10 ways coronavirus could forever change the future of travel
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When the coronavirus releases its grip and we slowly start to emerge from quarantine, the world we see won’t look the same as it did when we entered a quasi-hibernation in March 2020. When we can begin to reenter society, will face masks be as ubiquitous across the U.S. as jeans? Will we all have secret stashes of toilet paper and Lysol wipes tucked away, just in case? Will we ever stop jumping when someone near us coughs or sneezes? Many of these — and other even more pressing questions — don’t yet have firm answers.
But we do know that the coronavirus will certainly change the future of travel.
From how we book, to where we go, to why we travel, our seat selections on the plane and what financial and safety risks we’re willing to assume, we’ll emerge from this worldwide crisis different travelers than before the pandemic began.
“As we did after Sept. 11, we will once again need to change how we travel following the coronavirus outbreak. Packing humans into small spaces like sardines and not checking people for even the most rudimentary symptoms like fever will become things of the past,” wrote TPG’s founder and CEO, Brian Kelly, in a recent article on the future of travel.
But what will change when we scan our next boarding pass and check into our next room? Here are some ways travel will change in the future.
We’ll take that dream trip
We all theoretically know that if you wait too long to take a dream trip, “someday” may never come. But now, that lesson is crystal clear.
Leisure travel went from being as popular as ever at the beginning of 2020 to grinding to a complete and indefinite halt by mid- to late-March. We’ve seen more than a hundred thousand lives cut tragically short. Those factors will combine to create a world in which travelers will no longer put off taking the trip they’ve been dreaming of for months, years or even longer — once it’s safe to explore, of course.
Whether you want to take an epic trip that needs to be booked a year in advance, fly around the world in first class, go on a safari, see the northern lights, finally take that trip to New Zealand, explore the country’s best national parks or find out for yourself just how special Hawaii is, the flip side of COVID-19 will be the motivation to finally take those dream trips we’ve all been putting off.
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Travel insurance will spike
For many travelers, relying on premium credit cards with trip protections has typically been more than enough to defend against any worst-case scenario moments.
But after the coronavirus upended the travel industry, we all learned a valuable lesson: Epidemics and pandemics are not covered under most types of travel insurance policies. Even independent policies weren’t much help for travelers who had to back out of travel plans, especially before airlines and hotel groups began modifying cancellation and rebooking policies to accommodate travelers affected by the outbreak.
The number of travel insurance policies sold has skyrocketed 200% since January, according to InsureMyTrip. This is the highest increase the company has reported in the past 20 years, suggesting that travelers are already rethinking how they’ll protect their travel investments.
“Whenever a major event happens, people start to understand the value of travel insurance,” Cheryl Golden, the director of marketing, e-commerce and strategic planning for InsureMyTrip, told TPG. She said the increase in travel insurance purchases is to be expected, and that it’s an “uptick that holds.”
Trip protection and travel delay coverage — the kind you might see attached to your Chase Sapphire Reserve card — may still be more than enough for travelers. But for those who require additional peace of mind, the best way to safeguard your travels is a “cancel for any reason” travel insurance upgrade.
This policy, sometimes referred to as CFAR, will typically cost 40% more than your standard insurance policy. But you’ll be able to back out for any reason, whether there’s a pandemic sweeping the planet or you’ve simply changed your mind about taking that trip. (Just be sure to read the policy’s exclusions list and make sure pandemic/epidemic isn’t listed as a non-covered reason.) Golden said CFAR, paired with a comprehensive plan, is a traveler’s “best bet.” Just keep in mind, these policies rarely cover the entire cost of your trip.
Multigenerational travel will grow
When this is over, it will have likely been many months since families have really gotten a chance to be together. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the post-pandemic world may see an already-growing travel trend of bringing many generations together rise to the next level.
According to a trend report released in October by Virtuoso, a luxury travel agency network, multigenerational travel was already the most popular travel trend of 2020. Nearly 60% of Virtuoso travel specialists surveyed in February said they expected family travel sales to increase — and that was before we were all told to stay inside and only hang out with our loved ones on Zoom.
It takes planning, coordination and commitment to make a multigenerational trip work, but we bet that families are going to break those barriers down and head off with parents, grandparents and children to enjoy the world beyond the confines of their own backyards. The value of time together (as well as photos together), is apparent and we’ll see no shortage of multigenerational trips and travel providers catering to that demographic.
Third-party bookings will shrink
Over the years, travelers have been fans of using third-party booking sites, known as online travel agencies (OTAs), to book all sorts of travel in one place. These companies (think: Expedia, Orbitz, Hotels.com and others) act as middlemen, allowing travelers to compare prices across airlines, hotels, car rentals and more.
