Some regions across the United States are reopening their economies, but the threat of COVID-19 is still very real and very prevalent. Nonetheless, after months of lockdown and with summer in full swing, many Americans are desperate to get out of their homes for any kind of vacation, long or short.
But fears of infection, foreign travel restrictions, and the desire to avoid a quarantine period—either while in transit or at home upon return—will likely keep most of those who pack their bags closer to home, suggests eMarketer senior analyst Jasmine Enberg.
“Domestic travel—particularly car trips—will be the most popular form of leisure travel this year,” Enberg says. “And that will depress digital travel sales in 2020, as domestic trips tend to cost less than international travel.”
The market research firm projects that digital travel sales (online bookings for accommodations, air travel, car rentals, cruises, etc.) in the U.S. will drop by 44.7% in 2020 with total sales tallying $115.27 billion—compared with $208.44 billion in 2019. Digital travel sales will likely not reach pre-virus levels until 2022, when they are expected to grow by 49.7% to reach $208.8 billion in the U.S.
Still, strong growth is expected post-vaccine, and many experts—including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—have suggested that a successful vaccine could emerge in late 2020 or 2021. Thus, eMarketer forecasts digital travel sales growth of 21% next year in the U.S.
On the road again
Road trips—local and long distance—will dominate domestic travel in the United States this summer. Some people are turning to RVs and campers—even when they never thought they were those types of vacationers. That’s because many people feel safer in the car, inside controlled environments, and are now more aware of maintaining social distancing. For some Americans, the car is their easiest and safest (and possibly most affordable) transportation option.
Credit card alternative Affirm says it saw travel spending jump 86% from April to May, and travel is trending up about 30% week over week since June 1. Affirm—which has 5.3 million customers, more than half of which are millennials or members of Generation Z—recently conducted a survey of 1,500 consumers between the ages of 18 and 39, and the results suggest travel is still very much in the cards this year.
The big takeaway: Prior to COVID-19, the top priority for respondents was feeling relaxed on vacation, with feeling entertained coming a close second. Now, feeling safe is nearly just as important as feeling relaxed. And almost half of those surveyed (49%) say they will travel with their own car more often when local shelter-in-place mandates lift.
National parks and beach towns are going to be attractive destinations as travelers aim to take advantage of fresh air and nature amid warmer temperatures. But major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., will probably not see the throngs of tourists they usually do at this time of year. The most obvious reason is population density, which can make social distancing difficult, leaving many tourists uncomfortable about large crowds during a pandemic.
Instead, look for a shift toward smaller cities. Many travelers who are adamant about going somewhere—maybe anywhere—are desperate to avoid crowds. So this could be a prime opportunity for the smaller, more rural communities to get back on their feet and attract tourists like never before.
“As we continue to social distance, we’re seeing many travelers searching for destinations outside of dense city centers,” says Elizabeth Monahan, a spokesperson for Tripadvisor. Travelers are 218% more likely to take a trip where they can relax compared with before the pandemic, and nearly two-thirds (59%) report they would prefer to go somewhere off the beaten path versus a popular destination, according to the online travel company. “This means travelers are looking to escape to beautiful nature and beach destinations that are great for relaxing away from crowds—especially those on the water,” Monahan explains.
Still, some big cities are going to try to get people back by making some streets pedestrian-only so that they have the ability to social distance.
No more Eurotrip for Americans—for now
For some lucky Americans, summer can be synonymous with a European vacation. Unfortunately, that’s just not happening this year.
The European Union announced on June 30 that it would begin reopening its borders for nonessential travel (including tourism and business) to a select list of countries—and the United States was not among them as cases and deaths of COVID-19 continue to climb stateside at a dangerous clip.
“The EU is determined to ensure a coordinated approach, however, there are big divides within the bloc over whom to open up to and when, and the decision-making power ultimately lies solely with individual capitals,” says Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer at AirHelp, a Hong Kong–based claims management company defending passenger rights.
For example, some countries—including Denmark and Malta—are still closed to select EU member states, and are unlikely to allow travel from outside the bloc before Europe’s Schengen area is fully open. “This type of agility could potentially also be applied the other way around, and we could see that the EU opens its borders to certain states in the U.S. and not others during the summer,” Nielsen says.
In any case, a return to more flights on the schedule are not the only things expected to increase, Nielsen warns. Age-old problems like flight delays and cancellations are also likely to go up once travel picks up again.
“As we cannot be certain when the COVID-19 pandemic will be fully under control, we believe it would be helpful to take a ‘wait and see’ approach if you’re thinking of traveling internationally this summer and fall,” Nielsen says. “However, as more and more countries are reopening their borders in the coming weeks, it seems likely that intercontinental travels may resume in autumn.”
As a result, Americans are not only encouraged but already much more inclined to travel within North America this summer and perhaps through the rest of 2020.
“We’re seeing that short-haul travel is top of mind, with over a quarter (28%) of consumers more likely to take a short international flight (three to four hours) to their destination post COVID-19,” Tripadvisor’s Monahan says. “In the U.S., the most popular international destinations consumers say they want to visit first are neighbors Mexico and Canada.”
Reconsidering hotels over Airbnb
Shorter trips to destinations closer to home are also a recurring theme. Nearly half (44%) of consumers say they are more likely to take a road trip, and two-thirds (61%) say they are most comfortable taking a road trip for three to five days, according to Tripadvisor. Monahan says this is possibly because people feel these types of trips are less risky, as they typically involve contact with fewer people than other forms of travel.
“Travelers around the globe—the U.S. included—have shown an increased interest in outdoor activities, so we’re seeing a spike in camping, hiking, and canoeing as people begin to think about future trips,” Monahan says.
