I strongly recommend against booking non-refundable hotel stays whenever possible. Current fears against travel have made this more important than ever. I cancelled a planned trip to Seattle for next week long before things got as bad as they have, but it still helped that I booked my Airbnb with a property that had a generous policy. The owner allowed a full refund two weeks before and a 50% refund one week before.
How are hotel chains responding to the crisis?
IHG is waiving cancellation fees for stays at all of its global properties between March 9 and April 30. This is an extension of its original waiver limited to specific countries.
Hilton is slightly more generous. It’s also waiving cancellation fees for all stays through April 30. However, it’s going one step further and will waive cancellation fees on any new bookings you make between now and April 30, even if that reservation is for a later date.
Marriott’s policy is much more selective. Only certain hotels are offering refunds or cancellation waivers, and it appears to be largely dependent on governments implementing travel bans outside the customer’s control. Most of Asia Pacific is included, plus Italy. The waiver is only applicable to stays through March 31. An additional waiver exists for Saudi Arabia if you are a resident of select countries.
Hyatt has a variety of policies in place. Guests residing in the worst affected countries (Greater China, South Korea, Japan, and Italy) can get their fees waived on stays through March 31 no matter where they are traveling. Other members can benefit from a waiver if they were planning to travel to these countries. Finally, there is no blanket waiver in place for non-refundable stays, but those who have a reservation not covered by one of the above waivers and still want to cancel should call 48 hours in advance. Hyatt will provide 10,000 points to those who forfeit their stay (meaning you still have to pay, but you get something for your trouble.)
Just like with airlines, there are a range of responses. We might see things become more consistent as time goes on, policies become more generous, and everyone reaches a common level.
I know booking refundable plans isn’t always an option with airlines, since the price differential between refundable and non-refundable flights is huge. But most hotels offer only a small discount for non-refundable or pre-paid stays. You can sometimes get a similar discount with a AAA or other discount code. Some award reservations made with points have more flexible cancellation policies than paid stays (although still watch out for 30-, 60-, or 90-day cancellation windows at big vacation destinations like Hawaii).
Besides giving you more flexibility to change or cancel your trip, booking a cancellable stay allows you to rebook at the same hotel for a lower price, which happens more often than you’d think. Gary Leff has called this “gardening” your reservation. During good times or bad, keeping your options open is a smart idea.