Predictions for the state of travel in 2021 from our editor
I’m eagerly planning my first big trip for when it is really safe to travel again.
It’s for February. Or March. Or maybe it’s that vacation I booked for May. Hopefully I can take that June trip. And surely the August one?
Welcome to 2021.
We can all thankfully say that “that other year” - let’s not name it - is behind us.
And now the travel industry is eagerly waiting for a rebound, if not an explosion of trips, as millions around the globe start to receive vaccines.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Some folks have been traveling this entire pandemic. Some have only left home for the holidays. And others have been locked away, either because they are afraid - or unable - to take any risk or because they are sacrificing trips to keep others safe and avoid hospitals being overrun.
My own family has taken many road trips within the Northeast, choosing to rent homes for weeks at a time. Typically, we favor hotels and jetting away for long weekends.
As editor of a site whose mission is to help people become smarter travelers, I’ve spent the past nine months playing a balancing act. TPG has tried to inform those who have made the decision to travel what it’s like in airports and hotels without downplaying how serious and infectious COVID-19 really is.
Now with a new year, comes new hope.
But it won’t be a smooth journey. Here are my predictions for what lies ahead for travel in 2021:
Long winter ahead
The first three months of the year are traditionally the worst for the travel industry. This year, they will be particularly rough.
Deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. are at an all-time high.
There is legitimate pandemic fatigue, but there is also still lots of fear.
TPG's Summer Hull has been traveling for months with her family but recently decided to hold off on more trips. You can read her reasoning here, but I'm sure that many other families are making similar decisions.
What we have seen since March, is that travel has really spiked during big holidays: Memorial Day weekend, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On Sunday, Dec. 27 a new pandemic-era record was set when nearly 1.3 million people were screened at airport security checkpoints across the country, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
That's half the normal post-Christmas rush but indicates that Americans were still traveling to visit family or escape to a warm beach, despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging them not to.
If this pattern holds steady, we probably won't see another big rush of travelers until February school vacations or spring break. With limited vaccines, I personally don't see a return to "normal" until late spring or Memorial Day - and that's a best-case scenario for leisure travel.
And, like everything else, that is all predicated on how quickly enough people can get vaccinated.
My family has flights currently booked for February, late March and August. Unless something drastic happens, I'm cancelling the February trip to Cancun. Late March probably won't happen, but I'm holding out hope. I'm also mapping out some early summer trips and trying to figure out Christmas 2021.
Refundability and flexibility remain at the top of mind while planning 2021 trips.
As for business travel, that might take some more time to return.
You can't have a business trip unless there is somebody to visit. That means the majority of folks need to be back in their offices or willing to meet up for dinner and drinks. Large-scale conferences will even lag that. I've been invited to one in-person conference for mid-July in Orlando. That seems a bit ambitious to me, but the optimistic side of me is excited at the prospect.
Folks might be back in offices in large numbers by late spring or early summer, but given summer vacations many business trips will probably be on hold until September.
That means 2022 is the year when airlines and hotels can really return to making a profit. It's the last-minute business airfares and the big conventions, with their lofty catering budgets, that really matter to the bottom line. Unlike past recessions, corporate America is booming. So the cost of trips won't be a major concern.
Yes, folks will say that video conferencing was so successful for the past year that trips won't be as frequent. Maybe. But that said, there's no replacement for in-person meetings. Zoom fatigue is real. The next two years will all be about reconnecting.
Rediscovery of our backyards
The pandemic has helped Americans find love again for the road trip.
I live in Manhattan and haven't owned a car for 13 years. The pandemic changed that. Instead of flying off for the weekend or renting a car for a day trip, we decided it was time to own our own vehicle. Our summer was filled with hiking, trips to the beach and journeys to cute little towns within a two-hour drive. We spent the fall apple picking and visiting outdoor sculpture gardens. This winter, we hope to ski.
Other families have purchased recreational vehicles. TPG's Richard Kerr's family is just one example. You can read about his decision here.
Such purchases are not cheap and will likely steer travel decisions for the next several years.
My own family will probably take more hikes, enjoy New York City's expanded outdoor dining in the spring and try to remember that there are so many exciting things less than an hour away from our front door.
Immunity passports and COVID tests
There will still be plenty of travel restrictions in 2021.
While most Americans might be immunized this year, it doesn't necessarily mean that we won't be able to spread COVID-19 to others. Borders will take a long time to fully reopen, especially in developing nations that won't receive the vaccine as quickly as rich countries.
Related: County-by-country guide to coronavirus reopenings
Social distancing requirements will remain throughout the year.
Immunity passports - or some sort of proof - are probably going to be required to fly overseas. But so will COVID-19 tests.
