Buy now, fly later? What travel experts say about today’s low prices for future flights

There’s never been a worse time to fly.

With coronavirus cases surging in some states and more international borders closed than open, the friendly skies aren’t so friendly. But there is a silver lining. Many fares have never been better. Considering airlines are waiving sky-high change fees and dropping prices to fill empty seats, buying that $275 roundtrip ticket from San Francisco to Costa Rica in September is awfully tempting, even in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Almost all airlines are offering flexible booking policies right now, so we’re strongly encouraging people to book refundable travel because there are some great deals to be had,” says Raj Mahal, founder of the flight deals site PlanMoreTrips. A couple of months ago when coronavirus nearly shut down the airline industry and fares were in freefall, Mahal found a record-low $293 roundtrip ticket on United to London. It departs from San Francisco in December. For the price of one ticket during normal times, he scored four tickets for his family.

Mahal said the best deals were in April – before airlines grounded more planes and when no one was traveling.

The founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a similar flight deal aggregator, agrees.

“Early in the pandemic, there were many flights in which airlines were essentially dumping fares – like coast-to-coast for $23 roundtrip – but those days are gone,” says Scott Keyes. “That said, we’re seeing a big uptick in two highly sought-after groups of deals: mistake fares, when an airline accidentally sells a ticket for far less than it meant to, and peak season deals over summer, Christmas, and New Year’s.”

Last week, Scott’s Cheap Flights sent its subscribers late 2020 and early 2021 roundtrip deals from the U.S. including $375 fares to Bali, $180 fares to Aruba and $419 business class fares to Mexico. Meanwhile, PlanMoreTrips’ latest roundtrip deals include $400 fares from San Francisco to Thailand, $286 fares from Washington, D.C. to Bogota and $389 fares from Los Angeles to London. Of course, given the world is bracing itself for a second wave of coronavirus, there’s a good chance these flights won’t take off.

Fortunately, most airlines have responded to the unpredictable pandemic by waiving change fees (that often cost more than the fare). Scott’s Cheap Flights only sends its members deals from airlines with flexible policies. They include American Airlines, United and Delta who are all waiving change fees for flights issued through June 30. If coronavirus infection rates continue to increase as more states reopen, these policies will probably be extended. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates travelers are entitled to a complete cash refund – even on non-refundable tickets – if their flight is canceled for any reason.

Still, travelers must read the fine print before booking.

“Even if change fees are waived, travelers are still responsible for changes in ticket prices,” points out Jen Ruiz, author of The Affordable Flight Guide: How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets and See the World on a Budget. “This can negate the deal travelers thought they were getting in the first place,” Ruiz said, adding that it’s important to take note of quarantine periods upon arrival for international travel. Airlines aren’t under any obligation to refund tickets if guests are unable to go on a 7-day trip because there’s a 14-day mandatory quarantine in place.

MORE: American Airlines to resume full-capacity flights starting July 1 amid coronavirus pandemic

For the first time in a long time, countries aren’t welcoming Americans with open arms. With the U.S. having the highest confirmed number of coronavirus cases, the value of the U.S. passport seems to be dropping by the minute. For that reason, both Mahal and Keyes cite domestic airfare as having the lowest risk.

“Domestic flights are significantly less likely than international flights to get canceled right now given the fluid travel restrictions in many countries,” explains Keyes. He’s even noticed the normal pricing dynamics of domestic flights has flipped. Instead of last-minute tickets being the most expensive, Keyes is finding they’re now often the cheapest. “Plus, you can be more confident the flight will be a go compared to one that’s scheduled many months out,” says Keyes.

On the contrary, you don’t want to book a last-minute ticket abroad if you can avoid it. According to Mahal, these are the worst deals. Because capacity has been severely restricted – Delta and other airlines aren’t selling middle seats – Mahal says to expect to pay “an arm and a leg” for tickets departing within a week or two of booking. For example, a TAP Portugal roundtrip ticket from Boston to Lisbon the first week in July starts at $618. The same flight departing the first week in October is $200 cheaper.

RELATED: Multiple airlines stop serving alcohol, food on planes in response to COVID-19 pandemic

How does a traveler find these deals? The easiest way is to subscribe to free email alerts from sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights and PlanMoreTrips. Scott’s Cheap Flights has a team of experts monitoring fares around the clock. PlanMoreTrips uses AI and machine learning to scan through thousands of airline fares. Travelers planning on booking award travel should follow The Points Guy. Most importantly, the time to book is now. According to Mahal, as people return to traveling, airfares will increase. In some cases, they’ll cost more than they did at this time last year.

Regardless of whether you use money or miles, it’s wise to consider travel insurance. Even with waived fees, Mahal calls air travel right now “a gamble.”  Still, he’s not losing sleep over the prospect of not flying to London in December as planned. His tickets are 100% refundable. “I have no idea if we’ll take the trip because it seems there is a currently a second wave of COVID infections,” notes Mahal. He’ll play it by ear. If he doesn’t feel safe or if United cancels their flight, his family will take a road trip. Why not take advantage of favorable pandemic gas prices, too?



For the latest local news, sports and weather, download the FOX 29 News app.