It’s not just travel enthusiasts who want to explore the world in 2021, it’s many Americans who have been cooped up fighting cabin fever, thanks to some form of quarantine restriction since March 2020.
Unlike previous years, traveling in 2021 is less about where we’ll travel and more about how we’ll travel in this still not-normal, pandemic world.
“In general, travelers have really had to contend with keeping up with all of those constantly changing quarantine restrictions and testing requirements and that can be a real deterrent,” said Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy.
Here’s how travel insiders think traveling in 2021 will look like amid the complexities of the ongoing pandemic.
Leisure travel will return
Air travel volume has come a long way since spring 2020, but it’s still not close to rebounding to pre-pandemic levels.
People are eager to “make up for lost time” once they receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, told Yahoo Money, so “the number of leisure travelers is going to surge in a major, major way.”
It’s possible volume will even rival pre-pandemic volume levels, he said.
This year could be “huge for cheap flights,” Keyes said, because price-conscious leisure travelers will outnumber business travelers who typically pay higher fares. Airlines will be forced to adjust pricing models to get passengers on board, he said.
Road trips will reign supreme
Much of the world is still off-limits to American tourists in 2021. Last year, Americans instead explored the United States and revived the great American road trip. That doesn’t show signs of stopping, according to the travel experts.
Quarantine restrictions will continue to factor into destination planning for travelers. Interstate travel is “a little bit more complicated,” Lieberman said. Some people have anxieties over being far away from home if they get sick. Others worry about how restrictions or requirements for out-of-state visitors could change before they arrive.
“Depending on where you are, that really informs how far from home you're comfortable going,” Lieberman said.
Outdoor activities will remain popular
2020 brought a swell of visitors to the country’s national parks, drawn by socially distanced outdoor activities like camping, hiking, water sports, and picnicking.
“Outdoor travel will be more popular than it was in a relative sense to say 2019, but not as popular as 2020,” Keyes said. “As vaccines roll out and as kind of normalcy starts to resume, I think you're going to see people start to return to the types of travel that they had been missing during the pandemic.”
That’s not to say that parks, beaches, and lakes will be starved for tourists this year, but as countries reopen borders, some Americans will jump at the opportunity to visit international locales toward the end of 2021, Lieberman and Keyes both predicted.
Extended stays are the new weekend trip
The pandemic really sucked the spontaneity out of life in 2020, replacing jet-setting over a long weekend for a protracted stay in a single destination instead. That’s not changing in 2021 — at least not the first half of the year.
While navigating shifting travel restrictions, people are still inclined to stay put longer. Working and learning remotely have also provided added flexibility for many families and individuals to travel for longer periods of time. People are also spending more time in a given destination because getting there is much more of a challenge than before, Lieberman explained.
This longer and slower-paced travel style is Gabby Beckford’s 2021 “mantra,” the author and travel blogger at Packs Light said.
Because the “incubation period of COVID is like 10 days, I want to make sure wherever I'm staying, I'm staying for at least 10 to 14 days” to make sure if she becomes infected, she’s not spreading the contagion.
The vacation rental property boom will continue
Extended stays to vacation rental properties as a way to ride out the pandemic has been a popular move for those who remain employed and working from home and who want to temporarily upgrade to larger living spaces or live in more rural areas for a change of scenery.
Lieberman forecasts the trend to “continue throughout the year and might even strengthen” as people who have the ability to work remotely might elect to make it their permanent work arrangement.
Short-term property rentals will also remain an option, because of the peace of mind it provides by staying in a private space and not interacting with other travelers.
On the spot COVID-19 testing
In lieu of buffets, robes, gyms, minibars, and daily housekeeping services, top-tier hotels will offer rapid COVID-19 testing for guests upon check-in.
As of January, guests of Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont Hotel and two Sofitel London-area airport properties offer self-administered COVID-19 tests for guests. Marriott’s Gaylord Hotels and Wynn properties are reportedly rolling out tests, too.
Beckford admits she’s a “big fan” of the health and safety amenity and although it isn’t a deciding factor of where she chooses to stay, if “people can get tested, I think [people] should be.”
Packing lists will look different
On-site amenities like bathrobes and minibars have disappeared from the hotel experience as a result of the pandemic, but broadly speaking, the entire hospitality and food scene looks different. Space on dining tables once reserved for condiments has been replaced by hand sanitizer in most places.
“One thing I've noticed—and I'm not saying that travelers need to pack a salt and pepper shaker in 2021—but even in outdoor dining, you'll notice a lot of the amenities aren't on the table that you're expecting anymore,” Lieberman noted.
In preparation for her two-month stint in Dubai beginning in January, Beckford is bringing her own disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, face masks, a face shield, and a washable scarf she uses as a multi-purpose tool to cover over pillows or as a blanket.
Flexibility is the name of the game
Once considered optional and premium add-ons, travel insurance, and refundable travel plans are going to be requisite items for travelers in 2021.
But “travelers really need to do their homework,” Lieberman said, noting it’s incumbent on travelers to keep up with the news, travel advisories, and COVID-19 testing requirements before departure.
“This is really going to be the year of the backup plan because you get to a destination and something's changed or you're about to leave and it's changed,” she said. “The good thing is a lot of the major airlines have waived change, cancellation, and rebooking fees.”
Looking beyond 2021
The next 12 months will be telling for the future of travel. Calling “peace of mind” the paramount concern for travelers, Lieberman said a vaccine “doesn't change how travelers are going to feel coming out of a global health crisis.” The travel industry will have to work to restore confidence in travelers so they can feel comfortable again.
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“It's going to be a while before things are back to what we would consider normal and we all know that,” Lieberman said.