Nearly nine in ten (86%) consumers say cleanliness is of utmost importance when choosing accommodations, according to Tripadvisor. Guests are looking for amenities such as hand sanitizer, and they’re concerned with how rooms are disinfected as well as the use of temperature checks for employees. And possibly reflecting months of confinement, rooms with a view are also popular, with a surge in searches for rooms with an ocean view and those along beach and boardwalk fronts.
Nevertheless, Lindsay Myers, a Los Angeles–based budget travel commentator, warns against the assumption that hotels will see a surge as anxious travelers shy away from home-sharing platforms like Airbnb.
“People may be hesitant to stay at hotels for the time being. Hotels cannot ensure absolute safety while on their premises,” says Myers. “You may pass someone in the hallway, share an elevator with people, or not know the health status of others staying at the hotel. All precautions can be taken, but there is just too much foot traffic for travelers to have a feeling of safety while staying there.”
Instead, Myers suggests recreational vehicle (RV) sites and campgrounds will see a rise in popularity this summer, as “you can never run out of places to visit while in the RV.
“This style of traveling is completely contactless. The majority of people are not going to want to interact with anybody while on the road,” Myers says. “With RVs, there is no need to eat out at restaurants, interact with a hotel clerk, or come in contact with someone at the airport when you are safe in the RV. Everything you need is traveling right along with you. You are safe inside your own vehicle while hitting the open road.”
In North and Latin America, Tripadvisor has seen a spike in searches for campgrounds, ranches, and beach motels, as well as lodgings featuring a variety of outdoor activities, such as boating, skiing, canoeing, and horseback riding. Affirm also says accommodation sales went up by 119% in May 2020, compared with the month prior, with many consumers favoring merchants such as cabin rental firm Getaway and Great Wolf Lodge, a chain of hybrid hotels and indoor water parks.
For those able to travel to and within Europe, accommodation searches for lodging types such as cottages and castles, along with hotels featuring skiing, hiking, and fishing, are also trending.
Airline surcharges will make a comeback
As travel started to shut down in March, most major airlines were generous in dropping change and cancel fees (even if the actual process of getting credit or your money back was arduous for many fliers). Don’t expect that practice to last forever. While your frequent-flier miles and status should be safe through at least 2021, surcharges for changing or canceling a ticket will eventually come back. But for the time being, travelers still have a chance at scoring record-low fares.
“I don’t think cancellation fees will come back anytime soon. Commercial airlines are not in a great position financially, and to entice travelers they will remain flexible as long as they can,” says Gregg Brunson-Pitts, a former White House travel director as well as CEO and founder of Advanced Aviation Team, an on-demand private jet charter brokerage in Washington, D.C. “In terms of private charter travel, good providers will be transparent in terms of cancellation and pricing flexibility, regardless of a pandemic.”
Given the uncertainty right now, AirHelp’s Nielsen warns travelers should be prepared for the fact that airlines’ different policies often can be subject to change. Passengers whose flights were canceled owing to the pandemic but who do not wish to postpone their travel are supposed to be entitled to full refunds or an equivalent travel voucher, depending on their decision, Nielsen notes. But in the early months of the pandemic, some airlines provided clients with vouchers only, even though the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a statement mandating the offer of a refund. While passengers in Europe can get compensated for long delays, denied boarding, and cancellations, U.S. passengers are covered only for overbookings or long tarmac delays under domestic law.
“U.S. consumers might have increased flexibility in terms of changing and postponing travel plans without paying fees,” Nielsen says. “This move can be expected from airlines that think they’re losing customers who are unsure about whether they will really want to travel again.”
Pack light, pack smarter
Passengers should prepare themselves for some substantial changes while flying during a pandemic, from knowing what to pack to what to expect from now on at the airport.
First and foremost, travelers should familiarize themselves with new safety and hygiene procedures before heading to a respective airport. For example, at many airports, travelers will have to scan their boarding passes themselves instead of handing it over to the TSA officer as before. It is also helpful to know what to expect during the security check to help speed up the process: Even if you’re wearing a face mask, be prepared for the possibility that the officer will ask you to adjust it during screening. Also, be sure to practice social distancing proactively.
“Generally speaking, because there are less people traveling, air travel in some ways is a bit easier right now. More patience is required because TSA is operating at a limited capacity. Masks are a must. Food options will be more limited in airports,” Brunson-Pitts says. “If you’re traveling internationally, be prepared that things could change at any minute—including required quarantine periods and other local and state restrictions. It’s a very fluid situation and will probably remain so through the summer.”
Hand-carry regulations may also have changed. Nielsen says it’s extremely important to pack hand luggage strategically to make it through security in the fastest time possible. At many major airports, items like food need to be carried in a clear plastic bag and separated from the rest of one’s hand luggage during screening. It’s advisable to organize hand luggage using packing cubes so that you can place all necessary items—such as a boarding pass and items like toiletries that need to be removed for X-ray screening—at the very top of your bag. And make sure to read up on what you can bring on a plane, which might vary by airline and destination.
“Knowing your rights and rules in different situations while traveling is crucial now—not just in cases where you experience flight problems like cancellations, but also to speed up security screening,” Nielsen says. “If your airline cancels your flight, you might be entitled to ticket reimbursement and even financial compensation of up to $700. However, if you missed your flight because you were delayed during security screening, there is no law that can help you recover your costs.”
The in-flight experience is going to be very different as well—from compulsory mask-wearing to new seating arrangements, promoting social distancing (for those airlines still accommodating it). But not everyone will be allowed to travel: Passengers with symptoms of COVID-19 or the flu might be prevented from boarding. Still, Nielsen notes, they may be entitled to financial compensation.
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