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What a year it's been — How travel is changing as we hit the road again

March 11, 2021
6 min read
What a year it's been — How travel is changing as we hit the road again

I took my suitcase out of the closet the other day.

Its five zippers, two wheels and one retractable handle have seen hundreds of thousands of miles. It’s been dragged across shiny airport linoleum, carpeted casinos and plenty of cobblestone streets.

But for the past year, my suitcase has been on a long vacation on a high shelf.

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, many of us have been looking back at the time lost. Now, it's time to turn our gaze to the adventures ahead.

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I still remember where I was during the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, and when I first learned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center during terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Similarly, I remember where I was when the world around me shut down at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.

New York City announced a state of emergency, the TPG office emptied out and I found myself racing inexplicably to an ATM to have some extra cash in my wallet — just in case.

I had been, naturally, reviewing a new hotel in my hometown. The stay was abandoned and I hopped into a cab to be with my wife and daughter.

It’s hard to be upbeat when thousands of people around the world are still dying each day from COVID-19. And millions of others are without work. The pain and suffering are very real.

Yet, we find ourselves at a juncture. After months of fear, confusion, anger, isolation and exhaustion, there is finally hope.

Travelers like myself are dusting off their suitcases and getting ready to rediscover the world. For the first time in nearly a year, I'm planning trips that I'll probably take.

So are many others.

Related: Half of Americans say travel affects their decision to get vaccinated

More than two-thirds of Americans aged 75 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, as have more than half of those between the ages of 65 and 74. An additional 2 million people are getting a shot in the arm each day.

After months of isolation, the thirst to travel is real. According to a recent TPG survey, 64% of Americans hope to travel this year. Many people are sitting on stockpiles of points, miles and travel vouchers, while others have been adding to their savings accounts.

Grandparents are finally reconnecting with grandchildren. Delayed honeymoons are on the way. And for people who have been cooped up for the last year with their immediate family, the return of travel might be an opportunity to get away with friends — or alone.

Travel might be making its comeback, but for many people, it won't be familiar when it returns.

Related: The pandemic will impact my travel strategy for a long time — and that’s a good thing

Many people purchased cars and recreational vehicles during the pandemic, and have a newfound love for road trips. Others turned to vacation rentals for the first time and won't soon be going back to hotel and resort stays.

We were all forced to rediscover — or, perhaps, discover for the first time — what was in our backyard.

When the beaches of Hawaii were closed to tourists, travelers ventured instead to the Jersey Shore, Florida’s Gulf Coast or even a crescent of sand around a local lake.

Americans took on new outdoor pursuits such as hiking, cycling and skiing, and will likely build future vacations around these activities.

National parks saw plenty of visitors, but so did state parks and public recreation areas. Collectively, we were just happy to be outside, somewhere new, and away from other people.

Related: The 19 national parks every traveler needs to see at least once

As the world reopens, some of us will continue to seek isolation and solitude, while others, perhaps tentatively, will return to big cities and live events.

Business travel has certainly seen a seismic shift. Many people have become digital nomads and with new, flexible corporate policies, might continue to work from a different destination every month after the coronavirus pandemic is squarely in the past.

After all, technological advances have been spurred along by the crisis.

Keyless entry, QR codes and food delivery apps have been around for years, but for many people became an important part of staying safe and healthy during the pandemic.

Theme parks, ski resorts and museums finally adopted online reservation systems. Some of the new virtual queuing systems designed to facilitate physical distancing have made otherwise crowded experiences actually enjoyable.

And, hopefully, enhanced cleaning practices at hotels and on airplanes will become permanent.

Unfortunately, some of these changes have stripped the spontaneity and serendipity out of travel. It's never been more important to plan ahead and prepare for a worst-case scenario. And that sensibility could stick with us all for a long time.

But even my personal definition of travel has changed.

Related: Predictions for the state of travel in 2021 from our editor

A year ago, I would have half-joked that a short, domestic flight didn’t count as “a real trip.” If I wasn’t at least getting a new passport stamp, was it really even travel?

Well, today, a two-hour road trip can seem like a big adventure. And I’m thankful for this new perspective.

It’s always been easy to get lost in a world of gleaming airports, towering megaresorts and posh shopping districts. Many of us got caught up in a Disney-like fantasy of what travel should be — not what it really is.

So, after our timeout from globetrotting, will we all return to overtouristed destinations loathed by travelers and locals alike? Or will we reframe, and continue reimagining what it means to be a traveler and where our trips will take us?

Either way, I’m happy to be having this discussion now, on the cusp of travel's greatest comeback, instead of being locked away at home, scrubbing Amazon boxes with disinfecting wipes.

Now, where did I put my passport?

Featured image by Getty Images