two common rental car companies—will charge a fee for cancellations more than 24 hours after you’ve made the booking, and might charge even greater fees if you cancel your tip within 24 hours of the day you’re scheduled to pick up the car.
Cancelling a Tour or Excursion
Tours and excursions that you’ve booked in advance can also be cancelled, but whether you get a full, partial, or no refund will largely depend on the company you’ve booked through. It’s a good idea to pick up the phone and call the agency to see whether there is any flexibility in their trip cancellation policy.
Cancellation tips: boosting your chances of a refund
Cancellation policies imposed by large companies can sometimes be set in stone—but sometimes they might not be. Especially for smaller companies and hospitality services, there might be a bit of wiggle room you can take advantage of if you need your vacation cancelled. Here’s what I usually do to increase my odds of a refund when I need to cancel a trip.
Cancel As Early As Possible
Just like most industries, time is money in hospitality—so if you do suddenly find out that your trip must be cancelled, don’t put it off. The minute you know you can’t go, start making calls to cancel all your plans. Begin with the big-ticket items, like flights and hotel reservations, and work your way down to smaller things like tours and restaurant reservations.
Often, travel services are hesitant to offer refunds because they might not have time to sell your spot to a new customer. That makes it important to start early because if the hotel, resort, or cruise line has time to resell your tickets, you have a higher chance of receiving a refund.
Just Ask, You Never Know
Even if you think a reservation is hopeless, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Once, I had to cancel a trip due to a vaccination error (that was completely my fault). I had to cancel my entire trip and found out the night before! Instead of giving up, I called and explained the situation.
The hotel gave me a full refund because they received tons of walk in service and, since it was high season, they knew they would find a new customer for the room immediately. That was a pleasant surprise that I didn’t see coming! Not bad for cancelling a vacation last minute. Ultimately, you don’t know what kind of customer service and travel deals are available unless you actively seek them out.
Call, Don’t Email
Notice I said start making calls, not sending emails. Talking to a person, and especially the right person, can make a huge difference in getting a partial or even full refund. Often, it helps to speak to someone in management, as high up as possible. Remember, a manager is much more likely to waive a cancellation fee or refund your money than an hourly employee.
When you first call it’s likely someone at the front desk will answer the phone. You can then ask to speak to managers and slowly move your way up the chain of command—just be sure that you’re polite. It’s not the front desk employee’s fault that they have to enforce whatever vacation cancellation policy the hotel or airline has in place.
Seek Alternatives to Money
If a vendor can’t refund your cash, your next inquiry should be about any sort of alternatives they can offer other than money. This is often something like a voucher for future service, or some portion of your money put toward a later booking. On the trip I mentioned before, where I had to cancel because of missing vaccinations, I had tons of tours booked. Although I wasn’t able to get a refund for them, they did promise to reschedule all the tours when I did get a chance to take my trip.
If you do get any offer for future service, be sure to have them send it to you in writing. I kept the emails from the tour companies, and when I finally did go a couple of months later, I conveniently rebooked all the tours!
Keep That Code
If you manage to score any sort of refund or voucher for a future booking, write down any confirmation code they send you and keep it somewhere safe. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your bank accounts or credit card statement and make sure that the money has been refunded after a couple of days. If it’s not, you’ll have their confirmation email and code in writing so you can call and inquire after your refund. It’s also wise to look into using a travel card, which might be able to offer you some protection against difficult refund situations.
Booking Travel Insurance
One of the best ways to avoid the hassle of travel cancellations is to purchase a travel insurance policy. Travel insurance is generally fairly inexpensive—around 5% to 10% of the total cost of your trip, depending on a few details like your age, the kind of trip you’re taking, and how many people you plan on adding to the policy.
Travel insurance can also be helpful to have even if you do end up going on the trip, but something goes wrong, like an airline losing your luggage, or getting injured while abroad and needing emergency medical insurance. The expense might seem like a hassle on top of all your other bookings, but the more you stand to lose from a sudden cancellation, the smarter it usually is to invest in protection for your plans. And even budget-friendly vacations might benefit from being insured. After all, you never know what might happen.
When traveling, you want to make every dollar count. Make sure you know your travel companies policies, you’re diligent about calling and speaking with managers, and you insure trips if you can. With the right planning and foresight, even an unexpected trip cancellation doesn’t have to be a disaster.