Holiday travel can be taxing even without the added stress of disruptions such as cancellations, flight delays or lost bags.
Last winter, Southwest Airlines’ holiday travel meltdown left millions of travelers stranded and angry. Travelers were still filing for compensation for ruined trips weeks later. Consumer complaints against U.S. airlines to the Department of Transportation in February 2023 increased sixfold compared with February 2019, forcing the agency to temporarily stop reporting more data as it processes complaints.
Despite the chaos, holiday travel shows no signs of slowing down this year. About 50% of Americans plan to pay for flights or hotel stays this holiday season, according to a NerdWallet survey conducted by The Harris Poll in September among over 2,000 U.S. adults. They will be referred to as “2023 holiday travelers” going forward.
More than a third of 2023 holiday travelers (35%) say they will keep their usual holiday travel plans this year, regardless of expense. And given the rising cost of gas, a quarter (25%) of those traveling say they’re flying rather than driving.
If you’re determined to get your dose of festive cheer, you may wonder if it’s worth paying extra for travel insurance this year. The survey found that 21% of 2023 holiday travelers plan on buying or have already bought travel insurance for their holiday trips, up from 16% last year.
Is flying truly worse?
The post-pandemic travel surge is real. But has the flying experience honestly gotten worse? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
The Department of Transportation releases reports on the performance of the 10 largest airlines and their marketing carriers. An analysis of data through June 2023 (which, it should be noted, doesn’t capture the complete picture of summer travel) by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found:
- The number of airline passengers for the first half of 2023 increased by 11%, to 419.2 million, compared with 2022. That’s almost back to 2019 pre-pandemic levels (419.7 million).
- On-time performance for flights in June fell to 71.3%, worse than a year ago. The on-time rate for the first half of 2023, at 76.5%, was slightly better than in 2022, but worse than in 2019.
- Flights are fuller this year than they were before the pandemic. More than 419 million passengers traveled in both the first half of 2023 and the first half of 2019. There were, however, fewer flights operated in 2023 — nearly 3.5 million compared with nearly 3.9 million in 2019 — meaning the same number of travelers had fewer flight options.
- The flight cancellation rate in June fell to 2.1%, better than a year ago. The cancellation rate for the first half of 2023, at 1.6%, was half of what it was in 2022 and better than in 2019.
So, while travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, travelers have fewer flight options. Given those gloomy statistics, travel insurance is at least worth considering this year.
Insurance aside, one way to lower the risk of disrupted travel is by adjusting when or how you fly. Nearly 2 in 5 2023 holiday travelers (35%) in the NerdWallet survey plan to avoid busy travel days by extending the duration of their holiday trips.
» Learn more: The busiest days to fly during the winter holidays
What type of travel insurance should you get?
The type of insurance you should buy depends on a few factors, including:
- Whether your trip is nonrefundable.
- Where you’re going.
- If your credit card has built-in protection.
- What your health coverage is at the destination.
Let’s assume you’re traveling domestically and already have health insurance coverage. Depending on your age and health, you may not have to pay extra for medical coverage. Note that only some travel insurance policies cover pre-existing conditions.
Some travel credit cards offer basic trip cancellation or interruption, baggage delay coverage and rental car coverage up to a certain dollar amount. If you think the options your credit card provides are good enough, you won’t need additional coverage.
If you don’t have a credit card with built-in protection or the limits aren’t high enough for you, look into buying a stand-alone travel insurance policy.
You can opt for the trip insurance your airline offers, buy it directly from an insurance provider or get it via an online travel agency such as Expedia. You can also compare quotes from travel insurance marketplaces you can find online. The cost of your policy will depend on the details of your trip.
Flying home for the holidays may not get any better this year, but having travel insurance could give you some comfort during your trip.