How the Pandemic Has Changed and Is Changing the Way We Travel

It has now been over a year since the pandemic began. Your life has been disrupted in countless ways, including your travel plans.

In our case, we had booked a much-anticipated two-week bus tour of France for May, 2020. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Thankfully, the tour operator offered us full credit for a future trip.

Entire industries have been disrupted as well – some for the better, but most for the worse. The travel industry, in particular, has been devastated. According to US Travel Association data, total travel spending by US residents in 2019 topped $1.1 trillion dollars. In 2020, that number plummeted to $680 billion. It projects 2021 spending to rebound marginally, to $760 billion.

Like many other people, you are probably eagerly anticipating being able to return to traveling. We are now evaluating if and when we can rebook that France trip. In order to use our credit, we need to book by October for travel by the end of 2022.

While things are getting better and there’s good reason for optimism about the future, we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. While the vaccines offer protection and hope, getting vaccinated doesn’t grant you an unrestricted get-out-of-isolation-free card nor a complete return to normalcy. Certain limitations and adaptations will continue to be necessary even as travel itself becomes safer.

In this article, I’ll first look at how Americans adapted to travel restrictions during 2020, and what trends emerged. Then, I’ll look ahead to see how those trends might play out in the immediate future, as well as during the second half of 2021 and 2022.

What travel trends emerged in 2020?

Of course, the biggest impact to travel in 2020 was that most trips were cancelled. Cruise ships stopped sailing, land-based tours were cancelled, and hotels and resorts either closed or operated at reduced capacity.

With major trips off the table, many people turned to road trips and weekend getaways closer to home. Driving in your own vehicle and staying at Airbnb rentals, campgrounds, cabins, and other types of more separated spaces is a safer way to travel.

The increased demand for road-based travel triggered a surge in demand for recreational vehicles (RVs) of all sizes – both sales and rentals. Sales for the iconic Airstream trailers jumped 22 percent in 2020. Airstream is now facing a one-year backlog on orders. RV shipments for all brands set records in November and December of last year, according to the RV Industry Association. Other recreational products such as boats, skis, and high-end bikes also experienced record-high sales in 2020 and continuing into 2021.

The demand for RVs was fueled not only by vacationers, but also by people in the remote workforce. People who found themselves working remotely and schooling remotely decided that, rather than remaining cooped up at home, they could just as easily dial in from anywhere with a good internet connection. This new wandering workforce drove up the demand for RVs.

It’s not clear where all these campers went. Visits to the US national parks plummeted in all but a few cases. System-wide in 2020, the National Park Service received 237 million recreation visits, down more than 90 million visits (27.6%) from 2019. The decrease was due largely to temporary park closures implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic. At the Grand Canyon, for example, nearly 6 million people visited in 2019, but only 2.89 million visited in 2020.

Of course, there are many state parks, private campgrounds, and opportunities for primitive, free camping on national park land.

If you’re thinking about buying an RV, now is probably not a good time. New models will be difficult to find and there is high demand for used models. A year or two from now, there could easily be a glut of used RVs for sale, as nomadic workers return to their offices and their kids return to in-person school. For others, the novelty of RV travel may wear off and they’ll decide to sell. As with automobiles, RVs depreciate rapidly during their first couple years. An RV that’s only a few years old can be an excellent bargain.

Retirement is not the end of the road. It is the beginning of the open highway. - unknownThe limitations of travel in 2020 also sparked interest in glamping. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a new word and concept created by merging “glamorous” with “camping.” Strictly speaking, it’s a well-sealed tent on a solid platform that usually includes a real bed, a few pieces of furniture, heating, and bathroom facilities. In the broader sense, glamping may also encompass yurts, tiny houses, stationary trailers or RVs, cabins, or other sorts of pods that bring you close to nature yet keep you comfortable at night.

In better times, glamping provides closeness with nature, a degree of privacy, and a touch of luxury – great for a romantic or relaxing getaway. During the pandemic, it also provides distancing.

Prices vary widely depending on location and the level of comfort and amenities, but most listings seem a bit pricey. On the other hand, you don’t have to buy your own camping equipment, which can easily run hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Here are several websites that list glamping rentals: Glamping.com  |  GlampingHub.com  |  HipCamp.com  |  UnderCanvas.com To learn more, just type “glamping” into a Google search.

What’s the current situation and near-term outlook?

Travel today is in a state of flux. Some new travel restrictions are being imposed while others are being relaxed.

There are still many countries with closed borders. Others require a negative PCR test within 72 hours prior to arrival or a 14-day quarantine after arrival. Requiring a negative PCR test for domestic air travel would make flying safer, but it would also add to the cost of the trip and push some travelers to opt for traveling by car instead.

Requirements to enter a country and the situation within a country can change at any time. As of March, 2021, a new surge of COVID cases is sweeping across Europe. As a result, the United Kingdom now forbids non-essential travel, with a $7,000 fine for non-compliance. Italy, France, and Poland have imposed lockdowns after experiencing surges.

