I was optimistic about summer travel. As delta surges, I am worried about fall

Sep 21, 2021

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We’ve been living through the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two years now, but the most optimistic I felt came in the spring of 2021. 

There was a sort of electricity in the air — not just in New York City, where the virus ravaged the five boroughs in the early days of the pandemic — but around the United States. Positive cases, hospitalizations and even deaths from the coronavirus were down. 

Spring felt like a precursor to what was in store for the summer. 

You know what I mean — activities that we’d given up because of the pandemic finally seemed possible. Movie theaters filled up, friends reconnected over drinks at indoor restaurants and countries that had closed entirely for travel welcomed tourists with open arms again. And for a while, it felt like a regular summer was possible.

But things have changed. It feels like we’ve regressed, and there’s a sense of fear and uncertainty I haven’t felt since March 2020. I was optimistic about summer travel — until I wasn’t. I’m not optimistic about fall at all.

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Why I’m not optimistic about fall travel 

(Photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images)

As TPG’s senior travel reporter and one that covers the convergence of travel and COVID-19, I’ve been hyper-plugged into how the pandemic has impacted the industry. No other place was the impact more apparent than in my email inbox earlier this summer.

In a bid to attract customers, airlines and hotels offered jaw-dropping promotions to entice skittish travelers. Destinations enlisted marketing and public relations firms to convince journalists, like myself, that their country was the best place to unwind from the daily stress of living through a pandemic. 

But travel is, ultimately, about people. 

And travelers — some new, many experienced — were trying to navigate unconventional plans. Still, I received countless emails from people excitedly sharing their travel plans with me in the early days of summer. There was the family from the East Coast road-tripping with their college-bound kid across the U.S. because they didn’t want to fly. The retirees wishing to reconnect with family members they hadn’t seen in months to kiss grandkids they’d only seen on Zoom. 

I started planning travel and decided to fly more even after every airline had stopped blocking middle seats. I booked trips to Washington, D.C., to catch up with friends and finally got to hug family members in Virginia that I hadn’t seen in more than two years. I had primarily avoided international travel, but after becoming fully vaccinated in March, I felt comfortable booking a last-minute trip to Turks and Caicos, partly due to the country’s strict entry requirements.

For a time, things seemed to be going back to — well, not normal, but a new normal. There’s data to back up that sentiment, too. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regularly screened more than 2 million flyers a day in June and July and began hiring to meet travel demand. 

But recently, the tone and tenor among some travelers have shifted. I’ve noticed that in my email inbox and my own sentiments about travel. That’s largely thanks to the highly transmissible delta variant. 

Everything changed after delta

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As my colleague David Slotnick reported earlier this month, the daily number of commercial air passengers in the U.S. has started to dwindle. 

And spending on new flight bookings decreased from June to July, and again from July to the first three weeks of August. Travel numbers on the decline are partially due to the summer leisure travel season drawing to a close, but one can’t help but speculate that it’s also the result of the delta variant

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this year told Americans that they didn’t have to wear a mask if they were fully vaccinated. I point to this guidance as to the start of summer travel, as pandemic-weary individuals eager for a return to normalcy wanted to see an end to COVID-19 restrictions. However, the World Health Organization, directly contradicting the CDC, warned that even fully vaccinated individuals should still wear a mask as the delta variant spreads.

“People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves,” WHO said at the time.

This stark warning spelled the end of summer travel. 

The delta variant seemed like the most significant blow to an already reeling travel industry. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time — the start of the U.S. summer travel season when millions of people could finally travel again. Initially, I wasn’t too worried as commercial air travel had remained steady, and countries stayed open to U.S. travelers. And I figured the variant would convince unvaccinated Americans to finally get the jab. But — as we see now — that didn’t happen.

Just 54% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and the U.S. trails many Western countries in vaccinations. Intensive care units in unvaccinated pockets for the country have been crushed under the surge of the delta variant. And it’s getting harder to travel. Some countries that had reopened, such as France, put new restrictions in place: banning unvaccinated travelers or requiring a quarantine even if you are fully inoculated.

It’s not all bad, though. The U.S. is planning to end the ban on vaccinated British and European travelers, a policy in place since March 2020. This is incredibly positive news — the travel industry has been calling on the Biden administration to end the ban — and is the start to the much-awaited travel corridor. 

But with how dire the situation has become at home, I’ve begun to rethink my travel plans, even as the world starts to reopen. 

My alternative fall plans 

(Photo by © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images)

On a recent trip to Miami, I saw how many people did not take the pandemic seriously. Masking was rare and social distancing nearly nonexistent. A quick getaway to the beach — while relaxing — equally made me anxious. And because of that experience, I’m rethinking virtually all of my travel plans.

Anyone who knows me knows that I do not do the great outdoors. I don’t hike. I don’t like nature. And my idea of camping includes endless amounts of wine, strong Wi-Fi and a full-service kitchen. But I’m likely going to stay closer to home this season and am considering activities I usually wouldn’t normally, such as (yes) hiking and camping. 

Unlike some travelers who have emailed me in recent weeks, I haven’t completely ruled out air travel. But, due to the delta variant, I’ve decided to take Amtrak for any trips on the East Coast. I seem to be in the minority here, as many people have reached out to tell me they are still traveling this fall and winter. But I’ll likely stay close to New York City, which isn’t a terrible thing as the city is beautiful in the fall.

Bottom line

I went into the summer optimistic. While I didn’t think the pandemic was over, I thought we’d finally turned a corner and could live — and travel — with few limits. But with the delta variant rising, people resisting COVID-19 vaccinations and countries imposing new restrictions, the closest I’ll get to a dream fall trip is a subway ride to Central Park

Featured photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images.

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