If you book through an OTA and something goes wrong, however, you have not only the travel provider’s policies to contend with but also the rules of the agency through which you booked. Though major agencies have altered their cancellation and change policies in kind with changes in airline, hotel, cruise and car rental policies amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s an extra piece of the puzzle that needs to be figured out before a trip is changed or canceled successfully.
We’ve seen reports of people having difficulty changing and canceling trips booked through OTAs, often involving hours of calls to the OTA, then to the airline, then back to the OTA and so on. We predict that, in the future, people will feel more secure booking directly through the travel provider of their choice so that in the event something goes very, very wrong like this again, customers will only have to deal with the company that’s providing the transportation or lodging.
Frequent flyer accounts will be drained
While the process of living through COVID-19 is far from over, we’ve already seen some contraction in how you can use miles from some programs and even banks. So far, that’s just largely meant the removal of some gift card redemption options from select travel-related loyalty programs. But time will tell if the cuts go deeper.
When you combine the 2019 trend away from set award charts to dynamic award prices that can vary day to day with the economic implications and pent-up travel demand caused by COVID-19, we expect to see people use their frequent flyer miles in droves when it’s safe again to travel.
It’s not just us. View from the Wing’s Gary Leff said, “There’s definitely going to be a desire to travel after being cooped up, to experience places and things that have been off-limits and to connect with friends and family that we haven’t seen. There’s also going to be a tendency to want to rebuild household balance sheets, conserve cash and replace some savings, and that means miles and points take on greater importance in making trips happen.”
“There’s going to be fantastic award availability, travel won’t all come back at the same time [and] planes are going to be empty for a while,” Leff added.
Speaking from personal booking experience, TPG’s Mommy Points has been saving up United miles since … forever. It was already getting harder to find well-priced international business class awards flights before the coronavirus, which are the ones she often loves to take using miles. Now, she has cashed in more than 200,000 miles while sitting on the couch in the hopes of future trips to Disneyland (just 7,000 miles per ticket) and for a potential end-of-year trip to Hawaii in lie-flat seats with the family.
The thought process? Why wait — you just never know what your miles will be worth later and when such opportunities will come again.
To that point, Leff also said that, while programs will likely be “printing points to encourage travel” further down the road, devaluations may follow, so sitting on miles isn’t advisable.
Hygiene and sanitation will be a top priority
If you weren’t a habitual hand-washer before the coronavirus outbreak, we’re betting you’ll be one now. And those “germaphobes” who regularly wiped down their airplane seats? They won’t seem so over-the-top in retrospect. It’s Naomi Campbell-style from here on out (minus the hazmat suit — maybe).
But it’s not just personal hygiene that’s landed under a microscope. The travel industry is also under incredible scrutiny, and many travel providers are already adapting so they can prove to guests they’re safe when travel opens again.
“For the hospitality industry to restart successfully, the key to success is instilling consumer confidence that a hotel campus is clean, safe and secure,” Scott Berman, principal and industry leader of the Hospitality & Leisure Group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Miami, told TPG. Berman said this could lead to strict guidelines that could eventually become “brand standards.”
Hotels everywhere will look for ways to show their guests that they are doing all they can to raise sanitation standards and maintain social-distancing protocols in their properties. We’ve already seen Hilton and Marriott commit to things like adding disinfecting wipes in public spaces and outside elevator banks, equipping staff with personal protective equipment, disinfecting guest rooms frequently with electrostatic sprayers, leaning on technology like digital keys and mobile check-in and check-out and more. Hilton has even said that it’s considering adding seals on room doors that show that a room hasn’t been accessed by anyone after the last time it was given a thorough cleaning.
Airlines have also already made significant shifts to promote cleanliness, hygiene and safety. Before a recent Emirates flight, passengers received a blood test to check for COVID-19 before their flight was allowed to leave, a dramatic departure from normal as the aviation industry tries to find its footing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts ranging from travel industry analysts to epidemiologists all seem to think the coronavirus could usher in a series of permanent changes to the way we travel. At least in the near term, this will likely include health checks at the airport before boarding and face mask requirements for flight crew and passenger (JetBlue was the first U.S. airline to implement this policy).
Even Airbnb has rolled out new cleaning procedures, and cruise lines are likely to embrace measures similar to those being deployed by airlines, including preboarding health screenings, reduced capacity on ships, enhanced onboard cleaning processes and perhaps even a farewell to the beloved self-service buffet.
We’ll head outdoors and hit the road
After all this time at home, travelers are going to be craving fresh air — and lots of it. National parks and campgrounds will likely see an influx of visitors once this pandemic is in the rearview.
Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations at Virtuoso, told TPG that as consumer confidence builds, domestic travel will be the first sector to expand. “Wide-open spaces like national parks and ranches will be popular,” she said.
