Making up for lost time: 2021 is gearing up to be an epic year for travel

Aug 27, 2020

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Planning a vacation after a pandemic, it turns out, might be a bit like your first night out after a bad break-up. After a period of feeling angry and stressed, you need a release. Maybe you’re tired of moping around, and just want to get back at whoever wronged you by having the best time ever.

It seems many travelers will return to the world after COVID-19 with an equally exuberant sense of vengeance. After all, the pandemic has deprived most of us of something we love. Aren’t you eager to settle the score?

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Despite a devastating economic depression and the loss of nearly a quarter-million jobs around the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many travelers say they’re planning bigger, longer and more over-the-top trips than ever before. Think of it as a kind of vacation retaliation against COVID-19.

It’s a response that, psychologically, makes complete sense.

“Stress … is defined classically as, ‘no way out,'” said clinical psychologist and travel writer Scott Haas. “We were afraid that the trap … was permanent. That’s how our mind works.”

Once the metaphorical “trap is sprung,” Haas explained, and we discover we are free — from, say, a relationship or a global pandemic or another major stressor — “all that pent-up energy explodes.”

(Photo by GingerInANutShell/Twenty20)
People are planning bigger trips for a post-pandemic world that they might not have otherwise. (Photo by GingerInANutShell/Twenty20)

Payback time: Longer and more expensive trips

When asked to imagine how their future trips might look different after the world returns to normal (or, at least, something close to it), many travelers said they planned to spend more on longer vacations.

TPG reader Stephanie L., from West Palm Beach, Florida, said she’s done with short two- and three-day-long vacations. “I don’t want to take these [little trips] anymore and be rushing around.”

Instead of “ad hoc” weekend getaways, she’s willing to spend more to tick items off her bucket list as soon as she can (Morocco and New Zealand, for example) because of the uncertainty in life — and the world. “We all just had half of a year of our lives fly by,” she said. “It’s a wake-up call.”

Beth Payne, of Washington, D.C., also said she will “spend more time and money traveling,” and expects her overseas trips to be longer in the future. “I will do what I enjoy and not look to save money,” Payne said. “I won’t put trips off until later.”

Related: Traveling during a pandemic: Why it may be more important than ever to put yourself first

Industry experts are noticing the trend, too.

“Many of my clients traveling this year and making plans for 2021 are both spending more money on splurges and are planning longer vacations,” said luxury travel advisor Josh Alexander of Protravel International, a Virtuoso agency.  “As soon as more international borders open up and the domestic quarantines ease,” he said, “clients will be traveling all over the world, traveling longer and spending more.”

Even clients who are simply rebooking trips scheduled for 2020, Alexander said, are “typically spending more” than they originally planned “to upgrade their room to a suite [or] book a more expensive hotel.”

Fiji Airways business class (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)
Business-class options like Fiji Airways might be a more common upgrade for travelers. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

In addition to making a trip more luxurious, upgrades make some travelers feel safer and can give them more peace of mind. The decision to pay up stems from wanting more flexible reservations, more space and more privacy (think: business-class seats, private car transfers and hotel suites).

Tour operator Intrepid Travel has seen a 31% increase in web traffic in the last two months for private tours among North American travelers. And in June, the private jet charter company Monarch Air Group reported a 125% year-over-year increase.

Tom Marchant, co-founder of luxury travel company Black Tomato, says concerns about flying are also nudging travelers toward “fewer, longer trips.” And longer trips can automatically drive higher spending.

“[Travelers will] have more time in the destination to add in experiences that they wouldn’t have had time for on a shorter break,” Marchant explained.

Related: Travelers are booking stays for a month or more — here’s why

Settling the score with points, credits and cash

Though the pandemic has spelled financial disaster for many families, others have found they’re saving money by staying at home, cooking meals and taking advantage of limited-time bonus categories to earn more points and miles.

Now, they’re sitting on a growing stash of points, miles and cash they’re unable to use for trips this year — to say nothing of the travel credits and vouchers from canceled trips — and are itching to redeem their figurative piggy banks for luxurious getaways.

Data from ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) supports this notion. A surge in award searches for aspirational vacation destinations in recent months — with spots like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and, for the first time, the Maldives, taking spots in the top five — spell a notable shift from typical contenders like New York City, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Related: All the places TPG staffers will go after coronavirus ends

Even the cruise industry, which is largely anticipating that cruisers will stick to shorter, closer-to-home sailings for the foreseeable future, said there’s bottled-up demand for travel.

Jaime Williams, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, said she’s willing to spend more on longer trips in the future because she has unused and refunded credits, points and cash — and she’s eyeing back-to-back Norwegian Cruise Line sailings next summer from Southampton, England to Reykjavík, Iceland and the reverse for a total of 21 days that would also hit ports in Scotland, Norway and Ireland.

“They’re waking up,” Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, told TPG. “For a while, I think everyone was numb and just kind of paralyzed.” But Garcia says people are beyond the initial shock of the pandemic. Now, they’re frustrated and ready to start living their lives — or at least planning to.

(Photo by TonyTheTigersSon/Twenty20)
(Photo by TonyTheTigersSon/Twenty20)

The best revenge is living well

There’s also an element of reprisal that’s led many to call this trending behavior “revenge travel” — a concept, according to the Washington Post, that originated with “revenge spending” in China following the Cultural Revolution.

It’s true, Alexander says, that in addition to “pent-up demand,” many of his clients feel that “2020 deprived them of [their] travel plans.”

Marchant says when travel picks up again, after being stuck at home for so long, “people will certainly value their time away much more,” which could lead to “bigger, blowout trips.”

Heather Leisman, president of luxury train tour operator, Vacations By Rail, says travelers are spending 10% more on upscale train vacations — and not just in the name of safety or security. “As customers plan and book their 2021 vacations [they’re] opting for luxury itineraries … to ‘make-up’ for sacrifices made in 2020,” she said. 

So, will the years following the coronavirus pandemic be remembered as a period of travel extravagance? In searching for an answer, Haas reminds me of the old saying: The best revenge is living well.

Though it’s safe to say that most of us would like to demand a refund for 2020, splashing out in 2021 may be the only way to exact revenge for a year that left most of us with nothing but heartbreak, disappointment and a stack of travel credits.

Featured photo by edaimansuhaimi/Twenty20.

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