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Ask a Travel Nerd: What Changed While I Was Ignoring Travel?
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Ask a Travel Nerd: What Changed While I Was Ignoring Travel?

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If you've been checked out from travel during the last year, you'll find there's been some big changes like a rental car shortage and no airline change fees.

Listen, I don’t blame you for ignoring travel industry news during the pandemic. Who cares if Hilton went bankrupt (it didn’t) or Alaska Airlines joined some alliance (it did) when you aren’t traveling?

If it wasn’t my job, I would've tuned out that stuff, too.

However, many under-the-radar changes did significantly alter the travel landscape in 2021. Beyond the obvious — more cleaning, more masks — other updates rippled throughout the industry, including smaller fees and new credit card perks.

Anyway, it’s good to have you back. Here’s what you missed.

Main COVID-era travel industry changes

Airline change fees (almost kinda sorta) disappeared

If you didn’t know about airline change and cancellation fees before the pandemic started, you likely got familiar with them at its inception. These fees were always a pesky nuisance, but when everyone in the world had to cancel their flights at once, they became intolerable.

Believe it or not, airlines seem to have done us a solid on this front. Many not only waived change fees early last year, but also removed them from most fares indefinitely.

What this means:

  • On most U.S. airlines for domestic flights, you can now change or cancel non-basic-economy fares without an extra fee.
  • You can book a flight, then rebook it if your plans change, without eating a bunch of fees.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • You can change and cancel tickets willy-nilly. You’ll have to pay the fare difference if you change your ticket to a more expensive one. And if you cancel it, you’ll get a voucher back as credit rather than cash.
  • You shouldn’t assume a ticket is changeable. Read the fine print before hitting “book.”

Rental cars got bizarrely expensive

This is a weird one, but it could have a major impact on your summer travel plans and expenses. A combination of supply issues and demand spikes have led to the so-called rental car apocalypse, driving costs through the (sun)roof in many popular destinations like Hawaii and Glacier National Park.

What does this mean for travelers? Flip your summer trip planning on its head and investigate rental car costs first, then look at hotels and airfare. Otherwise, you could end up scoring a great deal on flights, only to pay many times as much for a rental car when you land.

The ol’ invisible hand of the free market should address this problem eventually, but for now: Beware rental car sticker shock.

Your travel credit card had a midlife crisis

In the Before Times, travelers would shell out beefy annual fees on travel credit cards that offered perks like airport lounge access and free checked bags. But those perks were rendered moot last year, and these cards scrambled to offer new benefits and features that made some semblance of sense during a global pandemic.

The fallout from this identity crisis is a bunch of travel credit cards that now offer perks wholly unrelated to travel.

Some American Express credit cards offered perks for streaming services like Netflix, then a $30 PayPal credit every month. Other Chase bank credit cards offered bonuses on grocery spending instead of airfare and hotels. Basically, every premium travel credit card became a premium living-your-life credit card.

Some of these changes are temporary. Others were temporary, but keep getting extended as travel plans get deferred. The upshot for you? Don’t be surprised to see some unusual and flexible benefits when researching traditional travel rewards cards.

Other stuff that happened

Alaska Airlines joined American Airlines in the Oneworld Alliance. Most travel companies got huge federal checks in order to stay afloat. The cost of flights dropped when nobody was paying attention. Now, they’re climbing back up.

Let’s see, what else?

Some airlines handled the pandemic in a customer-friendly way (hat tip Delta), while others did not. Ditto hotels. To be honest, most airlines and hotels have coalesced their COVID-19 policies to the point where they’re basically indistinguishable from one another. There’s no use fretting over whether to stay at a Hilton or IHG for safety reasons — they’re both gonna be soaked in disinfectant.

The bottom line

I get it. You weren’t traveling, so you stopped paying attention to all of the travel blogs and websites you used to frequent. Who can blame you?

Considering that the entire industry effectively hit pause for over 12 months during a time of unprecedented turmoil, you didn’t miss anything earth-shattering. There were no blockbuster bankruptcies or mergers, and the value of reward points didn’t change as much as you might have expected.

Yet some of the changes, like the welcome exit of airline change fees, added up to a new travel reality that’s worth checking in on before you plan your next vacation.

Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.

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