Hopefully, the tests will become faster, cheaper and available in more locations - especially at more airports. It is starting to become routine for folks to test before and after a trip. Add in some home testing options, and this will be a standard part of any trip for the next 12 to 18 months.
New types of trips
From the start of the pandemic, people have been asking: What will be your first trip?
I propose a different question: Who do you plan to travel with?
Trust me, I love my wife and daughter. But after nine-plus months locked away together in our Manhattan apartment, I might be looking for a guys trip to Las Vegas. My wife might want a moms weekend away. We definitely want a kid-free couple's escape. Plus we haven't seen my in-laws in Florida for nearly a year. So that's a priority.
This coming year will be one for all sorts of new getaways. Big resorts that are losing out on conferences would be smart to market new family reunion packages. Or the big singles weekends that were so popular in the Catskills in the 1970s might see a resurgence. We've all been digital for so long that maybe an old fashioned mixer would be a hit?
Retirees with the time - and means - will take long, extravagant trips where no cost will be spared. The past year, reminded all of us how precious time is. This group of travelers will embark on a new type of "grand tour," hitting multiple countries, staying at the best hotels and utilizing private guides for one-of-a-kind experiences.
I’ve covered the travel industry for more than a decade. During that time, there have been hotel and airline mergers, recessions, sky-high jet fuel prices and the introduction of all sorts of fees as the travel industry shifted to charging extra for everything.
Most changes have not been good for consumers. Checked bag fees, resort fees and extra charges to use electronic toll collection devices on rental cars pop to the top of my list.
Related: The 10 worst resort fees
But COVID-19 changed that. Las Vegas hotels like the Cosmopolitan are waiving resort fees. Airlines have dropped almost all change fees and mile redeposit fees.
They want our business. They are begging for our business.
Could these changes stay around for good? It's doubtful. Hotels will quickly reinstate resort fees. Most of these rates and packages without the fees are meant to jumpstart travel. Once rooms are full again, they will add back every charge possible to recoup the losses from 2020. Hopefully travelers will vote with their wallets and push for change, but I'm not that hopeful.
For airlines, it is a different story. Nothing is forcing them to keep this promise, but I predict that change fees won't return in the same manner. Now, if you make changes within a week or two of flying - when most of us do - there might be a penalty.
Related: How American, Delta and United no-change-fee policies stack up against Southwest
There will also probably be more new fees to make up the difference. Seat assignment fees, including in business class, seem to be growing. I can imagine some new safety or cleanliness surcharge. And basic economy fares will probably come with more restrictions by 2022. There are other options for more fees, but do you really want me to share those with the airlines?
Just like hotels offer you free WiFi if you book directly, airlines are only going to waive change fees for those who are members of their frequent flyer programs who book direct. This will force more and more travelers to avoid Expedia, Priceline and other third-party booking sites and go directly to the airlines.
Whatever the case, I do see this as an opportunity for airlines to differentiate themselves from the competition. Instead of a race to match the ultra-low-cost carriers, I hope that the big airlines see this as the time to set themselves apart and be passenger-friendly.
Points and miles promotions
For those traveling in the first part of 2021, there are going to be tons of promotions out there.
Hotels and airlines are going to be fighting to gain whatever share of travel they can.
For instance, United is offering elite flyers a generous bonus during the first quarter to help jumpstart their quest for 2022 status.
World of Hyatt members can earn up to quadruple points starting with their first stay through February and double elite-qualifying nights.
Related: Current bonus points and miles promotions
Both of those promotions are in addition to lower elite-qualifying criteria.
Credit card companies have also been offering us tons of bonus miles for shifting spend to specific cards.
For those willing to travel, the first part of the year is likely to see very cheap airfares and hotel rates stacked with very generous promotions.
Award ticket availability
Those points and miles are worthless if you can't redeem them for a free trip.
Many of us are sitting on giant stashes of points. We've canceled trips but kept spending on cards - with big bonuses - for groceries or new home supplies.
Airlines have dramatically cut back their schedules, meaning fewer flights and few seats. But that hasn't hurt redemptions yet.
I haven't had any issue finding good availability for flights throughout 2021. So far.
Related: Beginner's guide to finding award availability
As more travelers start to map out their 2021 trips, those seats are going to be snagged pretty quickly. But for those who plan ahead, there are plenty of great options.
Hotels can't cut capacity the same way airlines can and are likely to have ample supply throughout the year, except for some major holidays.
And even then, there were some good point options. I was just looking at a hotel that was $1,400 a night for Christmas 2021. But there were plenty of rooms open at 20,000 World of Hyatt points a night.
I'm going to be optimistic here and hope that some brands use this pandemic as a chance to reset with customers and focus on long-term loyalty.
