The federal directive extending social-distancing guidelines to April 30, as well as multiple state recommendations to shelter in place, means that few people are traveling. Many hotels have closed for the interim and most major hotel chains have waived cancellation fees, often refunding even nonrefundable rooms.
But for travelers considering a trip in May or June — assuming travel restrictions aren’t extended — the logistics are murkier, with fluctuating and often less flexible rates and variable cancellation policies.
The following are some considerations for booking a hotel in these uncertain times.
MIND THE GRACE PERIOD Most major hotel chains have established a grace period for penalty-free cancellations, which are largely intended to encourage travelers to book without fear of losing their money.
Hilton, which has 18 brands in its portfolio, from Waldorf Astoria to Hilton Garden Inn, and Marriott, which has 29 brands, including Ritz-Carlton and Courtyard, are allowing refunds and changes even on nonrefundable rates up to 24 hours before arrival through June 30.
Hyatt is offering changes and cancellations on all reservations held through April 30. Those with nonrefundable reservations throughout May and June who wish to cancel them will receive 10,000 World of Hyatt loyalty points to be used toward a future reservation.
BEWARE PREPAYMENT RATES When searching for a hotel, read the rate rules. Normally, prepaid rates are the cheapest offered, generally because they are nonrefundable. Now, some hotels, including the Gwen in Chicago and the Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney, are listing only prepaid options on their websites, including both lower nonrefundable prepaid rates and a new prepaid but refundable rate. The refundable prepaid rates allow changes up to a day ahead of the reservation, effectively providing the hotel cash flow and putting the onus on the traveler to trigger a refund if canceled within the allowable window.
“I would advise people to be very wary of any rate that requires an advance deposit even if the rate is changeable or can be canceled, because hotels are going to do everything they can to take your money and be slow about giving it back,” Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst and the president of Atmosphere Research Group, said.
BOOK CLOSER TO YOUR TRAVEL DATE Normally, the closer to your travel date, the higher the hotel rate, which rises along with occupancy. Now, however, rates may dip if hotels find that demand hasn’t rebounded.
“I think this may be a year where even leisure travelers’ booking horizon, which is typically a few months, will be much shorter, with people planning trips perhaps just a couple of weeks in advance, something more common for business travel,” said Makarand Mody, an assistant professor of hospitality marketing in the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration.
Hopper, a travel booking app, found spring rates down an average of 9 percent nationally, but near pre-pandemic levels by June, indicating hotels, like travelers, are in a wait-and-see mode.
“Even in the best of times, hotels are not actively managing rates more than a few months in the future,” Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist at Hopper, said.
READ THE CANCELLATION POLICY Most online reservation systems require travelers to check a box indicating they have read the terms and conditions. Now is the time to click the hyperlink to them and add the cancellation deadline to your calendar. Most hotels allow cancellations on refundable rates between 72 and 24 hours before the date of arrival.
Do cancel, rather than be a no-show. Hotel reservations must be actively canceled through a reservation website or via phone in order to avoid a penalty, which is usually one night’s stay.
CONSIDER LONG-TERM PLANNING Some hotels and resorts seeking to generate cash are selling discounted gift cards and certificates redeemable for a future stay. For example, until travel restrictions are lifted, the Hotel Amparo in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is offering $100 gift certificates for $75. Near Portland, Maine, Higgins Beach Inn is offering a $20 voucher with every $100 gift card. Delamar, which operates three hotels in Connecticut, is donating 50 percent of the value of each gift card sold to a fund for furloughed employees.
Gift cards can be a way of supporting a hotel or getting a good deal before you know when you might be able to travel, Mr. Harteveldt said, flagging service fees and expiration dates as potential pitfalls. “Take the time to educate yourself on the terms and conditions associated with these gift cards,” he added.