“When will travel reopen and what will it look like on day one?” These questions have obsessively preoccupied the entire travel industry since mid-March, when with each passing day it became more clear that the unthinkable was happening: The world, in an absolutely unprecedented fashion and to an unprecedented degree, was coming to a shuddering halt.
There were no bombs falling from the sky as there were in Europe in September 1939, but there might as well have been. In so far as travel was concerned, it wasn’t just about the loss of leisure and pleasure (although there is that, of course)—it was also livelihoods.
The travel industry contributes 10% to the world’s GDP and sustains 1 in 12 of all global jobs (around 255 million people). The salary of the bartender mixing your painkiller cocktail on a Caribbean island sends a kid to school; an entire extended family, even a village, might depend on the wages that the woman who cleans your room in an African safari lodge funnels home.
We are all desperate to be on that proverbial road again, and there are millions all over the world desperate to welcome us back. When will that happen, and what will it be like? Two months in—with some parts of the world ending lockdowns, gradually phasing them out, or considering ending them—we can attempt to answer those questions. (See below, and watch this space for updates.) But it is with hesitation, incompleteness, and caveats—”through a glass, darkly.”
The broad answer to when we can travel again boils down to three factors:
- When we are allowed to (see governmental regulations, both domestic and international).
- When we feel safe doing it (what exactly are those health and sanitation protocols—on planes, ships, and in hotels?).
- When the right transportation options are available (airlines with the right routes, ships able to set sail—and no quarantine awaiting us at journey’s end).
As Jack Ezon, CEO and founder of the travel agency Embark Beyond, put it: “In travel, there has always been a high season, a low season, and a shoulder season. We are in a wait-and see season.”
As we wait, we should remember this: The biggest disruptor of travel in recent memory was 9/11—but things were almost back to normal, travel-wise, three months later. If we could all stomach the idea of getting back on a plane again in late 2011 and early 2012—initially unimaginable—there is hope that we will be eventually be able to do it post-pandemic, too. It will all take longer, because this enemy is invisible. And once there’s a vaccine (or a cure), of course, the world will once again be our oyster.
Here’s what you need to consider now:
It feels intuitively right that domestic travel for Americans would come back first, especially in the coming summer months. No worries about international airlines and border closings, for one, and assurance of good medical care should we fall ill. And America holds the promise, especially in our great outdoor areas, of room to roam—built-in social distancing. Think the Atlantic and Pacific beaches, the vast open spaces out West, the national parks.
But there are complications. Some states are open, others not—and “open” can mean different things. There is also the big unknown of how the pandemic will move across the country, and where and when new hot spots will emerge (presumably followed by lockdowns). You will need to check and double check before making plans, right up until the day you leave.
The state of Maine announced on April 28 that it will end its lockdown—including of hotels—on June 1. But not for guests from out of state, who will have to self-quarantine for 14 days. In effect, only Maine residents can vacation there. Will this order stick? Too soon to tell; keep checking. (Members of the local tourism industry are protesting that it will kill their entire summer season.)
Massachusetts has not opened and its governor’s stay-at-home order prohibits short term rentals of less than 31 days (except for rentals to essential workers); those have been extended to May 18. Both hotels and landlords of rental homes—and potential travelers, including those with bookings long preceding Covid-19—have to wait and see what develops after that.
On Martha’s Vineyard, debates about the summer rental market were still raging on May 1, as reported in the Vineyard Gazette. “What will happen with the Vineyard’s beaches, restaurants, transportation?” wondered a local. There are no imminent answers, although town officials in Edgartown, according to the Gazette, are cribbing “an idea from the piazzas and squares of Paris and Rome” and discussing allowing restaurants to spill out onto sidewalks, roads, and parking lots to increase appropriately distanced outdoor seating and ease pressure on grocery stores. (Sounds charming—Matera on Main Street?)
From March 14 to April 28, Cape Cod and the Islands bookings were down 69% over this period last year, with the Vineyard and Nantucket doing more poorly than the Cape, likely because of the added complexity of the ferries you need to board to get there. The silver lining in the midst of the uncertainty? If you pay attention, you might be able to pounce on a great rental once the fog clears—even this late in the season.
South Carolina has no restrictions on domestic travel. You can fly into Charleston no problem should you wish to, and the city is in a “phased reopening”—some restaurants already allow customers in outside seating, and more and more hotels are opening their doors, including the charming inn 86 Cannon, and The Restoration Hotel. The city’s Current Openings blog gets updated daily.
