Lock in your access to hotel refunds as travel remains iffy

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Worried you might need to cancel your hotel stay last-minute? If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that nothing is for certain — not even the room you booked.

Sometimes the airline cancels your flight and can’t rebook you for at least another day, so you’ll arrive late and want a refund for your first night. Maybe your upcoming international trip won’t come to pass because another country shuts down in the midst of another surge in COVID cases. Perhaps COVID-19 vaccine, booster, quarantine or test requirements make it challenging (or impossible) to travel.

In case your vacation plans get interrupted this year, know how to cancel your hotel reservation — and get your money back.

Avoid booking hotels through third-party platforms

Booking travel through a third party like Expedia might seem appealing if you find a deal, or if you prefer to book your car, airfare and hotel room in one package. But it can become a headache if you need to cancel.

Cancellation policies for individual hotels don’t necessarily apply when booked through online travel agents. Many hotels eased up on strict cancellation policies during the pandemic by offering guests the option to cancel or rebook at no cost, or extending expiration dates of points and vouchers. However, most hotels explicitly state that those generous extensions specifically did not apply to rooms booked via online travel agents or other third parties.

And sometimes, canceling a part of a stay or a vacation package can entail more fees. For example, Costco Travel typically charges supplier fees for any changes made to your package reservation after the initial booking date.

Getting refunds or rescheduling is tough as-is, so avoid a go-between that could potentially make it even tougher.

Understand that different room rates often entail different policies

Many hotels offer the same physical room at a few different rates — and with a few key differences. At booking, it’s common to see the cheapest rate (or a requirement that you pay in full upfront) paired with a stringent cancellation policy, as well as a pricier rate with a generous cancellation policy.

These days, it might be better to opt for the more expensive rate. You’ll spend a bit more money on the booking, but you won’t lose it all should you need to change or cancel.

Consider getting trip insurance for nonrefundable bookings

If you need to cancel your trip, have the right travel insurance to improve your refund odds.

Book your hotel on a credit card with trip insurance

Book your stay on a travel credit card that offers trip insurance as a perk. Most premium travel credit cards do. If your trip is canceled or interrupted for a covered reason and was paid for with that card, you’ll typically be reimbursed for up to a certain amount of money (and it’s generally many thousands of dollars).

While most premium travel credit cards charge hefty annual fees, they can be worth it for this one underrated perk alone. It’s not uncommon to find a travel card that will reimburse up to $20,000 for eligible expenses paid for with that card.

Covered reasons vary by card, but typically include:

  • Sickness experienced by you, a traveling companion or a family member (which can come in handy if someone tests positive for COVID-19).
  • Severe weather that prevents or interrupts your trip.
  • Financial insolvency of your travel supplier (in case your hotel goes out of business).

Purchase a separate trip insurance policy

If you don’t have a credit card with built-in travel insurance, it might bring some peace of mind to purchase a separate travel insurance policy to counterbalance the unpredictability of travel these days. Policies vary, so read the terms to ensure you’re covered to your level of comfort.

If not, consider adding Cancel For Any Reason coverage, which will typically reimburse some of the trip cost. This level of coverage typically costs about 6% to 12% of overall trip expenses, according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association. But that upfront cost can be worth it because, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, CFAR coverage generally will reimburse 50% to 75% of nonrefundable trip plans — no matter why you cancel.

Take a risk and book hotels last-minute (it can save money!)

This advice isn’t necessarily good for everyone, as it comes with the risk that the hotel you want might be sold out by the time you book. But if you’re willing to take the chance, then consider booking your hotel at the last minute. It can save you money beyond just a sunk cost of a potentially-called-off, nonrefundable hotel stay.

A NerdWallet study of more than 2,500 hotel room rates across 2019, 2020 and the first half of 2021 found it was cheaper 66% of the time to book hotel rooms 15 days out versus four months out. Looking at 2021 data alone, that figure rises to an even starker 73%.

For luxury-minded travelers looking for a last-minute deal, it gets better. High-end hotels averaged 22% cheaper when booked 15 days before versus four months out.

The bottom line

Even as countries reopen to tourists and projections suggest the outlook on travel is bullish, understand that the possibility of your trip being canceled or disrupted is still on the table.

Cancellation policies can have jargon-filled fine print and confusing terms that might make it tough to cancel your hotel reservation last-minute for any kind of refund. Before booking, understand what you’re in for. And no matter what kind of reservation you’re making, come prepared with a travel backup plan.

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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @SAFmedia.

The article Lock In Your Access to Hotel Refunds as Travel Remains Iffy originally appeared on NerdWallet.