Experts Predict How The COVID Variants Will Affect Fall Travel
“Hot vax summer” ushered in a hopeful phase of the pandemic, with increases in weddings, family vacations and other opportunities for travel and socialization. But we’ve also seen a rise in COVID-19 cases and concerns about contagious viral coronavirus variants like delta and mu.
Many cities, states and countries have issued new rules and requirements for residents and visitors, while companies have delayed office reopening dates. Still, data continues to support the effectiveness of vaccinations in preventing severe illness and hospitalization due to COVID-19.
We officially enter the fall season next week, and many of us have made travel plans, or hope to soon. But what does the variant situation mean for the state of travel?
HuffPost asked experts to break down the trends they’re seeing right now and predictions for how travel will look in the coming months. Read on for their insights.
Travel demand is already softening.
“Concerns over the delta variant are already affecting fall travel,” Willis Orlando, member operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights, told HuffPost. “All summer long, there was steady momentum towards a return to normal-ish demand for travel, particularly domestically. But in the last couple of months, this momentum has sputtered out.”
He noted that flight search volume on the site briefly reached 2019 levels in late June but is now down about 35% from where it was two years ago.
“When we polled a sample of our 2 million+ members about travel attitudes, 74% said Delta had affected their travel plans, with 35% saying they weren’t planning on traveling until 2022,” Orlando said.
International trips will be less popular.
“The vast majority of travel is still domestic, as travelers remain leery of jaunting too far from home,” said Val Anthony, lead research analyst at Tripadvisor. “This August, 84% of travel booked by Americans on Tripadvisor was domestic, with just 16% international.”
When Americans travel internationally, they need proof of a negative coronavirus test to reenter the United States. Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy, believes the rise of variants have made that requirement a bigger consideration for travelers than it was earlier this summer.
“Consumers are seeing that even vaccinated people can get the virus, which, while you can avoid hospitalization in most cases, people still don’t want to get stuck abroad in a foreign country and have to extend their trip by weeks and incur thousands in costs,” he explained.
“So one of the trends we’re going to see is that international travel is going to be suppressed even more and domestic travel will be popular for those that want to travel.”
“Where the vaccination rate is more established, we are seeing evidence of travelers feeling more assured and confident in getting back out there.”
– Brian McGuinness, IHG Hotels & Resorts
For those who do travel internationally, the choice of destination will depend on the risks and regulations in place in the receiving country.
“For international travel, you should monitor the country’s entry and exit requirements,” said Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer. “Current and accurate information can be found on the country in question’s U.S. Embassy website. Cross the country off your list if you cannot meet the requirements or if the COVID-19 spread is too high.”
Vaccination rates may impact domestic tourism choices.
For many, staying closer to home means choosing drivable destinations, a continuation of the great American road trip revival of 2020.
“Everyone’s comfort level on traveling during the pandemic is different. In general, I’m seeing a lot more folks opting for road trips,” said queer travel expert and “Gaycation Travel Show” host Ravi Roth. “During the fall and holiday season, I expect that trend to continue due to COVID travel concerns.”
Another major factor in many travelers’ U.S. destination choices is the public health situation at the moment.
“As hospitals get inundated in certain states, we may see a shift in where people go because no one wants to a destination where you can’t get any access to medical care,” Kelly said.
Related to the hospitalization factor are vaccination rates, pandemic protocols and general safety.
“When selecting a destination for the fall months, U.S. travelers are prioritizing sunshine and open attractions, but Americans are also choosing cities like New York over small towns in certain cases, which may indicate some people are more comfortable visiting places where vaccination rates are high and COVID-19 protocols are in place,” said Anni Murphy, corporate communications manager at Expedia Group.
“Where the vaccination rate is more established, we are seeing evidence of travelers feeling more assured and confident in getting back out there,” echoed Brian McGuinness, senior vice president of global guest experience at IHG Hotels & Resorts.
But plenty of people will still travel.
While the number of passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration each day has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, it’s getting closer and is certainly much higher than the 2020 rates. Dengler believes this trend will continue into the fall.
“Our most recent survey even showed 75% of Americans view the delta variant as either a slight concern or a big concern,” he said. “Despite that high percentage, 53% said they were traveling on Labor Day. While there have been breakthrough cases, people trust the vaccines to keep them safe when traveling.”
