When will we start traveling again?
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For two months now, travel has all but come to a halt.
Well over 90% of usual U.S. air travelers are firmly on the ground. In May, seven out of 10 hotel rooms across the country were vacant — and that was actually an improvement over April numbers. Cruise ships haven’t set sail on new voyages with passengers in months, and likely won’t head for open waters for a few more. The gates to Disney World remain closed. The lights are still dark in Las Vegas and there’s some speculation in the industry that at least one U.S. airline won’t make it to next year.
It’s been the toughest two months the travel industry — and, really, all of us — has seen in a long time.
But, there are also glimmers of hope.
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The number of daily air passengers in the U.S. has been on the rise. Both airports and hotels also have announced new cleaning procedures to reduce the risks and ease travelers’ concerns. Travel restrictions and bans are beginning to loosen in some locations. Disneyland recently reopened in Shanghai, the first location where some theme parks closed back in January.
And while many travelers have had to cancel or postpone their original 2020 travel plans, they’re thinking outside the box to plan new, more flexible and closer-to-home vacations. So with all of that happening, when will we travel again?
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When will destinations reopen?
When you’ll travel again depends on a large number of factors: Your risk tolerance, your health, the mitigation (or lack thereof) of the coronavirus, where you want to go, what you want to do and, on a very practical level, where you live.
“The initial recovery in travel will be uneven and staggered, with gains in many markets determined by virus-specific factors more than economic factors,” said Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics.
Where you live factors into when you will travel again in a number of ways. First, there are travel bans based on where you’re coming from. For example, even in the U.S., Maine and Hawaii are essentially closed to out-of-state visitors. Other states are requiring lengthy quarantines for visitors from harder-hit parts of the country, such as New York, New Jersey and California.
Some destinations are simply on vastly different timelines for reopening nonessential businesses and services. For example, Texas has largely reopened for business and is no longer under a statewide stay-at-home order. As a result, places such as Galveston and Corpus Christi are leading the nation in occupancy rates, according to STR data. On the other end of the spectrum, Los Angeles County may remain under some form of a stay-at-home order through July.
Domestic travel will take the lead
Travelers around the world are eager to leave their homes. But when they do, they’ll probably start small. We’re already seeing that happen as states in the South, such as Texas and Florida, open up and locals flock to the closest beaches in Daytona, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; and Corpus Christi, Texas.
Also, it’s much easier to get in the car (or even take a short flight) than commit to an international getaway that’s more likely to involve quarantines and testing upon arrival.
In China, where the country is a few months ahead of the U.S. in terms of COVID-19 case trends, domestic travel has been on a slow rebound for a couple of months. Domestic Chinese travel, however, has seen a recent spike in demand that corresponds with some national May holidays, according to STR. If the U.S. follows a similar trajectory, it’s possible domestic travel across the 50 states may experience a true upward spike around July 4.
International travel will follow
While travel demand is already creeping up in some domestic locations, there’s not as much good news for Americans when it comes to international travel this summer. Even as hard-hit countries begin to reopen their own economies, most are not rolling out the red carpet for international visitors no matter how desperate they are for tourism dollars.
There are a few destinations preparing to welcome back international visitors including Iceland, Greece, Mexico and Aruba. But for the most part, Americans are not allowed across most borders. Even Canada is keeping its border shut until at least late June.
One thing to watch?
Several nations are either in the process of creating or considering “travel bubbles” — also called “green zones” or “green lanes” — with other countries (mostly nearby neighbors). It would allow travel to resume between countries where the risk of an outbreak is now considered low. These include agreements between countries such as China and South Korea, which are beginning to open back up to only each other for business travel. China is reportedly in talks to ease restrictions with as many as 14 other countries including Austria and Singapore.
Still, that’s not really helpful to Americans wanting to explore the world.
When will we start flying again?
Deciding to embark on a road trip is one thing, but for others, boarding a plane again is another decision entirely.
Due to the coronavirus, there’s been little demand for flights for the last two months, resulting in some unprecedented moves for the aviation industry, such as airlines consolidating flights across major metropolitan areas; adding tag flights; and retiring large numbers of aircraft.
And the signs point toward a slow rebound. In a recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) survey, 40% of respondents said they won’t take to the skies again for at least six months once restrictions are lifted. IATA says the possibility of a “V-shape” recovery — one in which travelers return in nearly the same numbers within just a few months — is unlikely. Instead, the organization expects a “significant recovery” to begin in 2021 at the earliest.
TSA passenger screening numbers are on a slow and steady rise, with new post-March record numbers being hit every week or two. But there’s really only one direction to go after hitting the low numbers we saw in mid-April. So, it’s unclear when air travel may return to anything resembling normal — but it’s not likely to be a fast recovery. That said, it’s entirely possible more inexpensive carriers that operate leisure routes will experience a faster recovery than pricier seats and routes traditionally filled by business travelers. In fact, budget carrier, Allegiant Airlines is betting on exactly that scenario playing out in places such as Las Vegas and Florida.
