Natalie B. Compton
Plenty of people who planned a trip during the pandemic have experienced the bummer of a last-minute cancellation.
One solution? Trip stacking is the strategy of booking multiple trips over the same time period so travellers have a backup if one doesn't work out. Did your cruise get cancelled because of the coronavirus? No problem - there's a trip to Dubai waiting in the wings.
Joshua Bush, chief executive of the travel agency Avenue Two Travel, said trip stacking grew in popularity when travel was at its most complicated.
"We've really only seen this strategy as a short-term fix to the unknown - not knowing what's going to happen, what's going to close, what's going to change, what are new restrictions," he said.
As the delta variant surge has softened and more countries are reopening to tourists, Bush said, trip stacking has become less common for his clients. But travel experts have advocated for the practice since pre-pandemic times for a variety of reasons.
Why travellers trip stack
While advisers can plan around travel restrictions to avoid cancellations, they may use trip stacking to help clients navigate volatility in hotel vacancies, inflating travel costs and opening delays for big resorts.
Raoul Fokké, an Amsterdam-based travel adviser for Act of Travel, has been stacking hotel room reservations for his clients travelling over the holidays this year "just because availability is so extremely scarce these days," he said.
In a similar vein, James Ferrara, president of the travel agency InteleTravel, said lately he has seen travellers trip stacking in anticipation of rising hotel and airfare prices. By placing multiple options on hold, travellers have time to finalise their plans without worrying costs will go up if they wait.
In his most recent case of trip stacking, SmartFlyer travel adviser and practicing attorney Robert Merlin booked multiple hotels for a client going to Italy, but not because he worried the country would close. One of the properties isn't open yet, so now he has a backup if the planned debut falls behind schedule.
Why stacking can be risky
Elissa Goldman, an adviser with the luxury travel agency In the Know Experiences, is trip stacking for a client who wants to go to Japan in April because there's no guarantee the country will open for tourism by then. But Goldman isn't a big fan of the practice; advisers end up doing more work, and not always for more pay.
There are financial risks for travellers, too. It is critical that each trip is completely flexible or movable without cancellation fees, Goldman said.
While Merlin said every travel reservation comes with specific rules, there are some generalities to keep in mind: Hotels tend to have flexible cancellation policies while transportation, tours and other ticketed events do not.
"A lot of people that I do this for will do it for the hotels because it's all refundable," Merlin said. "But we don't go so far as plane tickets or tours or trains, because once you buy a museum ticket . . . it's hard to get their money back."
An exception with airfare, Merlin said, is if a traveller doesn't mind banking credits for future travel. He has stacked flights for a client on their preferred airline knowing that if they cancel their trip, they could easily use the flight credits later.
He also said travellers should be careful about stacking their accommodations. The refund and cancellation policies should be readily available on the website for a hotel or vacation rental such as Airbnb. Make sure you know what you're getting before you book so you don't end up charged for service fees or lose your deposit. While hotels largely have flexible cancellation policies compared to other elements of travel, he has been seeing more charge fees as of late.
Andrew Steinberg, a travel adviser for Ovation Travel Group, had also noticed hotels revert to pre-pandemic cancellation policies and shortening cancellation windows.
"When top properties demand deposits on premium rooms, many have 30- to 60-day cancellation windows back in place," he said.
Don't neglect your cancellation windows. If you miss the deadline, don't expect a refund when someone else could have booked your spot.
Travel insurance won't always save you, either. "If travellers haven't paid for travel insurance, many of their terminations can come with hidden fees, and if they have paid, it only covers parts of their trip," Ferrara said.