As delta variant spreads, some travelers are increasingly less comfortable with travel

Aug 30, 2021

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Travelers who had been eager to hit the road may be backing off from travel in light of rising COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the delta variant.

Labor Day — typically one of the busiest travel holidays in the U.S. — is right around the corner. But rather than jumping on last-minute plans, some travelers are outright canceling trips in light of the troubling coronavirus trajectory.

In addition to concerns about their health and safety, travelers are once again faced with the very real possibility that their travel plans could be disrupted by destination lockdowns, closures, new restrictions and regulations.

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Increasing discomfort

There is an understandable cause for concern with cases on the rise. (Photo by Increativemedia/Getty Images)

In a recent survey of more than 2,380 adults in the U.S. conducted by YouGov on behalf of TPG from Aug. 18 to Aug. 20, many people — particularly those who are fully vaccinated — said they feel less comfortable with certain activities in light of the delta variant’s spread this summer.

Among those who travel at least occasionally, 49% of people who are fully vaccinated said they now feel less comfortable taking a domestic flight. More than half felt less comfortable taking an international flight (53%).

Unvaccinated people were more likely to say they didn’t feel more or less comfortable flying in light of the delta variant, but the percentage who said they’re less comfortable was not insignificant: About 26% said they were less comfortable with flying domestically, and 29% said they were less comfortable flying internationally.

Some people — particularly those who are fully vaccinated — are now also not as comfortable with certain types of events and activities, which could affect the plans they’re making in the near future. Dining indoors and attending indoor and outdoor events were among the activities people are less comfortable with in light of the delta variant.

Simply traveling to a different city or town is a cause of discomfort for some travelers, with 35% of fully vaccinated adults and 16% of unvaccinated adults saying they’re less comfortable venturing to a new destination now.

This sentiment is clearly affecting Labor Day weekend plans.

The digital automotive marketplace Cars.com found in a mid-August survey that 20% of respondents were canceling flights and driving on Labor Day weekend instead. Some travelers (24%) opted to change their destination.

Travel demand is still strong — TPG’s survey found that, overall, 70% of travelers are comfortable traveling to a different city or town, with millennials more likely than any other generation to book either a domestic or international flight. And travelers are still largely comfortable with outdoor destinations and activities, such as visiting a state or national park (80%) or public beach (69%).

But in some cases, the worrying COVID-19 case trend is leading travelers to make significant last-minute changes.

Causes for concern

Some travelers are ditching international trips in favor of domestic jaunts. (Photo by Increativemedia/Getty Images)

Travelers have many reasons for why they’re canceling or rebooking trips right now: They’re worried about getting sick or having their unvaccinated children contract the virus, particularly in destinations where case counts are surging.

Some are having their trips upended by a new spate of cancellations: Business conferences are going virtual, and events such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival are getting canceled (again).

Others are dodging destinations that are reinstating mask mandates, quarantines and testing requirements, citing the hassle or inconvenience.

The very real risk of being stranded or quarantined abroad is top of mind for many travelers who had been eyeing international vacations.

Sherylin Jordan, a TPG reader based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, had a trip to Scotland planned that would have stretched through Labor Day. But she decided it was “too great of [a] risk to go international right now.”

She also cited prohibitively expensive mandatory COVID-19 tests and the possibility that, should one of those tests come back positive, the “trip would be ruined.”

Jordan has decided that, instead of Europe, she’ll stay domestic and travel around Maine and Massachusetts.

In many cases, travelers like Jordan aren’t canceling outright. Instead, they’re ditching their original plans in favor of backup trips.

Creating a COVID-19 contingency plan

Having a backup for your backup plan may once again be necessary. (Photo by Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images)

During a press conference and panel discussion at Virtuoso Travel Week on Aug. 9, a few travel advisors — including Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel based in Philadelphia — said they were taking advantage of the travel industry’s ongoing flexibility with cancellations to stack multiple trips in case one fell through during these disquieting times.

“One thing that is certain is uncertainty,” Bush told TPG on the phone last week. “There’s definitely a risk spectrum that our clients are looking at,” Bush said, explaining that there are certain places (including Mexico, certain Caribbean islands and domestic destinations such as Florida) that remain very accessible to travelers, and those that are much more restrictive. 

Stacking trips for clients, Bush said, “is something that has been born out of necessity … we have moved so many bookings, we have canceled so many bookings, we have pushed back [trips] either because the supplier [had] to cancel [or] because of government restrictions.”

So they’re now hedging bets by “booking different types of trips on the risk spectrum for the same date,” decreasing the odds that clients will find themselves without vacation plans. 

Typically, Bush said they’re booking two or three trips per client.

Bush said they’re only doing this with select clients and suppliers. “The objective here is not to abuse very flexible terms and conditions in terms of cancellations but rather to ensure a client can travel” and, ultimately, will take all the trips planned in time.

Working with a travel agent or advisor is, of course, one way to stack trips. In addition to having someone who can leverage those aforementioned client relationships, you’ll have an expert whose job it is to surveil the situation in the destination (or destinations) where you have travel booked.

You won’t have to worry about tracking all the policy changes, regulations and mandates on your own. You also, Bush pointed out, won’t run the risk that you forget to cancel or rebook some element of a trip and get stuck with a hefty penalty.

But for travelers considering a more DIY approach, there’s a lot of research involved with this type of strategy. In addition to researching and monitoring potential changes, travelers need to be thoughtful about not only where they can go, but where they’ll have the best experience.

Ongoing staffing shortages and service reductions might mean your flight, hotel stay or overall experience aren’t as you imagined. And if you’re traveling for a specific event, that too might not go according to plan. So, managing your expectations is key.

Travelers should also focus on destinations that, historically, have remained open and accessible to travelers. It’s no surprise that Florida, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean have remained popular with travelers throughout the pandemic.

And many travelers are taking advantage of points and miles to plan their backup trips.

“We have a trip booked to Belize in October,” said TPG reader Gretchen Brown of Nashville. “We are afraid we won’t be able to go so we also booked refundable flights [on points] to Miami with plan B being the Florida Keys.”

Having a backup plan booked with points and miles is a smart approach. (Photo by Michael Godek/Getty Images)

Brown said her primary concern is lockdowns and border closures. Either way, she told TPG, she hopes they “end up on a beach somewhere.”

Since points and miles can be easily redeposited, travelers like Brown won’t have to worry about getting travel refunded in the form of a credit or voucher. This method also means you won’t have cash tied up in a trip, whether you cancel intentionally or the ongoing coronavirus pandemic foils your plans.

Regardless of where your upcoming trips (or backup trips) take you, it’s still important to take precautions to stay safe. Follow mask mandates, maintain a safe physical distance from others and avoid crowds when possible. And protect your investment in travel, too. Whether or not you’re backing up trip plans with alternate itineraries, consider getting travel insurance, and take advantage of easily cancelable and rebookable reservation policies.

Featured photo by Carlina Teteris/Getty Images.

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