A business class suite design by All Nippon Airways.

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As a seasoned traveler, I thought I knew all the best practices for booking travel before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

But I was proved wrong.

Having canceled a trip to Europe that was booked 10 months in advance the night before I was supposed to leave, I learned just what mistakes I had been making by not considering all possible scenarios. 

I found that saving money doesn’t trump convenience in all cases and how you book matters the most. 

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the only potential issues I was worried about when booking a trip for months in the future were bad weather and catching a cold right before. Everything else, whether it be a flight delay or cancellation, I knew how to handle as a seasoned traveler.

In my journeys, I thought I’d dealt with it all and booked my travel accordingly. I was so confident in the system that it took a major pandemic to highlight the errors in my ways. Like most, I never thought that a global health crisis could hinder travel in the way that the coronavirus did for many. 

The night of March 11, just a few hours before President Donald Trump’s announcement that travel to Europe would be restricted, I had assured family members that such a massive undertaking could never be done as it would be largely unprecedented. A few minutes after the announcement, I began the ongoing, months-long process of canceling the trip and getting my money back, which still hasn’t been fully achieved. 

Despite the worldwide lockdown, it wasn’t easy to claw back the money I had shelled out for the trip. Had I done just a few things differently, I would’ve been able to recoup more than I did without having to fight for it.

Here’s how I’ll change my travel booking habits moving forward. 

I’ll no longer book non-refundable accommodations and will seek out hotels with lenient cancellation policies.

Story continues

A hotel room.

Getty Images/Ken Ishii

Hotels will often offer discounts for prepaid bookings with savings of usually $20 or more, the catch being that they’re non-refundable in the event of a cancellation. The same applies to most car rentals, tours, and other activities. 

While the practice was generally safe for those with pre-planned trips, barring any force majeure circumstances,  some hotels during the pandemic decided to hold firm to those contracts even if the reason it couldn’t be fulfilled was a fast-spreading virus.

I’ll always look to save money on my trips and while that once included booking prepaid hotel stays, the flexibility gained from a fully cancelable stay is worth the extra charge. As the old saying goes, losses loom larger than gains so I’m seeking to minimize potential losses by paying more up-front. 

If a hotel offers same-day or 24-hour cancellation and the stay is looking to be inevitable, the option to do a last-minute switch to the prepaid option is always there and can save you some money. 

I’ll no longer book accommodations on third-party booking sites and would rather deal with hotels directly in case something goes wrong. 
A hotel room.

August_0802/Shutterstock

In the past, I saw no problem booking with websites like Expedia, Booking.com, and Hotels.com for hotel stays as they are reputable, have good loyalty programs, and I never had a problem. This go around, however, was another story.

Once travel restrictions were put into place, I immediately called the third-party booking site that I had made my hotel reservation with and the received a message stating that there was a technical glitch that prevented the site from taking more calls. This was the case for about a week. 

When I did finally get someone on the phone, the resolution process took a week as the site was inundated with similar requests. In the future, I’d rather take my chances with the hotel directly and cut out the middle man, especially as the benefit of booking through a third-party is often negligible. 

I’ll always keep a credit card until all trips I’ve booked on it are completed.
Credit cards.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I had booked the trip before I became financially diverse in terms of the amount of credit and debit cards I had in my wallet. At the time, I was only using one credit card but was considering investing in more worthwhile cards that offered more benefits. I ultimately settled on the Chase Sapphire Reserve and wasn’t too keen on keeping my original credit card.

About a month before the trip, I had firm intention to cancel the card but figured I’d wait just to make sure I didn’t get hit with any surprise payments that would incur a balance after I canceled as that could lower my credit score. I didn’t even think about my trip being put on the card when I booked 10 months prior. 

When I went to go cancel my trip, I was told the funds would be refunded back to that card and I breathed a sigh of relief for not canceling the card earlier. Had I canceled the card, I would’ve had worked extensively with the credit card company to get that money refunded, ultimately delaying the amount of time it would take to be made whole. 

I’ll no longer book a trip on a credit card for no reason when I can put the cost on a debit card.
Chase Sapphire credit cards.

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Most people put big trips on credit cards as it offers more time to pay off the large expense, offers travel protection, or earns points, which are all valid reasons. I learned the hard way, however, that if there’s no real reason to put a trip on a credit card, besides building credit, it’s better off going on a debit card.

After canceling my flight tickets to Europe on a credit card that the only benefit I received was 1% cash-back, I was left with a negative $300 balance in my credit card account. I had two options, either pay down the negative balance by putting most of my charges on the card or work with my credit company to get a check for the balance, both ways would delay getting whole again. 

While my future bookings will go on my new credit card that offers genuine travel protection and assistance, those without notable travel perks should stick to booking on a debit card if the price allows. 

I’ll pay more to fly an airline with a US phone line. 
A Ryanair aircraft taxis behind an easyJet aircraft at Manchester Airport in Manchester, UK.

REUTERS/Andrew Yates

I had booked travel within Spain and neighboring countries on a low-cost European airline that doesn’t operate to the US and thus, doesn’t have a US phone number or booking center. While this wasn’t a problem in the days leading up to the trip, it became a huge problem when I tried to go cancel the flight and could only ring a UK-based phone number. 

The rate for the call would’ve been $.25/minute on Google Voice, which would add up if I was on hold for too long or if wait times were longer, which they were in the weeks following the shutdown of US-Europe travel. The price difference to take the Spanish national airlines, which had a toll-free US number, was around $20 but, again, it would have been worth it in the end for peace of mind. 

I couldn’t have predicted that the world would be engulfed in a pandemic when I booked my trip for March 2020 back in June 2019 but now that I know these things can happen, I’ll be booking my travel differently from now on.

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