“Nature vacations will be big,” echoed Laura Davidson, owner and president of New York-based travel public relations firm LDPR. “People will explore their own cities, regions [and] parks first — and then the drive market will kick in.”
Like outdoor adventures, we anticipate road trips to soar in popularity when travel resumes. While we wait for airlift to pick back up, travelers may find it’s easier and more convenient to plan road trips within driving distance from home. Road trips may be especially appealing to those with underlying health issues, or people who might at first be skeptical about flying. It’s the perfect time to finally plan and take one of those great American road trips that everyone always talks about.
Cruises will be shorter and closer to home
Every major cruise line in the world has shut down operations since mid-March, and it could be many months before they start up again. But when they do, they’re likely to come back with a significantly changed lineup of itineraries.
While major cruise operators such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line aren’t tipping their hands yet on their comeback plans, we’re expecting to see a distinct shift to shorter, closer-to-home sailings — at least initially.
Long sailings to far-off destinations such as Asia and South America typically appeal to an older, mostly retired crowd that has the time and money for such trips. But this is the segment of the population most at risk from complications due to the new coronavirus. Until a vaccine for the illness is available (something that experts say could be more than a year away) or cases drop to extremely low numbers, the demand for such sailings will likely be much reduced.
On the demand side, it doesn’t help that would-be cruisers in recent weeks have watched several ships on far-off itineraries forced to sail thousands of miles to get passengers home. The risk of that happening again will be enough to keep many cruisers looking for closer-to-home options.
Short, close-to-home cruises also are more affordable than those long, far-off sailings — not just in terms of their fares but in terms of the cost of flights to reach them. At times of economic uncertainty, as we are experiencing now, demand for shorter cruises traditionally has grown.
Other changes to cruising that are likely on the way, as noted above, include new health screenings for passengers, enhanced onboard cleaning regimens and a suspension of self-serve food service.
Of course, some may wonder if anyone will return to cruising given the troubles the industry has faced in recent weeks. It’s a legitimate question. It’s also one that was asked after countless other events that have tarnished the industry’s image over the years, such as the sinking of the Costa Concordia in 2012 and a fire on the Carnival Triumph in 2013 that left it without power for days. In every previous case, the industry eventually has come back stronger than before.
Travelers will want more space
There’s no question that from route maps, to status extensions, to how we wipe down our seats, aviation looks very different right now. But what about in the long term?
The first thing that comes to mind are the lines we all experience when traveling. From check-in to security and boarding, air travelers pass through more than their fair share of lines. How will we feel about this after months of being told not to stand within six feet of others? Some lines will be unavoidable. Even if the agency wanted to space them out, TSA security lines have no room to grow at some airports. Ditto for customs and immigration queues.
But it seems likely some lines might be reimagined. Could this speed up facial recognition for boarding? Will the privacy advocates let it? It’s hard to see exactly how it all might go, but flyers may demand a rethink for all of those processes that herd us uncomfortably close to each other. This could also be true for theme parks, some of which have already utilized virtual queues to minimize the need for physical lines.
Another area where airlines could do some reimagining is the middle seat. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, your odds of getting an empty middle seat were decent.
But then the internet made it easier than ever to sell flights, and once airlines figured out how to put $39 fares in front of everyone, those seats sold like hotcakes. Load factors (a measure of how full planes are) soared to levels airline executives never thought possible. That was good for the airlines’ bottom line — but bad for travelers who liked some free elbow room.
But airlines are now evolving when it comes to the middle seat. Just look at the seat map that shows the middle seat blocked out on this Delta flight to give the other passengers physical distance. American Airlines has also been blocking some middle seats for the same reason.
Even once the world “gets back to normal,” experts say demand could take years to return, which is awful for the airline industry. It does, however, mean the chances of finding an empty middle seat and more distance from other travelers might be fully back in play.
We’ll all be better about taking paid time off
The U.S. is infamous for having poor paid time off (PTO) policies compared to other countries. But, even with a limited number of paid vacation days, many U.S. workers still don’t take full advantage of their time. 768 million days went unused and 236 million were completely forfeited in 2018, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association. That’s a lot of unused time.
We expect that travelers will start to value their vacation time even more. Hopefully, those who have missed out in the past will have more time to plan a trip for the future and take advantage of the days they do have. Travel experts agree that, when leisure travel resumes, Americans will finally take advantage of the vacations they deserve.
From theme parks, to airports, hotels and beyond, the world of travel will have to change as the world eventually reopens. Precisely what those changes might be remains to be seen.
What sorts of changes do you expect, or suggest, after the initial threat of COVID-19 has subsided? Tell us in the comments below.
Reported by Nick Ellis, Summer Hull, Liz Hund, Melanie Lieberman, Ben Mutzabaugh and Gene Sloan.
Featured image by Xingzheng/Getty Images.
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