As airlines and hotels reintroduce non-refundable and advance purchase bookings, it’s time to challenge these restrictive practices, says Richard Tams.

Just about the only silver lining to be found in the chaos of worldwide travel restrictions over the last two years has been flexibility – the ability to chop, change or chuck any travel plans in the face of the changing tide of government Covid regulations.

Airlines, hoteliers, Airbnb hosts and conference organisers have had to give the peace of mind required to stimulate us to book trips by offering the flexibility to change our minds and travel at another time or cancel completely. Holidays and business trips that might otherwise have been set in stone by advance purchase flights and non-refundable hotel rooms, have suddenly become changeable and refundable at the click of a mouse, or after two hours on hold.

Even now as travel restrictions to most the world’s top destinations have been lifted, I am paranoid about committing large amounts of money to a business trip, conference or holiday many months in the future. It’s a kind of commitment phobia. As I click the ‘Pay Now’ button, I have an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and my credit card is shaking in my hand. Will this trip ever happen? Will I ever see this money again? Even if restrictions don’t prevent me from travelling, I might get Covid the day before I fly. Does my insurance cover me if I do?

Is the party over?

It appears that such gratuitous flexibility on the part of travel suppliers may be something that we have increasingly taken for granted, but there will undoubtedly come a time in the not-too-distant future when the party will be over and non-changeable will once again mean what it says. Flexibility will revert to being the preserve of those able to afford a full fare ticket, sizeable change fees or a rack rate room. On June 8, after two years of allowing customers to change their travel plans for free for any reason, British Airways followed Easyjet and Ryanair and ended its ‘Book with Confidence’ policy. Suddenly, any bookings made from that day forward will be governed by the airline’s standard policies. In other words, expect to pay change fees unless you’ve booked a flexible fare and make sure that you’re fully insured.

Most airlines are likely to reintroduce this policy if restrictions are reinstated by individual countries, but it is not clear what will be defined as a ‘restriction’ and you might be presented with a dreaded voucher, rather than a refund.

However, in a world of increasing uncertainty, has flexibility become a reasonable expectation of holiday-makers once happy to commit to a two-week summer holiday in Greece on Boxing Day or owners of small businesses once able to nail down a three-day sales trip to the Far East two months out? Has the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis taught us not to count on anything anymore? Or has it compelled businesses to adapt to the winds of change?

Reverting to type

In the context of an increasing need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, what should suppliers in the travel industry do? I suspect that the vast majority will do as BA and others have done – revert to type and go back to loading their most competitive rates with the terms and conditions of the pre-pandemic world, and leave flexibility as a luxury for those who can to pay for it. But surely there is a disrupter out there ready to turn the current business model on its head. An airline prepared to allow you to change your flight, and even your destination, a week ahead of travel or a hotel brand that will do the same. They might even be able to make a modest charge or introduce a small deposit scheme for this peace of mind. After all, even when the current surge in pent-up travel demand subsides and the reality of a wages squeeze hits us all, we will all still want something to look forward to, even if we’re not quite sure what.

We’ll perhaps want to book a well-earned break in the knowledge that we can postpone it if our wallet can’t take the strain. As we all feel less certain about the future than ever before, as the proverb goes, “Better bend than break”.

Richard Tams is an airline consultant and executive coach