Almost a year ago, the novel coronavirus locked down the world. Over 100 million people are confirmed to have been infected and Covid-19 has killed over 2 million people worldwide. In addition to the health tragedy, the raging pandemic has severely affected industries from entertainment to restaurants. One of the hardest hit sectors has been the travel industry.
International borders closed in spring 2020 and some have remained closed since. Who knows when travelers will be able to visit Australia or New Zealand again—which have both managed to virtually eliminate local spread. While domestic U.S. travel has seen relatively few restrictions, there are now discussions of requiring Covid testing even before domestic flights. That’s sure to reduce the spread, but it would also deliver another crushing blow to an already struggling industry.
So, when will travel recover? That’s the $8.9 trillion question. With emerging new variants and vaccine distribution delays, that’s a question that we can only guess at the answer to. Still, it’s a question so many of us are asking right now. So, we talked to travel experts from all parts of the industry to get their best guess.
Travel Will Recover in Stages
Perhaps no one has a better finger on the pulse of the airline industry than Edward “Ned” Russell, an Airlines Reporter for Skift. We checked in with him about when he thought Americans would take to the skies en masse once again.
Not surprisingly, he sees the recovery in air travel closely tied to vaccine distribution. Ned sees a strong recovery for leisure travel “as vaccines become widely available later this year.” That will be a boon for airlines that cater to “budget-minded holiday-goers.”
However, business travel won’t be as quick to return. Ned estimates the return of “these coveted passengers” will still take a few years.
Likewise, Ned notes that “international travel will take longer to recover than domestic,” with the recovery happening in stages. He sees the return of travel “between allies and developed countries”—like the U.S. and the United Kingdom—coming back “sooner than in markets that struggle to get vaccines in people’s arms.”
Travelers are Booking Cheap Flights Now
Optimistic travelers aren’t waiting to get the vaccine to start booking flights. “We hear from members every day who are booking cheap flights for future travel,” notes Scott Keyes, Founder and Chief Flight Expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Scott sees a combination of factors driving these bookings. First, travelers are expecting the widespread availability of vaccines in the next few months and hope that this will unlock international travel once again.
Also, it’s fairly low risk for travelers to book travel now. Many airlines are currently offering flexibility on flight bookings—even in basic economy. Travelers can use this flexibility to “push their travel back with no penalty if they don’t feel it’s safe come their original travel dates.”
Beyond this flexibility, airlines are also tempting travelers with low fares. Scott’s Cheap Flights has found “record low fares on many routes, and travelers are locking those prices in for travel months down the line.”
“In essence, many of our members are making future travel plans in pencil rather than in pen,” Scott observes. “If they’re able to get vaccinated soon, then they’ve got a cheap summer flight to look forward to. If there’s big delays in vaccination or border restrictions continue, they can push travel dates back without penalty.”
Once travelers are able to take to the skies again, Scott thinks that favorite destinations will be especially in demand. After all, “people didn’t spend the past 12 months cooped up, eagerly awaiting the day when they can get out and travel again, only to make their first trip somewhere halfway down their bucket list. Instead, people are going to want to visit places at the top of their bucket lists.”
Scott sees iconic destinations—such as Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Sydney, Rio—surging in popularity once the pandemic is over as “travelers seek to make up for lost time.”
Another Ruined Spring Break, But Hope for Summer
Speaking of lost time, families are quickly approaching what’s likely to be another ruined spring break. “We all hoped spring break 2021 would be ‘normal’,” pines Summer Hull—Director of Travel Content for The Points Guy—but “we now know that’s not the case.”
Summer—who’s also been known by the Mommy Points moniker since 2011—has found that “some schools and colleges are forgoing spring break completely this year.” For families that are getting a spring break, not all are going to take advantage. “The families that haven’t really been traveling since March are likely to sit out spring break and try again in the summer.”
For the families that do travel for spring break, “we expect to continue to see a preference given to domestic and drivable locations.” Entry restrictions may also come into play. So, families seeking sun may head to Florida while those seeking snow may head to Utah or Colorado.
