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In 2020, I had to cancel more trips than I was able to take. But by the spring of 2021, it seemed like travel was returning to normal. And while that didn’t happen, vaccines were available and my family was determined to resume taking vacations.
That’s how I came across the concept of trip stacking, or the planning of multiple trips in advance so you can decide later which one makes the most sense.
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Why Trip Stacking is Necessary
In 2022, the reality is that travel plans can change overnight. Some countries have closed their borders with no advance notice, while others have suddenly implemented lengthy quarantine requirements that make your travel plans untenable. This is on top of the concerns of new COVID variants that spread at alarming speed. Other travel disruptions can include severe staffing shortages that now regularly cripple airlines and cancel events. And just when things look to be predictable, we all know that another new variant could come along and change everything yet again.
But when you’ve booked multiple trips, then you can at least be assured that you’ll likely be able to take one of them if you have to cancel the more risky one. For example, you may be interested in booking a trip to an overseas destination with the hopes that it reopens or remains open by the time you’re scheduled to depart. But it can be a good idea to plan another trip, at the same time, to a domestic destination, just in case. Booking the second trip in advance allows you to have a fallback plan without having to scramble for flights and hotels at the last minute. It also helps you to avoid having to pay a premium and choose from dwindling selection of flights and hotels for plan B if plan A falls through.
Why Trip Stacking Works Now
So why is trip stacking suddenly becoming a thing? The obvious answer is COVID, but that’s not the whole story. Perhaps the only good thing that came out of 2020 was that nearly all US airlines permanently dropped their change fees that year. The airlines that once imposed draconian change fees of as much as $200 for domestic flights, now simply allow you to use your purchase as a credit towards a future flight (just as Southwest Airlines has always done).
And if you’re an award traveler using points and miles, the news is even better. Many airlines will now allow you to cancel your awards and redeposit your points and miles, at no charge. This was a privilege once reserved just for frequent flyers with top-tier elite status, and those flying Southwest. For example, American and Delta now allow you to cancel your award flights before departure, and redeposit your miles at no additional charge. And while United allows free cancellations up to 30 days before departure, it imposes a change fee within 30 days that’s easily avoided. To avoid paying any fees to cancel your award trip, simply change your flight (for free) to a date that’s more than 30 days in advance, and then cancel it for free.
Examples of My Trip Stacking Success
1. Jamaica/Maine. After nearly a year and a half with our children out of school, my wife and I booked a child-free vacation to an all-inclusive hotel in Jamaica for June of 2021. But by the spring of 2021, I realized that tourists were being restricted to certain zones in Jamaica, and the hotel we were planning on staying at was still offering vastly reduced levels of food and service “because of COVID.” With Jamaica seeming less attractive, we booked a second trip to the coast of Maine. We eventually canceled our trip to Jamaica and had a great time exploring quaint towns and eating lobster along the coast of Maine instead.
2. South Africa/South Florida. In January of 2021, I booked an award trip for my family of five to visit South Africa in December of 2021, largely using points and miles for my airfare and hotel. Our expectation was that by the end of the year South Africa would reopen, and that we would all be vaccinated, enabling a safe trip. As expected, South Africa did reopen, and our family was vaccinated. But in November, the Omicron variant was identified in South Africa, and their infection rates soared.
Not knowing if we’d be able to safely take the trip, we quickly booked another trip to Florida and decided to wait and see. By mid-December, it became clear that traveling to South Africa would be a bad idea, if not impossible. But thankfully, we ended up flying to Tampa and taking a fantastic road trip around Florida. We swam with Manatees in the Crystal River, saw alligators in the Everglades, visited the Kennedy Space Center and spent some time on the beach. And thankfully, we received refunds or credits for all of our reservations for the South Africa trip that we’ll use when we attempt that trip again in 2022.
3. Tel Aviv/Charleston, South Carolina. My wife wants to visit her family in Israel in early 2022, but travel restrictions there are constantly changing. Not knowing if she’ll be able to make the trip to Tel Aviv, I booked her a second trip to visit friends in Charleston. As of this writing, it’s basically a coin toss, but either way she’ll have a nice vacation, and we’ll get the miles returned from the trip she doesn’t take.
Trip Stacking Tips
1. Double check the refund policies. Even though airlines and hotels have loosened their penalties for changing and canceling flights, some restrictions still remain. Before you purchase an airline ticket, make sure you fully understand what happens if you need to cancel. Be careful with hotels too, as some will charge you fees if you cancel too late.
2. Don’t be afraid to reach out to travel providers. When Omicron happened, we were able to cancel some non-refundable flights and lodging in South Africa and receive a credit towards our next visit. The key was to reach out to the travel providers, explain the problem and kindly ask for their help. In every case, we met with understanding people who were eager to welcome us back in the future.
3. Set expectations. When you’re trip stacking, include your spouse, partner and/or kids in the process so everyone knows what’s going on. Remind them that we live in a very uncertain world, and that you can’t foresee the future. Make sure everyone knows that the plan is to have a safe vacation, regardless of where you ultimately go.
Changing times call for new strategies when it comes to travel. By considering trip stacking, you’ll be sure to get the most out of your vacation time while minimizing the stress that comes with travel in the age of COVID.