It’s not even the busiest time of year for travel yet, and 2021 has already been chaotic — even for the most seasoned travelers.
Among the 2021 travel fiascos:
underwent an operational meltdown, with 2,800 flights canceled between July 30 and Aug. 9 due to a combination of bad weather, staffing shortages and technical problems that left passengers stranded.
Some vaccinated travelers have unexpectedly tested positive for COVID-19 during international trips, finding themselves required to isolate abroad due to U.S. travel restrictions.
COVID-related rules can change last-minute, meaning you might abruptly need to quarantine upon arrival, even if vaccinated — as was the case when the Netherlands suddenly tightened travel restrictions in September.
And while booking travel through the sharing economy is becoming increasingly popular, vacationers are experiencing situations where vacation home and RV rental owners have ghosted them.
All that, and Thanksgiving is still over three weeks away.
And so, as you book 2021 holiday travel, don’t overlook the best type of plan you can make: a backup plan. Here are some ways to build one.
Be flexible and pack light
This summer was brutal for U.S. air travel. According to the Department of Transportation, 1.7% of domestic flights were canceled in July, compared with 0.8% that same month last year. Further, the July on-time arrival rate dropped from 90.5% to 73.4% year over year.
With that many challenges, you might find yourself catching a different flight last-minute — but only if you’re nimble. Avoid checking bags so you’re not separated from your possessions should you need to rebook.
Be prepared to extend your trip
While still aiming to avoid checking bags, pack enough to survive a trip that lasts longer than expected. Sure, a one-day flight delay likely only requires minimal extra clothing. But should you test positive for COVID-19, you might need 10 days’ worth of supplies.
For international trips, pack enough medications and other items that can’t easily be purchased abroad.
To avoid overpacking, wear versatile clothing that matches any outfit or occasion. Bring items that can be washed in the sink should you not have laundry access.
Book flights that can be easily canceled
This is probably not the year to book budget airfare. Though airline change and cancellation policies have improved, basic economy fares typically aren’t eligible for easy trip modifications.
Don’t get yourself in a situation where you can’t get refunded because you booked the cheap seats.
For low-cost airfares, you might look to Southwest Airlines, which has one of the best change policies out there. The cheapest Southwest fares can be canceled up to 10 minutes before scheduled departure in exchange for a travel credit toward a future flight. That generous policy was around before COVID-19 was part of the vernacular.
Know the alternatives
Since the pandemic started, many rideshare drivers stopped driving. These days, Uber says there are more riders than drivers available, so don’t count on rideshares — even if you pre-scheduled a trip. Download multiple ridesharing apps for the largest selection of drivers, and familiarize yourself with local taxi services.
If you’re headed to a place that requires proof of a negative COVID-19 test result, know multiple places where you can get tested. If your results don’t come back in time, you might scramble to find a rapid test. You might take two COVID-19 tests from different companies to ensure at least one returns in time.
Get the travel insurance
If you need to cancel your trip, have an outlet to get refunded. While most premium travel credit cards charge hefty annual fees, they can be worth it for one underrated perk alone: trip insurance. It’s not uncommon to find a travel card that will reimburse up to $20,000 for eligible expenses paid for with that card.
If you don’t have a credit card with built-in travel insurance, it might behoove you to purchase a separate travel insurance policy to counterbalance the unpredictability of these days.
Be sure to read: What if I test positive for COVID-19 when I’m traveling abroad?
The bottom line
Even the best-planned trips are turning out to be canceled, rescheduled, cut short or sometimes stressfully extended. That’s because if there’s one thing we can be certain of in 2021, it’s that nothing is for certain.
To avoid getting stranded, spending more money or losing luggage, make sure that your overall travel plan includes a backup plan.
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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SAFmedia.