The first few weeks of COVID-19 isolation, which we all expected to be short-lived, were wonderfully calm and peaceful. It felt like Christmas morning, when everything is closed and families are out with new scooters and bikes.
But as the weeks marched on, I and everyone I know started feeling restless. Now, three-plus months into the pandemic, I wonder: where do travelers go from here?
I know the pandemic isn’t forever. But it’s obvious that there’s no way back to what everyone wistfully describes as “normal.” Lots of things will be different. Travel, in particular, is going to change. But how?
There are no crystal balls. But there’s a lot of chatter, speculation and magical thinking out there. Here’s some of what I’ve picked up during the past few weeks.
Will we continue to fly?
Some of us can wax nostalgically about air travel before 9/11. No security lines, no need to strip off our belts and shoes or stow the nail clippers in our checked bags. Friends and family could even meet us right at the gate when we came off the plane. Imagine that!
Now, just as we’ve settled into that new reality, air travel is changing again. Planes are less packed—some almost empty. Airports look like malls early on a Sunday morning. Check-in, security, and boarding are changing to reduce the need for contact. We have to wear masks throughout our flight. And more.
As we did after 9/11, we will once again need to change how we travel following the coronavirus outbreak. Packing humans into small spaces like sardines and not checking people for …symptoms like fever will become things of the past. —The Points Guy, “Beyond Coronovirus: What the Future of Air Travel Will Look Like for All of Us.”
Space will be vital to ensure passengers aren’t in crowded security lines. Cellphone location data may cue your arrival to an airport, which can then check you in curbside and move you on to a security tunnel in which passengers continue moving — sci-fi style — as they are screened by T.S.A. and health authorities. Gate space will be expanded and robots may load carry-ons, discouraging jockeying for overhead bin space. —New York Times, “The Future of Travel: How the Industry Will Change After the Pandemic.”
But will these changes last?
All that extra space? Almost non-existent check-in and security lines? They’re not long for this world, I suspect. Airlines make money by packing in as many people as possible and charging as much as the market will bear, and there will never be enough check-in staff and security stations for the numbers of people trying to get through. My guess? As soon as we can control the virus, airports and planes will be as crowded as ever.
Still, some experts think that air travel will change for good, in some ways, at least.
I think we may have reached—or even crossed—a threshold of growth that is (and has been, frankly) unsustainable…. It’s hard for me to see how we’ll simply return to the level of flights from a few months ago…because COVID-19 has given a jolt to the system—a jolt that is also connected … to broader environmental issues surrounding flight, which are not going away but are only foregrounded now with cleaner and quieter skies, etc. —Slate, “What Will Travel Look Like After the Pandemic.”
We will need to wage war against long lines. Whether at check-in, security or immigration, having hundreds of people slowly creeping along in small spaces will no longer be acceptable…..Luckily, we have technology that can dramatically improve those processing speeds…. —The Points Guy, “Beyond Coronovirus: What the Future of Air Travel Will Look Like for All of Us.”
What about a cruise?
After my father died, I accompanied my mother on a cruise from New Orleans through the Panama Canal to Puerto Vallarta. It was Thanksgiving week, two months after 9/11. The ship was half-full, with a full complement of crew. No wait for a poolside chair, no buffet lines, all the service you could possibly want. It was one of the most relaxing weeks I’ve ever had.
Yet as fear of imminent terrorist attacks retreated, cruise ships were soon filled to capacity again. It’s a good bet the same thing will happen in the wake of the pandemic. But there will be changes, especially short-term.
…. discounted fares and flexible cancellation policies will only go so far to reassure future passengers.… [there will be] new standards, including banning self-service buffets, requiring temperature checks [for passengers and crew], and masks for housekeepers and food servers….[and] a doctor’s note for passengers 70 and over, indicating they are fit to travel. —New York Times, “The Future of Travel: How the Industry Will Change After the Pandemic.”
Though many sailings have been canceled for 2020, a lot of customers simply seem to be rebooking for 2021 and beyond…. cruise lines will have to work … with ports [in case] they have a passenger with a contagious disease…. —Travel and Leisure, Will Travel Change After Coronavirus? Here’s What Experts Have to Say
Cruise companies….will need to offer better onboard medical facilities and testing for all kinds of illnesses. Better ventilation and sanitation systems will be needed to ensure that outbreaks can be contained. —The Points Guy, “Beyond Coronovirus: What the Future of Air Travel Will Look Like for All of Us.”
On the Road Again?