Several more deadly and more easily transmissible variants are driving the new surge in some places, coupled with relaxed mask mandates and capacity restrictions in other places. Brazil, home to one of these new variants, is in terrible shape.

My point is that conditions in other countries, as well as throughout the United States, are changing – sometimes for the worse. Requirement for testing, vaccination, or quarantine could change at any time. Once you arrive at a destination, curfews, lockdowns, or closings could be imposed with little notice. If you go, be sure to stay up-to-date on local conditions and requirements for mask wearing, gatherings, curfews, etc. The US State Department travel website is a reliable resource, as are advisories issued by the Canadian, Australian and UK governments.

Visiting foreign countries should always entail respecting local culture, laws, and norms, but this is even more important now. In many places, mask wearing is not up for debate. Also be prepared to experience mixed reactions to tourists. Most tourist destinations are starved for business but the people may be wary of the potential exposure to COVID from visitors.

As of late March, 2021, the United States requires a negative COVID test before re-entry into the country. If you become infected while traveling to another country, you may be stranded there until you (hopefully) recover and test negative again.

Now more than ever, buying trip insurance is a wise idea – not just to cover the cost of disrupted travel plans, but also to cover medical expenses should you get sick in another country. Many destinations now require proof of travel insurance, including popular destinations such as most European Union countries, Anguilla in the Caribbean, and the United Arab Emirates. More countries are expected to join this trend, as destinations try to cover hospitalization costs in a post-COVID world.

Domestically, while most of the media attention was focused on airplanes, cruise ships, and hotels, another travel sector suffered out of sight: car rental companies. With both business and leisure travel mostly curtailed, demand for rental cars dried up. In order to stay afloat, rental companies sold over half a million older vehicles in their fleets. They parked many of their other vehicles in empty sports stadium parking lots.

Now, with domestic travel ramping up again, there’s a rental car shortage. In Orlando during spring break, even sub-compact rental cars cost $300 or more a day – if you could find one. 18 of Florida’s 20 largest airports had no rental cars available. Other vacation destinations such as Hawaii and Phoenix were also sold out.

For travel within the United States, many people are favoring outdoor options, especially those in remote locations such as Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska. This might be a good year to explore some of the lesser-known national parks. (More on this below.)

As mentioned above, if you are planning to rent an RV or a car, book well in advance and expect to pay more. Rentals are going to be in high demand throughout the summer.

Cruise ships are anxious to start sailing again. Big ships are already sailing from Singapore and parts of Europe. Royal Caribbean announced cruises from Israel (visiting Greece and Cyprus) for local residents starting in May, and luxury line Crystal Cruises plans to sail one of its ships around the Bahamas starting in July with vaccinated passengers. Where they have started again, cruise lines are requiring negative coronavirus tests, masks, and social distancing on board. They are operating these initial sailings at reduced capacity, but they hope to have their global fleet sailing by the end of the year.

Recently, I have been receiving extravagant, thick catalogs from cruise lines more frequently than ever. Inside, a two-page spread is devoted to all the safety and wellness measures they are taking, such as upgraded air filters, daily fogging of staterooms and public spaces, pre-embarkation health screening, increased social distancing through reduced capacity, and the possibility of changing itineraries to avoid heavily impacted locations. Don’t expect to find the ubiquitous self-service buffets, at least in the near term. All food service will be touch-free.

Some smaller cruise lines have already announced that they will require customers to be vaccinated. The large lines haven’t made announcements yet, but they may follow suit.

Large cruise ships (250 or more passengers) are currently prohibited from sailing in or out of ports in the US and Canada. Canada’s ban is effect until February, 2022. The US ban is currently in effect until November, 2021, but the industry is lobbying heavily for the ban to be lifted sooner. In the meantime, some cruise lines are circumventing the ban by shifting their departure and arrival ports to the Bahamas (Royal Caribbean) and St. Maarten (Celebrity).

Randle Roper-Olson, Co-founder and CEO of VACAYA, a charter vacation company that offers cruise and resort vacations geared towards the LGBT+ community, is optimistic. “By the time VACAYA gets to our Caribbean Cruise in January 2022, we expect the [cruising] experience to look more ‘normal’ than not. With vaccine news getting better and better each day and big-ship cruising returning this summer, there’ll be a good six months plus to work through any challenges that might present themselves. The big-ship cruise lines have worked tirelessly with leading scientists and the CDC to address the myriad challenges (and opportunities) the industry faces. I point out the opportunities because it’s so easy to drown in all the negativity we’ve all scrolled through for the past year, but for creative companies like VACAYA, we’ve relished the rethinking and reimagining of what our experience can look like when challenged as we’ve been.”

