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What Travel Looks Like for 2021

No change fees, health 'passports,' last-minute getaways are here to stay

Passport, surgical mask on a suitcase

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En español | Travel has been at a near standstill for much of 2020, thanks to the pandemic, which has kept millions of Americans home for months on end, their vacations canceled or delayed indefinitely. The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in more than $500 billion in losses for the U.S. travel economy so far, according to the U.S. Travel Association, an industry advocacy group.

Travel insiders predict that recovery for the industry is still at least two years away — but many view the start of COVID-19 vaccinations as reason for hope.

"For the first time in a long time, I'm feeling optimistic about travel again,” says Jan L. Jones, a professor of hospitality and tourism at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

So, what to expect in 2021?

1. Those $200 airline change fees may be gone for good. American, Delta, United and Alaska Airlines, looking to get more passengers on planes in 2020, stopped charging customers exorbitant fees (typically $200) just to change or cancel domestic flights. They recently extended that policy to include international flights (with some exceptions for Basic Economy fares). In 2021, says Jones. “I think airlines are going to be doing everything they possibly can to get people on flights.”

2. Flexibility will be everything. Before committing to a trip, travelers will want assurance that they can easily cancel their cruise, hotel or tour without penalty. Providers are responding: Celebrity Cruises, for example, is now allowing customers to cancel their cruise up to 48 hours before departure and rebook through May 2022 (certain conditions apply). Intrepid Travel, which offers small group tours, allows customers to change the departure date and/or destination up to 21 days before a trip for no fee. “For the first time in my lifetime, consumers are in the driver's seat,” says Clint Henderson, senior news editor at The Points Guy, a travel and credit card rewards website.

Hotel booking on a mobile phone

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3. Last-minute getaways will be all the rage. This is another response to the unpredictability caused by COVID-19. Even those of us used to planning our big vacations months in advance may now wait to do so until close to departure. According to a recent trends report from the vacation rental site, the average time before check-in between when the pandemic began and the end of September was 50 days, a drop of almost 38 percent from the average lead time before the pandemic. This more spontaneous, wait-and-see approach to travel is likely to continue, says Jones: “There are just still so many unknowns.”

4. We may need documents that prove we're COVID-free. Proof of a negative test (and maybe vaccination) may become necessary for flying. A growing number of airlines and airports are partnering with destinations to develop travel corridors, where people flying between select destinations who show proof of a negative test can avoid quarantine mandates. Delta now has a COVID-19 testing program between Atlanta and Rome that enables Americans who test negative for COVID-19 quarantine-free entry into Italy, for instance. “I think these corridors will continue to exist at least through the first half of the year,” says Jason Guggenheim, head of the travel and tourism sector at the research organization Boston Consulting Group. At some point, says Henderson, “the travel corridors may become less about testing and more about proving you were vaccinated.”

“People will say, ‘Let's go to Wyoming,’ rather than spend time in Europe.” 

—Jason Guggenheim, travel analyst, Boston Consulting Group

5. We may carry digital “health passports” that show we've been vaccinated. It's unclear whether it will become standard for destinations and travel providers like airlines and tour companies to require COVID vaccination for entry, but one tool for doing so could be health apps that can reliably confirm negative COVID-19 test results and proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing one, the IATA Travel Pass, that will allow travelers to store verified test or vaccination results on their mobile devices. JetBlue is already preparing to use a similar app, CommonPass, developed by the nonprofit Commons Project and the World Economic Forum, on flights to Aruba; passengers will be able to test themselves for COVID-19 at home, send their test to a lab, and have their results uploaded to the CommonPass app, which will be scanned upon their arrival in Aruba.

6. Cruises will be a lot less carefree. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is requiring cruise lines to show they have strict infection prevention measures in place before they can begin operating again, and many have canceled cruises through the end of February or later. When they do set sail, passengers can expect mandatory pre-travel testing for COVID-19, lots of conspicuous disinfection and cleaning onboard, and the touting of new ventilation systems meant to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Like airlines, some cruise lines are considering whether they can require passengers to offer proof of vaccination. “Lawyers are looking at it as we speak,” the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings told Travel Weekly recently.

7. We'll travel the United States. International travel will come back slowly, so U.S. travel — especially road trips, since many people are still wary of flying — will remain popular. “People will say, ‘Let's go to Wyoming,’ rather than spend time in Europe,” says Guggenheim. “I think people are going to feel uncomfortable being many time zones away from home. Borders opening and closing has made them somewhat uneasy."

a line of cars drive toward Yosemite National Park entrance

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Yosemite National Park

8. The great outdoors will attract crowds. With the emphasis on social distancing continuing into 2021, travelers will want their trips to include outdoor activities, says Guggenheim. He notes that during the pandemic, many Americans splurged on equipment like boats, RVs, bikes and camping gear, making “an investment into those activities.” Henderson says that by the end of last summer, national parks had again become popular destinations for travelers eager for adventure. “I think it's going to be pretty crowded in national parks for the foreseeable future,” he says.

9. High-tech “touchless” options will expand. That will include the continuing implementation of touchless payment options in hotels and other tourist spots (cash is starting to look so old fashioned) and digital check-in and checkout at hotels. Touchless screening technology at airports will expand, including the use of facial scanning to replace or confirm other forms of identification. The TSA is now testing biometric scanners at a few airports in the Washington, D.C., area, with the goal of speeding up the screening process and limiting the opportunities for virus transmission.

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10. We'll be wearing masks through summer, at least. “We still have a ways to go before we just open everything and everybody walks around with no covering on their faces,” says June McKoy, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. While there has been speculation that people who have been immunized against COVID-19 will start rushing to take “vaxications,” McKoy urges eager travelers to be patient. “Hang in there and wait” until it's safe, she says. “Take all the safety measures that we talked about when the pandemic broke, and make sure that you protect yourself and your family."

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