The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year has changed all of our worlds. And not just in the short term. Outside of healthcare—where heroes dressed in gowns continue to battle on the front lines—few sectors have been hit like the travel industry. In my own company, bookings were down by over 95% at the height of the pandemic back in May. We created a COVID-19 resource center and our support staff has been working very hard to help travelers and admins. However, the scale of the problem cannot be ignored.
Entire nations were ordered to stay at home, airlines have gone bankrupt, travel companies laid off massive amounts of workers, and hotels were turned into hospitals. But now, vaccination rollout is finally and thankfully well underway. Israel is virtually back to a pre-pandemic state. The UK has over 30 million vaccinated people. It seems as though the world is starting to get back on its feet. Now that things are slowly beginning to return to “normal”, many have raised the question of travel, especially international travel. Will it look very different? Here are the top changes I see coming.
When will travel recover?
The million-dollar question. When will we be able to travel again? The short answer is nobody knows for sure. At the moment, we see travel recovering in stages—first locally, then domestically between regions, and international travel is surely going to be the last. In addition, there are multiple factors that will influence travel such as whether social distancing on planes is economically viable for carriers, differing entry requirements from country to country, vaccine rollouts, and the recognition of different “brands” of vaccines, to name but a few.
Here is what we believe:
- Domestic travel is already reopening in some countries and is likely to be in full swing by summer 2021.
- International travel will depend a little on how the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine goes worldwide, but we expect it to increase again around summer 2021 (like it did in 2020). Whether that'll be here to stay or if we'll experience another slump as we get closer to the winter season is yet to be seen.
- Vaccinated travelers will be the first to be welcomed back with open arms.
1. The queue at immigration will be longer than ever before
We’re already seeing this in countries that feel like they’re on top of their outbreaks. One of the biggest worries is still new variants and infections coming in from outside. Travel from the United States is still closed to many destinations, especially in Europe. Countries like Singapore require a 2-week quarantine for international arrivals, even if they present a negative COVID-19 test. Those without a permanent residence are being sent directly to an isolation ward. Manufacturers of heat cameras are seeing a spike in demand. Many countries are testing at the border. If you thought the line at JFK immigration control was torturous before, now consider what it’ll be like as you line up, take a swab test, and wait for the results.
2. You’ll need more than a passport
Some countries will not even take the chance of testing at the border. Especially if you’re coming from an outbreak hotspot. Entrance could be refused unless you have a certificate of immunity due to the fact that you’ve recovered from an infection or because you’ve been vaccinated. Some countries might not let you in if you’ve been vaccinated with Sputnik instead of Pfizer or Moderna, for example. Wristbands with barcodes like those in the movie Contagion are a very real prospect.
Certainly in the short term, travel will become more defined by purpose. Any business travel will need to be strictly validated as an economic activity, with companies tightening the numbers of employees who travel for them. Countries will likely only open their borders where there is merit and it’s safe to let travelers through. This may mean temporary visas and more documentation that you’ll need to take with you when traveling.
3. Travel will have different (expensive & unpredictable) seasons
A very influential paper from Imperial College London speculates that governments will need to turn lockdown measures on and off according to spikes COVID-19 cases, in order to keep demands on healthcare systems at a manageable level. This means there will be windows of opportunity to travel that only last weeks or even days. Even with airlines desperate to get airborne again, seats will be limited and we could see dramatic increases in pricing during those windows. Travel restrictions will continue to shape travel in the months to come, and having quick and reliable access to this information will be the only way for you to make travel plans.
4. Recovery will be uneven
We’re seeing already that the factors influencing this pandemic are numerous. Strictness and timing of lockdown measures, the robustness of public health systems, the weather, luck, and other factors are all at work. That means some countries and regions will recover first. We will see corridors of recovery open back up one by one.
How this will look exactly is difficult to predict. For example, Israel and the UK are way ahead of other countries in terms of vaccine rollout. Might this mean that they’ll be among the first to reopen their doors? What about countries like Italy or Spain, which were among the hardest hit by the virus, and rely on tourism? Might they be more eager to restart travel, or will the depth of their nightmare mean that they are more reluctant to let foreigners in?
5. You’ll pack differently
Seen the TikTok video of a man taking out a bag of wet wipes and thoroughly wiping down his table and seat before sitting down for take-off? Well, it could be something you start to see in the flesh. Even if it’s not to that comedic extent, we’re being directed to wash our hands, and the only way to do that when on the move is with hand sanitizer. We may well see the relaxing of liquid carry-on restrictions as travelers want to take more than 100ml, especially on long-haul flights.
Along with hand sanitizer travel packs, airlines are obligating people to travel with face masks. In the same way that companies like Away have made luxury, fashionable travel baggage, we will most likely see “desirable” travel masks worn by Instagram influencers. Just don't forget to check your airline's or local health authority's guidelines on what masks to wear when traveling (CDC, NHS, what have you).
6. You’ll tick that little box every time
We’re all very used to airplane bookings coming with tens of add-ons once we’ve chosen our flight. Let’s be honest, most of us skip past speedy boarding, extra baggage, car rental, and even seat selection. One box that we won’t be skipping past as much is the one asking us if we want to insure the flight. Be careful though, often this “insurance” doesn’t cover you for many things, including the outbreak of a pandemic. Either airline providers or insurance companies are going to have to change to accommodate our new reality.
At TravelPerk, we saw the need for flexibility even before the current crisis. It’s why we created something different and better than insurance called FlexiPerk, allowing you to cancel a trip for any reason, up to a couple of hours before take-off. We’ve seen massive demand for FlexiPerk since we launched it, and this demand has increased dramatically since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
7. Society won’t like you when you’re sick
Even those who have recovered from COVID-19, and have built up immunity (if the virus doesn’t mutate too much) won’t want to travel with a cold. The current situation and the conviction with which the world is adopting social distancing will make it socially unacceptable to travel with a cold or any symptoms. The looks you will get if you cough or sneeze at an airport or on a plane will be scathing. I predict that social stigma will put a lot of people off, resulting in the potential for more no-shows on travel days (once prices are stable).
8. You’ll take the train before the plane
Domestic travel will recover first (there’s no border control) and for most countries, that means taking a train. Not only will we be able to get back on tracks (ha, a pun) first, we’ll also be more secure about it. Trains are less crowded, have windows that open, and also are much more environmentally friendly. Not to mention that countries like France are already starting to pass laws requiring short-haul travelers to take trains instead of planes!
9. Air quality will be an advertised feature
Any idea what grade air filter Lufthansa uses on their flights? How about British Airways? Korean Air? Which Airbus model has the cleanest air? Do Boeing planes have fewer microbes in the air? No idea? Well, you may not know now, but once we’re flying again, airlines will start boasting about their filtration systems. Some have already started emailing customers about their current systems in a bid to stop people canceling. By the end of the year, it’ll be a question many people will be asking—how safe is the air onboard?
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