Roper-Olson also pointed out that VACAYA’s resort vacations offer more space to stretch out and socially distance, making them a great alternative for anyone who’s not comfortable getting on a big ship yet.

Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project, recommends focusing on maintaining good hand hygiene, opting for contactless check-in and check-out at hotels when possible, wearing a mask, and keeping a healthy distance when around others in public, even if you’re vaccinated.

How might we travel safely in the second half of 2021 and 2022?

Even as more people get vaccinated and countries open up to American tourists, I suggest remaining cautious about traveling abroad for the next few months, especially if you’re considering places with less widespread vaccine access. Vaccinations are proceeding at a slower rate than the US in many other countries, especially poorer nations. More infectious variants are spreading in Europe, Brazil, South Africa, and elsewhere.

This article contains statements from several public health officials and university researchers about the risks of traveling abroad even when you’ve been vaccinated. It’s worthwhile reading if you are planning to travel abroad in the next few months.

Given that the travel industry lost so much money in 2020 and early 2021, it remains to be seen whether they will offer lower prices in an effort to tempt cautious travelers to return or raise prices to make up for lost revenue and compensate for smaller capacities (in some cases). The brochures I have been receiving from a couple luxury cruise lines claim to be offering “the ultimate sale – major price reductions.”

Most signs indicate that many people have a heightened desire to get back to traveling, so that works in the sellers’ favor.

VACAYA’s Randle Roper-Olson notes that “we’ve seen bookings increase over a 1000% from where they were at the start of the pandemic. So business isn’t ‘as usual’… it’s actually better! People are ready to break free from their cages, there’s no question about it.”

Major cruise lines are reporting strong sales for 2022, as well.

Once a high percentage of the world gets vaccinated and local transmission rates reach low levels, many industry observers expect a massive global travel boom.

While it’s fun to travel to memorable, exotic destinations far away, it can be equally satisfying to discover and enjoy places that are within a few hours of your home – not to mention cheaper and safer.

If you’re planning a road trip and you want to discover interesting things to stop and see along the way, these resources can help.

On Roadtrippers.com, you provide a starting point and a destination and it will propose an initial route. You can select things you see along the way, and it will adjust the route. The more you zoom in, the more possibilities you see.

Only in Your State provides blog post-style catalogs of unique things to see and do in each state.

CDC Travel Planner – you may have to drill down two or three levels, but you can find comprehensive listings of what is open, restricted, and closed throughout the United States and territories.

For active outdoor vacations, OutsideHow provides a plethora of useful articles, including guides to our national parks, how to find hiking trails, 90+ easy camping recipes, and much more.

LoveHolidays.com has prepared An Essential Guide to Enjoying US National Parks Responsibly, which provides insights into popular US national parks, gives tips for enjoying the environment responsibly, enumerates the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outdoors, and offers other links and resources.

My Itchy Travel Feet, a travel blog geared toward Baby Boomers, offers numerous posts about National Park Travel for Boomers, as well as many other destinations.

You can also consider train travel on Amtrak to many of our national parks. For more options, click here.

Here are some useful articles for first-timers:  Tips for first-time campers  |  Tips for first-time RV renters  |  Tips for a safe road trip

Want to know the weather patterns for anywhere in the United States, Canada, and Europe? Try CurrentResults.com.

As you contemplate what travel you may wish to undertake during the summer and fall, you probably have a lot of questions about what’s safe and not so safe. Of course, there are a lot of variables and a lot of gray areas. In this recent article, three Washington Post travel writers provide answers to many questions submitted by readers.

The US Department of State maintains a webpage dedicated to COVID-19 Traveler Information. This page contains further links to country-specific travel advisories and US Embassy COVID pages.

As you can see, while there are many health and safety concerns to consider, there are still plenty of options for traveling safely and responsibly now that the vaccines are becoming more widely available.

Safe travels!

Please feel welcome to comment below.

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© 2021 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
RV under starry sky: Steve Halama
Airstream: Christine Cravens
Airport: t_watanabe
Cruise ship: Reinhard Schultze
Vaccine: torstensimon
Road in Monument Valley: laze.life
Tent with scenic view: Patrick Hendry

 

2 Responses

  1. Ed says:

    Great article! I appreciate the update on how the travel industry is evolving. I will be retiring in December, and hopefully planning to do some travel with my husband in 2022. I believe many people will be cautious over next couple of years when it comes to large gatherings. Cruise ship will be of particular concern.

    • Dave Hughes says:

      Hi Ed,

      Congratulations on your upcoming retirement!

      I’m looking forward to, and hopeful for, traveling in 2022. My husband and I were just talking about at what times and under what conditions we’ll feel comfortable resuming various activities, such a musical rehearsals (with wind instruments), seeing concerts/plays/movies, larger parties, bars, etc. – and of course traveling. A lot depends on these variants and whether the current vaccines can keep them under control, and whether community transmission rates go down more. We just got our second shot today, so we’re hopeful.

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