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really anxious to go somewhere. At first, self-isolation was almost a gift, a time to slow down, catch up with my reading, chat with friends who are usually too busy to answer the phone. But I’ve had enough of my own four walls. I’ve taken every walk I could safely take. Now I want to go somewhere else.
A recent survey by Destination Analysts suggests American travelers feel the worst of the coronavirus may soon be over. Their first order of business when the lockdowns lift? One in five say they’ll book a trip. —Chris Elliott, Star Tribune
But where will we go? Air travel seems too scary right now, and I know I’ll avoid ships until COVID-19 is only a memory, and maybe forever. Anyway, I’m not sure I want to be too far from home. So Jeff and I have been thinking about a road trip. We’re not the only ones.
Chris Backe, a game designer from Asheville, North Carolina, who writes a blog about off-the-beaten-path travel, says the conditions are perfect for a summer road trip…. “No international flights needed….The roads are clear, gas is probably at a great price, and when places reopen, they’ll be ready for you. Also, it’s easy to maintain social distancing.” —Chris Elliott, Star Tribune
What should you do if you are determined to take a real summer vacation? Consider taking a road trip or going camping, suggests Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician for Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.—USA today, “Experts offer safe summer vacation ideas: Find the place that everyone isn’t going to.”
My son recently escaped his home by spending a week in the Trinity Wilderness with his dog, Monty. But I like to sleep in a nice, comfortable bed, with screens on the window to keep the bugs out. But if we take a road trip, where will we stay? Hotels and short-term rental hosts are addressing this question, working hard to assure travelers that their places are safe, clean, disinfected, and virus-free.
[According to Ann Scully at McCabe World Travel] accommodations perceived as cleaner and more isolated will find greater favor….traditional hotel properties may … operate more like private villas, selling entire floors staffed “…with a handler who could go down to pool, for example, and make sure the lounge chairs are separated.” Hotel rooms may also sit empty for several days and be completely disinfected before a new guest can check in….[Omar Rabin of Guesty says that] Many … vacation home hosts are installing automatic locks that can be opened via cellphone app, are arranging for contactless food deliveries to guest units, and space out rental periods, “sometimes for days,” to ensure complete unit disinfecting…. — CNBC.com, “Travel changed after 9/11; Here’s how it will look after the Covid-19 pandemic finally recedes”
Money talks (as usual)
Travel (and almost everything else) is so much easier if you have unlimited funds. During a pandemic, it’s also much safer. In a business or first-class seat, you won’t be crammed so closely to others on the plane, and you might even have your own waiting and boarding area. Even better, private jets let you skip the crowds altogether. And when money is no object, you can stay in places that have as much space, privacy, and isolation as you want.
[Jack Ezon of the travel agency Embark Beyond says] One thing that’s loud and clear from our clients: Any short-term travel needs to be private….that means increased demand in villas and luxury hotel brands [with] remote locations and stand-alone accommodations [and] private entrances or elevators. —New York Times, “The Future of Travel: How the Industry Will Change After the Pandemic.”
We want flexible cancellation policies!
We travelers have made a tradeoff with the travel industry: in return for low prices, we pay upfront for non-refundable flights, lodging, tours, and more. But many of us lost those non-refundable payments when COVID-19 forced us to cancel our trips. Now we want the security of generous cancellation policies when we start booking travel again.
Safety is, of course, paramount in many people’s minds. Many travelers are taking advantage of the airlines and hotels who are offering their most flexible cancellation policies ever. —Skyscanner, Weekly Travel Insights 21 May
The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for the travel industry to show how much it cares about you, their customer. But talk to travelers with a coronavirus cancellation and they’ll tell you it’s an opportunity the travel industry has missed, at least so far….Coronavirus cancellation policies are all over the map [and] refund policies are changing almost by the minute. —Christopher Elliott, Mercury News, “Coronavirus cancellation policies expose the best and worst in travel companies”
Even though some airlines, cruise companies, hotels, short-term rental hosts, and tour groups are waiving cancellation fees in the short-term, they seem to be making few if any changes in their cancellation policies. What the future holds for travelers who opt for lower-priced non-refundable bookings is anyone’s guess. Yet it seems to me that flexible cancellation policies would be a great way for a travel company to stand out from its competitors.
Fewer tourists at popular sites?
On my last visit to the Louvre, I was packed into a crowd in a claustrophobic tunnel and slowly funneled towards security. In the galleries, huge numbers of people jostled to take selfies in front of Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa. Yet other galleries were nearly empty. For some people, viewing the art seemed secondary to documenting the experience.
