Airlines are slashing ticket prices for future flights right now during the COVID-19 lockdowns, but air travel expert John Walton explains why now isn't the time to book your next flight. 

A woman sits at her laptop.
Many travellers are asking whether it's the right time to buy flights © GaudiLab / Shutterstock

Now is not a great time to travel – and not just because, on the balance of evidence, we should all be staying home and practising physical distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve. Airlines worldwide are either stopping their operations completely and parking all their planes or, in rarer cases, maintaining crucial “air bridge” routes, often in conjunction with their national governments, to assist with repatriating citizens without the need for charter flights.

Read more: Will my airline give me a refund due to the coronavirus?

But more than a month or two out, through this northern hemisphere summer – traditionally the peak of the year for flying – fares are rock bottom on many airlines. Change fee waivers, too (in case you need to change the flight), are supposed to entice you into some isolation-inspired travel booking retail therapy. Believe me, many of us feel the need for some of that right now.

So is now the right time to buy cheap airline tickets?

No. It’s short and blunt, but it’s a bad idea to make any travel plans beyond “I would like to go to X when this is all over,” or “Let’s visit grandma once the medical experts start saying it’s okay.”

I would very seriously counsel anyone looking to book travel right now to hold off for a month at the very least, and realistically at least a month after your local quarantine, lockdown or shelter-in-place order has been lifted. 

Rows of empty airline seats.
Now might not be the right time to book a flight © Thanakorn Phanthura / EyeEm / Getty Images

Nobody, least of all the airlines, knows when the lifting of these restrictions is going to occur. Yes, thinking positively, if you look at some of the numbers coming out of China right now there are some good signs: infection rates are dropping thanks to the intensive quarantine efforts.

Read more: Lockdowns and travel bans: which countries have COVID-19 restrictions

It’s not clear, though, how swiftly those rates will rise again once the quarantines are lifted, which could well lead to them being reimposed. We’re just all going to have to learn to live with the massive amount of uncertainty that all this brings, and part of that is – as unnatural as it may feel for those of us with wanderlust flowing through our veins – going several months without having a trip planned.

Moreover, unfortunately, it’s very likely that more of the world’s airlines will end up going out of business, or being nationalised, or being bought out, or carved up. It’s really difficult to make predictions about what will happen, but even with the largest and most stable airlines there’s always a chance that your ticket could end up disappearing into thin air. 

Right now it makes much more sense to move your travel fund into your rainy day fund, not least because nobody knows just how much proverbial precipitation we’re going to be seeing any time soon.

But what about change fee waivers?

In essence, buying a flight right now is like offering an airline an interest-free loan, or purchasing a gift card (which is, really, just an interest-free loan at the end of the day).

Yes, some airlines are offering to waive any change fees in the event that the flight you book now for, say, June, is cancelled. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll just swap your cheap June flight for an expensive one in the Christmas rush, for example. If you read the fine print of the bookings, many if not most of these say that you’ll have to pay any difference in the fare between the ultra-cheap flight you bought and the one you eventually end up taking.

A shadow of a plane over a forest.
Now is the time to dream of travel for the future © Thomas Jackson / Getty Images

And there’s no guarantee whatsoever that the airline will even be flying to the destination you book to: expect to see more and more cuts to routes the longer this goes on. There’s no guarantee that the airline will be flying at all.

Travel insurance will almost certainly not cover you for any loss, because most sensible governments are saying “don’t travel” right now, and anyone who’s an expert in epidemiology is being very clear that they really don’t know when this will end. I don’t think there’s a court or arbitration panel anywhere that would think that booking flights right now passes the “reasonable” test that most travel insurance policies contain.

I wouldn’t expect the usual credit card or debit card chargeback schemes to view your case with any particular favour either. These kinds of things are for disruption in unexpected situations. And, unfortunately, disruption due to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is anything but unexpected right now.

So: stay home, go out as little as humanly possible, wash your hands, and dream about travelling. It’s what we’re all doing.

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is now a global pandemic. Find out what this means for travelers.

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