Dengler noted that the recent TSA mask mandate extension and proof of vaccination requirements at many restaurants and other venues in popular destinations also offer travelers more peace of mind. And many prefer the restrictions for reasons beyond health and safety.
“For folks who are vaccinated and comfortable traveling, now is a wonderful time to do so,” Orlando said. “Major tourist attractions and typically crowded cities are emptier than ever, making it a (hopefully) once in a lifetime opportunity to see places like Barcelona, Venice, or London without the normal throngs of tourists. Traveling internationally at the moment is a bit more complicated than it used to be, but the payoff is enormous.”
There are good deals right now.
The slight softening in travel demand is good news for budget-conscious travelers. Now might be a sweet spot for booking a flight.
“The upshot is, all summer long airlines aggressively put planes back in the sky, anticipating increased demand,” Orlando noted. “Now they have a whole lot of empty seats to fill, which has resulted in some pretty extraordinary deals for fall travel. In the last week, we saw $97 roundtrip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and vice versa, and fares as low as $262 roundtrip from cities throughout the U.S. to Italy.”
Flexibility will continue to be a priority.
When it comes to travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, flexibility is the name of the game. It’s important to be aware of the change and cancellation policies for every step of your journey ― flights, accommodations, meals and activities.
“The major U.S. airlines are still waiving change and cancellation fees for domestic and some international flights ― usually when departing from the U.S.,” Kelly noted. “This policy gives travelers the flexibility to reschedule any upcoming trips that they no longer feel comfortable taking. Keep in mind, this policy does not apply for all basic economy tickets ― United and Delta have offered some flexibility to this, but be sure to check the details.”
“Check the recommendations of the destination you want to go to, and if they are recommending that visitors don’t come, you should adhere to their recommendations.”
– Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy
Kelly advised booking tickets that offer maximum flexibility and taking advantage of full cash refunds, rather than vouchers, when available.
Orlando emphasized the same for hotels or vacation rentals through services like Airbnb. Make sure you’re comfortable with the policies before you book, and check before you reschedule a trip.
“It is a genuine bummer to change your flights only to realize you booked a non-refundable vacation rental,” he said.
Last-minute bookings are getting more common.
The combination of flexibility, good deals and the continuation of remote work for many industries means that more people are booking last-minute trips. This approach also allows people to monitor the evolving pandemic circumstances in their potential destinations and at home.
“Sixty-two percent of all consumers clicking to book hotels in the past week are choosing travel dates for this month, with September 2021 check-in dates,” Anthony said.
“On top of the 54% who say they’re traveling this fall, 22% say they are still undecided. Since most travel is last-minute, it’s possible that a large chunk of this undecided group may choose to travel as we get closer, while travel for farther-out holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are still up in the air.”
Business travel probably won’t rebound soon.
“After Labor Day, the fall season is typically driven by business travel demand in advance of the winter holidays,” said Chris Davidson, executive vice president of MMGY Travel Intelligence. “Overall, corporate business travel has lagged behind other traveler segments in terms of recovery compared to the pre-COVID period, and the rising cases associated with the delta variant are likely to further hamper business travel recovery.”
Over the past month, many companies have postponed their in-person return dates and canceled conferences and other events. So it stands to reason that work-related travel would also be off the table for many.
“I think the near-to-long term impacts of the delta variant are that business travel will continue to stay slower, with only the more important trips taking place, and leisure travel will continue to be drive-to and warm-climate-focused,” said Philip Bates, co-founder and CEO of TMC Hospitality.
Safety and respect remain paramount.
If you decide to travel this fall, it’s important to be respectful of safety measures and the people who live at your destination of choice. Last month, the governor of Hawaii asked travelers to postpone their vacations to the islands following many similar pleas from residents.
“Be sure to check the recommendations of the destination you want to go to, and if they are recommending that visitors don’t come, you should adhere to their recommendations unless you have an important reason such as a family situation,” Kelly advised.
He also emphasized the importance of wearing masks, following local guidelines and not arguing with staff when traveling.
“The [travel and hospitality] industry in general has been hit really hard,” he explained. “There are staffing shortages and tensions are high, so be sure to treat the industry employees with respect. Remember the staff are not making the rules ― they are there to enforce them to ensure safety.”
Roth suggested more mindfulness when it comes to planning your itineraries.
“Keep in mind, more destinations are focusing on regenerative tourism and sustainable travel, promoting local mom and pop shops and giving a part of you back to the destination,” he said.
And remember: Wherever you are, courtesy is key.