For many people, travel means a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit world-famous landmarks and attractions they’ve only read about or seen on TV. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s a no-brainer to say that the more popular a place, the more crowded it will be.
Popular tourist sites aren’t going away. In fact, tourism is such an important part of any country’s economy that re-opening their tourist attractions tops their list of priorities. For many residents, though, the return of tourists is bittersweet.
Right now, Rome is visited only by Romans and it’s a strange feeling. It’s sad that we don’t have tourism because we rely on it and it will soon be an emergency if we don’t get tourists back, but we have been enjoying this brief respite. —Rome resident Gianluca Boscolo in the New York Times,“‘It Feels Like We Got the City Back for Ourselves.’”
I know it won’t be long before tourists return to the most popular sites. But maybe a lingering fear of crowds will prompt some more adventuresome tourists to venture off the beaten path. If they do, they might be surprised by the rewards of exploring lesser-known but still wonderful places.
Why fight the throngs at some of the world’s most popular holiday destinations when you can explore similar—yet less crowded and less expensive—alternatives? And while you’re making the most of your trip, you’re also helping to solve the problem of overtourism that may be destroying some of our favorite places. —Fodors.com, “Avoid the Throngs of Tourists at These 11 Crowd-free Alternative Destinations.”
What about home exchanges and short-term rentals?
I started this blog to share our experiences doing home exchanges and short-term rentals, which help us afford the travel we love. But what now? I’m not ready to give up travel for good—we’re already making tentative plans to get out of Dodge sometime next year. But I worry about whether it will still be safe to welcome strangers into our home—and whether anyone will come.
The odd thing is that the pandemic might be good for home exchangers and short-term rental hosts like us. Many travelers report that they feel safer in a private home, where they be as isolated as they want. They can cook for themselves instead of donning masks to eat in restaurants. They won’t have to run into other people in a hotel elevator.
Antsy city dwellers seeking to escape their COVID-19 refuges are road-tripping to nearby vacation rentals in surprisingly strong numbers, showing the first signs of life for an industry that essentially ground to a halt in March. —Los Angeles Times, “Airbnb is seeing a surge in demand”
But we know that exchanging or renting our home won’t be quite the same.
Cleaning is paramount
Thorough cleaning is always top of the list when you prepare your home for guests. Today’s guests want even more. They want an assurance that the home has been thoroughly disinfected before they arrive. For some hosts, that might mean hiring professional cleaners.
Communicating clearly is more important than ever
f you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably noticed a theme to many of our posts: clear, ongoing communication is the key to a successful exchange or short-term rental. Having direct conversations with guests is even more important in an uncertain climate. These conversations help both of you build trust, clarify expectations, and agree on the logistics.
Longer term stays will be more attractive
Now that travel carries risks, travelers seem to prefer longer-term stays, instead of bouncing around from place to place. There’s also an indication that work-at-home options are here to stay, and people who work at home can often work from anywhere, making longer stays more practical.
Flexible cancellation policies are a must
Short-term rental platforms, agencies, and hosts have been scrambling to handle the enormous number of cancelled bookings, and travelers are finding refunds hard to come by. Travel insurance isn’t much help; many policies exclude things like war and pandemics. Short-term rental guests want to feel confident that they won’t lose their money (again) in case of another unforeseen event.
For home exchanges, each partner needs a backup plan. They also need to be understanding, because people’s situations and tolerance for risk differ.
So—with COVID-19, where do travelers go from here?
Travel has slowed to a crawl, but there’s no doubt that it’s here to stay. In fact, many travelers are already planning and booking trips for 2021, some even for the end of this year. We might stay close to home for a while, which means no trips to Paris or Argentina. But we’re already venturing out. As a recent study found,
[in May] 25% of American travelers said they would avoid all travel in the six month period after coronavirus; now just 7% say that. The average American traveler reports they will take 1.8 road trips and 1.0 trip by commercial airline by the end of the year. Excitement to take a trip in the next month increased …. as did openness to travel inspiration. —Destination Analysts, “Update on American Travel in the Period of Coronavirus.”
What happens to travel during the next couple of years remains to be seen. But travel is an important part of my life, so I’m ready to go as soon as it seems safe, at least safer than it is today.
How about you?
For more about staying safe during the pandemic:
We’d like to hear about how COVID-19 has impacted your plans to travel and how the pandemic impacts you as a home exchanger or short-term rental hosts. Please share your thoughts in the Comments or on our Facebook page.