When will we return to hotels?
Some hotel locations and brands have started recovering faster than others.
Hotels in areas like Santa Barbara, California and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina — both destinations that are easily reachable by car — have seen occupancy rates of 50% and higher at some area hotels. In addition to beach leisure locations getting a recovery jump over big urban areas and those still in a more locked-down state, budget hotel brands are receiving bookings at a faster rate than pricier high-end brands, as these are more commonly located off interstate highways and serve more of an “essential” need for travelers.
“Performance levels are dismal from every angle, but at the very least, weekly data through May 9 indicates that the industry has already hit bottom and begun a steady ascent,” said Amanda Hite, president of STR, in regards to hotel occupancy rates. “The rate of recovery will be slow even as distancing measures are eased and most of the country reopens … Regardless of timing, the leisure segment will be first out of the gate, especially from drive-to sources.”
While hotels face different challenges than airports in welcoming back guests, they similarly tasked with not only keep guests and staff as safe as possible, but also making travelers feel like it’s safe to return. To those ends, major hotel brands have been vocal about new cleaning standards and initiatives that, hopefully, will encourage travelers to return.
When will we start cruising?
It could be many months before cruising resumes in any meaningful way. The big cruise companies first have to convince health authorities such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that it’s safe for them to operate in this new age of coronavirus, and then be sure there are enough destinations open for their vessels to have somewhere to go.
Already, at least one familiar cruise stop in the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands, has said it won’t be accepting cruise ships until at least September. One relatively minor cruise port in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles, has said it won’t welcome cruise ships until 2022. That said, many other popular cruise destinations are expected to welcome ships back relatively quickly. In the Caribbean, in particular, arriving cruise ships are an important income source.
For now, even top cruise industry executives say they’re unsure when cruising will resume. Every major cruise line in the world halted departures in mid-March, and most have canceled every sailing through at least the end of July. But, given the uncertainty of the above, some lines already have gone much further. Princess Cruises and Holland America have canceled most of their sailings well into the fall, including every voyage they had planned this year in Europe and Alaska. Seabourn has canceled every sailing through mid-October.
In a recent one-on-one interview with TPG, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio said his best guess for when his company would be able to resume cruising was the latter part of the third quarter. That would suggest a comeback sometime in late August or September. But even then, Del Rio said he expected just five or six of the company’s 28 ships to start up again. A full resumption of operations could take many months, he said.
Still, a few niche cruise providers may come back more quickly. One area to watch: Companies that operate small vessels operating in coastal U.S. waters, such as UnCruise Adventures and American Cruise Lines. Both companies operate intimate, uncrowded vessels that hold fewer than 150 passengers and offer close-to-home itineraries.
When will prices drop?
Travelers who are waiting for rates to plunge and airfare to plummet may find coronavirus deals aren’t as deep as we initially expected. That’s in large part because, though demand is down, inventory is down too.
As travel resumes at a slow and incremental pace, there will be limited inventory, whether on cruise ships, planes or even in hotels. This will make bargain-basement deals the exception, not the rule. For cruise lines, a gradual return to service is part of a conscious strategy that may help cruise lines avoid massive price cuts.
And travelers also have to consider that in some destinations, there might be reduced inventory and increased demand. In destinations where traveler interest is spiking — drive-in markets, beach towns and parkland, for example — prices may actually be inflated. Not every hotel or vacation rental will immediately reopen at full capacity, but pent-up travelers could return in force.
That doesn’t mean you won’t find deals, of course.
Many major airlines have been offering bonus miles and discounts. Some of the best deals we’ve seen include a 110% bonus on Aeroplan miles, 75% bonus on British Airways Avios and a 60% bonus on Alaska Airlines miles, plus inexpensive cash fares. Marriott also announced its best-ever bonus (60%) on Marriott Bonvoy points, as well as a 10% discount on bookings with the brand’s vacation rental program, Homes and Villas by Marriott, and 20% off Marriott gift cards.
At select Fairmont properties in Canada, you can book one night and get every second night free during the same stay until the end of 2020. And Banyan Trees recently sold gift certificates for two-night stays at select properties that offered savings up to 78%.
But deals are likely to continue appearing in an ad hoc manner, as brands seek to incentivize specific travelers or drum up interest in certain floundering markets or quickly raise cash.
The question, when will we travel again, must be answered by at least three distinct factors: When is it allowed for your situation, when do you feel the rewards outweigh the risks and when will the things you want to see and do be available to you?
For some would-be travelers, those three pillars will align as soon as June, or perhaps even earlier. For others, it will potentially be 2021 or longer until those essentials are present to make travel a reality.
Featured image by Justin Reznick Photography/Getty Images
Additional reporting by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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