If you’ve ever tried to redeem your frequent flyer points for an international flight in pre-COVID times, you’ve probably noticed that award availability can be difficult to find. To have any chance of success, you would often need to book early, be very flexible with travel dates and accept an indirect routing – especially if travelling during peak times or in a premium cabin.
Things have changed. Lately, award availability has been better than it has ever been. If you wanted to book a flight to Asia, Europe or North America right now, for example, you would have a wide choice of dates, airlines and classes of travel. Even 5-star airlines like Qatar Airways, Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines now have wide open award availability in Business and First class, with short connection times.
As an example, award availability from Perth to Amsterdam in November is wide open:
And the connections available are actually good:
Even award flights to Japan are widely available around Christmas:
But just because you can book these flights right now, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Why it’s not a good idea to book international flights right now
It would be easy for us to say that now is the perfect time to book international travel. After all, award availability is as good as it has ever been. But, realistically, it is almost certainly not a good idea. Here’s why…
1. We don’t know when Australia’s borders will reopen
At this point in time, we simply have no idea when we’ll be able to travel overseas again. Who knows, perhaps borders will be open again within the next year. And I really, really hope they are. But nobody can confidently call this yet, one way or the other.
The most likely scenario is that a “trans-Tasman bubble” will initially reopen unrestricted travel between Australia and New Zealand. And perhaps this could be followed by a “Bula bubble” between Australia and selected Pacific Island nations. But there is currently no fixed date for when this will happen.
The Australian government is on the record saying that international borders may not reopen until a vaccine is available. That could be more than a year away, and is very unlikely to happen by Christmas this year. Eventually, the borders will need to reopen… we just don’t know when.
If the border is still closed when you’re booked to travel overseas, you’ll probably end up having to cancel your flights. As a passenger, if you initiate the cancellation, you may be liable for change or cancellation fees.
2. Most international flights will get cancelled anyway
Even if you’re able to get an international travel exemption, it is likely that many of the flights currently scheduled to operate later this year and into 2021 will eventually be cancelled anyway.
Qantas has already just cancelled all long-haul flights until the end of March 2021. It was one of the first airlines to cancel flights that far into the future, but it was inevitable decision. Qantas won’t be the only airline to continue extending flight cancellations into the foreseeable future.
That said, there are exceptions. Some airlines, such as Qatar Airways, have continued to operate throughout the pandemic. If you really need to travel, you may choose to book with an airline such as Qatar Airways that is least likely to cancel your ticket.
If you book a Classic Flight Reward ticket with Qantas Frequent Flyer points, you will at least have the option to cancel for a full refund by 31 October 2020. But if you don’t decide to cancel by this date, you’ll only be able to cancel without paying a fee if the airline cancels your flight. The one downside of booking with an airline like Qatar is that your flight will probably still operate, even if you’re not allowed to travel. (That means potentially paying cancellation fees.)
Even if you can cancel without a penalty, it could take weeks or months for the airline to refund your points and taxes. Just look at what’s happening now, with many airline customers still awaiting refunds for flights cancelled months ago!
3. Travel insurance
And even if you could travel overseas right now, would you be able to get travel insurance coverage?
Maybe it would be possible, but it probably wouldn’t cover anything relating to COVID-19. Until proper international travel insurance is available, is it really worth the risk?
There’s too much uncertainty right now
With so much uncertainty about whether flights will operate, and when we’ll be allowed to travel overseas again, Frequent Flyer Solutions recently made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend its Award Flight Assist service. The Award Flight Assist team helps people to book award tickets for a living. But they’ve made a judgement that they cannot in good faith recommend booking international travel right now. They plan to resume offering their service as soon as there is more certainty around the resumption of international travel.
There are still some award booking concierge services that are encouraging customers to book now. One is telling its clients to book travel now for next year in order to “beat the predicted cash fare price rise”. As well as being a bad idea, for the many reasons outlined above, this is unnecessary. Basic economics dictates that when supply is greater than demand, prices will fall.
Airlines will do everything they can to fill seats when travel resumes
Airlines will put planes back in the air as soon as borders reopen. Initially, when they do this, there will be a surplus of capacity as not everyone will resume travelling immediately. In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts “normal” levels international travel won’t resume until 2023 – even if a vaccine is found sooner.
To entice customers back in the air, airlines will have little choice but to drop airfares and release lots of award availability. After all, most award availability is distressed inventory that airlines don’t expect to be able to sell for cash!
We normally recommend booking international award travel 11-12 months in advance, but these are not normal times. The rule book has been thrown out the window. When it’s safe to travel overseas again, airlines will be doing everything they can to fill seats. The winners will be passengers.
Now’s the time to book domestic travel
International travel is still some way off, but many states are slowly reopening for domestic travel. (Victoria is a temporary exception – sorry Melburnians.) Award availability on domestic flights is also currently excellent. And, as domestic airfares are often quite expensive, the value can be just as good as redeeming points internationally – even if it’s not quite as glamorous.
There are currently lots of options for redeeming Qantas points within Australia, and Velocity points can be redeemed for Virgin Australia flights after 1 September 2020.