From the start of frequent flyer programs in the 1980s, there has always been a complaint that brands only value a relationship based on your travel Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of the prior year.
And that's still mainly true today.
I appreciate that Delta Air Lines allows members to roll over any extra elite-qualifying miles to the next year. Hilton has recently adopted a similar policy.
During the pandemic, Marriott Bonvoy gave members bonus elite-qualifying nights based on their 2019 status. (You can get more details here.) That was a smart move to help folks with their goals around lifetime gold or platinum status.
World of Hyatt dipped its toes into this game, offering a promotion that gave elite nights across two calendar years.
On the flip side, many travelers are still frustrated at how companies have responded to mass cancellations. Some passengers still haven't received refunds from cruise lines and millions of others are sitting on unused vouchers and travel credits from airlines that they may never use.
Alaska Airlines saw that problem and allowed its members to convert the vouchers into miles.
Smart brands - and I urge those of you reading this column to listen - will use this as an opportunity to rethink loyalty and focus on the multi-year relationship travelers have with your brand. This starts with elite qualifications but rolls into the benefits. Sure, we all like a free breakfast but I really appreciate what Peninsula Hotels is doing in 2021: giving guests the ability to check in and out at any hour of the day, free of charge.
Tough year for anybody in the travel industry. Many hotels have closed, possibly for good. The same with restaurants and attractions.
Those who survive are likely to be stronger.
Just look at the airlines. They have dramatically sped up the retirement of planes. For instance, American Airlines got rid of its Boeing 757s and 767s, Airbus A330-300s and Embraer E190s.
That means a larger share of the fleet is now more fuel-efficient. And newer. The transition to long-haul jets like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 is speeding up. We will also see more new 737 MAX jets, A320 and A321s and the new A220 flying domestically. On some airlines, like Delta, that means more seatback TVs and faster WiFi. It also is likely to mean less legroom on some carriers.
Related: JetBlue takes delivery of its first A220-300
Flyers at New York's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) are going to be treated to a new terminal that is nothing like the old disaster of an airport. And work is speeding along on a new terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). There's an entirely new airport terminal in Salt Lake City (SLC) and Denver (DEN) opened a new terminal expansion.
Across the country, many airport improvement projects have been sped up thanks to reduced travel during the pandemic. When air travel does eventually return to 2019 levels, flyers can expect a much nicer experience at many major airports.
Also in New York, an amazing new expansion of Penn Station - the country's busiest train station - will vastly improve the experience. The new Moynihan Hall opened on Jan. 1 and brought sunlight into an otherwise dreary train station.
This new hall promises to undo one of the greatest travesties in architecture: the demolition of the old Beaux-Arts style Penn Station in 1963. It was replaced with the current station, buried below Madison Square Garden. Every time I step off an Amtrak train there, I'm reminded of the late Yale professor Vincent Scully's quote about the demolition: "Once, we entered the city like gods. Now we scurry in like rats, which is probably what we deserve."
Now, nearly 60 years later, sunlight is returning to Penn Station.
Biometrics plus virtual queuing
Finally, there were a number of virtual changes to our travel experience in 2020 that I expect to stay. Namely, every activity moved to some form of virtual queuing or advanced, timed tickets to space us out.
Crowds and lines will come back, but the smart attractions will find ways to use technology to better space us out and reduce lines. Biometric boarding will make it faster to get on a plane and virtual lines will make the Disney World experience more enjoyable. Even the ability to order food from our phones at a busy theme park or ski resort will make the experience faster and better.
Even as social distancing restrictions are relaxed, I predict travelers will see more of these technology-driven interactions. All of these technologies - such as QR codes - were around prior to the pandemic but COVID-19 forced us to speed up their adoption. Any privacy concerns were cast aside.
Now that we have seen the benefits, they will only expand in the coming year.
The resumption of travel in 2021 is going to have lots of starts and stops. Flexibility will remain key to travelers.
There's a lot of pent up demand and those healthy, and with the financial means, will be the first to flood the skies.
But don't expect a giant wave of travel. It's going to be a slow, steady buildup with a few major setbacks along the way. By the summer, vacationers should be out in force but don't expect trips to be "normal." Business travel will take longer to recover.
Many of the pandemic-era changes are likely to stay with us forever. Hopefully, airlines will continue to thoroughly clean their planes. The same for hotels. I'd love to see fees disappear but know that the economics don't add up for that to be permanent.
Technological changes implemented this past year will only accelerate.
And all of us will hopefully rethink why we are traveling, who we are visiting and how we see the world. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how important human interaction is and that one of the most amazing aspects of travel is that it teaches us about others. As we all venture out in 2021, I hope that we view our trips through a new lens and realize just how lucky we are to travel.