She sees a fair number of road trips this summer. “But don’t rule out the sky.” She knows that “lots of families are sitting on airline credits from canceled 2020 trips and those credits won’t last forever.” So, as soon as families feel it is safe to do so, “it will be wheels-up to see grandparents, head to that destination beach, or to redeem those Disney tickets.”
Points & Miles Travelers Have Pent-Up Demand Too
The elimination of change fees isn’t just helping convince travelers to book cash tickets. Many airlines have also eliminated change fees on award tickets. And a lot of travelers have built up quite a massive stockpile of points and miles that they’re ready to use to book trips.
“Travelers are chomping at the bit to get back out there,” notes Spencer Howard, who runs Straight to the Points—an email subscription service sharing premium cabin award travel deals. At this point, travelers see the “light at the end of the tunnel” and are excited to book anything.
Spencer believes that 2021 is the year of “revenge travel” after travelers were left disappointed that they had to cancel all of their trips in 2020. He sees that award travelers are mostly booking trips later in the year. However, some award travelers are hoping to travel internationally again as soon as this summer.
For each deal alert that he sends out, Spencer quickly hears back from numerous subscribers that are happy to report that they’ve booked the deal. “People feel good about making speculative bookings,” Spencer notes “especially for the fall.” He sees a lot of travelers booking trips for October and November 2021. But, whether or not these trips will happen is “in flux depending on how the vaccine is rolled out.”
Travelers also realize some destinations will take longer to recover than others. For example, many subscribers are excited to visit Australia again, but they realize that it’s likely going to be at least 2022 before they can head down under.
Asia-Pacific Travel Recovery May be Slower
In early February 2020, I flew to Hong Kong to report on how the novel coronavirus was impacting the Asian financial and transportation hub. From mask requirements and temperature checks to health questionnaires, Hong Kong implemented key preventative measures early on.
I may have stepped off the plane with my airline-provided surgical mask on inside out, but I knew just who to talk with about the situation: Danny Lee, the Senior Aviation Reporter for the South China Morning Post.
I checked back with Danny about when he sees a recovery to travel in Hong Kong and Asia-Pacific more broadly. And, unfortunately, the outlook for travel is grim. “I am not wholly optimistic for Asia to open its borders and arms to mass travel in 2021,” Danny concludes.
Perhaps travel will start to recover in late 2021. But, Danny believes that “many health-based requirements will stick and compromises by travelers will need to be accepted for the foreseeable future.”
That’s due to the differing approaches that different regions have taken for the coronavirus. “The Asia Pacific has shown largely how to keep the coronavirus at bay or in check when strict measures in the community and at borders are implemented.” However, since the region has generally done an incredible job reducing the spread, vaccinations aren’t a priority now.
Instead, Danny believes it will be “incumbent on other countries to still rid itself of the virus and have some vaccination defense in order to be considered a trusted travel partner in the post-pandemic era of travel.”
For now, there’s still hope for “travel bubbles” between regions that have kept the virus under control. However, Danny points to “the Hong Kong-Singapore quarantine-free travel arrangement failing to launch on the eve of its official start sums up the hard reality and the high barrier to travel governments have placed in order to protect local communities.”
Whether it’s booking aspirational award travel, a deal to Europe or a trip to see Grandma, experts are finding that travelers are mentally ready to travel once again. However, getting control of the coronavirus is critical to travel’s recovery—whether that’s through vaccines or community spread controls, or more likely, some combination of the two.
But, travelers aren’t waiting for everything to recover before starting to book. Savvy travelers are already taking advantage of unprecedented flexibility and low fares from airlines and hotels to book deals now. After all, they know that they can change or cancel these trips later if it’s not safe to travel.
It’s important to keep in mind that some destinations will likely remain off-limits. Countries that either don’t have access to vaccines or have focused on eliminating local spread may continue to be closed to international travelers long after other destinations open up. So, while travel may begin to recover in summer 2021, it might be fall of 2021 or even 2022 before the travel industry recovers worldwide.