A sampler from out West: Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming opens for new bookings on June 7 (no quarantine required); Mustang Monument in Nevada opens July 1 (likewise no quarantine). In Vermont, Twin Farms opens Memorial Day for those with existing bookings for this period, and on June 15 for new bookings (ditto re quarantine).
Bottom line: Yes, a vacation within the US will be more within the realm of possibility in the near future than one abroad—especially if you can drive yourself to your destination. Although travel guru and consumer advocate Wendy Perrin cautions about blithely setting off on a road trip: “Think hard about how often you’ll have to interact with others—rest stops, gas stations.”
And you have to feel comfortable with the social distancing and sanitation protocols in place at the hotel, resort, or rental villa you are considering. (See more below.)
International and European Travel
Eighty-two countries are currently imposing travel restrictions. And like the different states—even municipalities—in the US, they are taking their own approaches to lifting travel bans.
Canada closed its border with the US in early April, and recently extended it for another month, until May 21. (Air Canada is on the same schedule to resume flights.) If that decision sticks, Canada will be a good summer or fall travel option, with its swathes of the world’s most gorgeous wilderness areas—healthful, invigorating, stress-reducing, inherently social-distancing nature.
Also, most of Canada’s wilderness lodges are already open, says Mark Telio of Entree Destinations, who specializes in high-end Canadian travel. “The first people coming in are on private jets and yachts.”
Mexico never shut down its airports, and there are no restrictions on nonessential travel. On May 30, restrictions on accommodations—hotels, resorts, and rental villas—will end. Even then, reopenings will be phased in: Those for Chable Maroma and the Chable Resort Yucatan, for example, are scheduled for September 1. Zachary Rabinor, founder and CEO of Journeys Mexico, which specializes in high-end travel to the country, feels “that private retreats, villas, and residences for families and small groups will be a big part of the return to travel here.”
How European travel comes back depends as much on the state of infections within each country, its border policies—and the American traveler. As Jules Perowne, the founder and CEO of Perowne International, and PR firm in London, points out, “It’s a chicken and egg situation with hotels. If Americans won’t be able to fly overseas, many of them will not open.”
We are also getting word daily of hotels that never closed. For example: the Adlon Kempinski in Berlin; d’Angleterre in Copenhagen; the Baur au Lac in Zurich; or the newly restored (and very grand) Britannia, in Norway’s fjord country. Or hotels with imminent reopening dates: the divine Schloss Elmau in Bavaria (May 10); Six Senses Douro Valley in Portugal (May 31); Heckfield Place near London (June 1); Regina Isabella, on the Italian island of Ischia (June 5); Fife Arms in Scotland (June 19); Ashford Castle, Ireland (June 20).
And not just hotels: Germany reopened its museums today; Italy plans to reopen its museums on May 18.
Still, my advice for foreign travel, especially now, is to go through an experienced travel agent who specializes in the place or the type of travel you are interested in—part of their fee is for figuring out for you the ever moving targets of closings and reopenings and, just as crucial, the on-the-ground conditions (which websites cannot authoritatively help you with), and the sanitation protocols being adopted by the properties you are interested in.
If you’re looking for an agent, a good place to start would be a someone from Wendy Perrin’s list of destination specialists, the Wow List, or a generalist like Jack Ezon of Embark Beyond, or Martin Rapp of Altour.
What to Expect at Hotels Worldwide
When travel comes back, it will be dramatically different—as security has been since 9/11. Changes may not be permanent, but money is on them lingering a long time. Every hotel and rental villa hoping to reopen is consulting with governmental health organizations and remediation companies on the measures that need to be taken—in the front of house and back of house—to give travelers confidence in their sanitation protocols.
The following measures are the tip of the iceberg under consideration. They were reported by hotels including the Adlon Kempinski in Berlin, Aqualina in Sunny Isles, Florida, the Hotel du Cap on the French Riviera, and others:
- Fewer rooms available for booking, or in different booking configurations: The Hotel du Cap is opening 32 of its rooms; Aquilina, in one section of the resort, will be be booking one family per floor—an extension, in effect, of sheltering in place.
- The check-in process: Digital, or with safety glass installed at reception to protect both guests and employees, and, possibly, temperature checks.
- Hotel employees: Will wear gloves and government compliant masks during all guest interactions; guests can request their own mask and sanitizers. (Yes, many properties are having their own masks designed—fashion statement and branding opportunities, of course.)
- No more buffets. (Natch.)
- Reduced or eliminated restaurant dining. But room service likely to evolve in interesting new ways.
- Outdoor dining will be big, and picnics. Where there is space, tables will be set up in well-distanced fashion for every couple of family group.
- Public areas: Furniture re-arranged to ensure distancing.
- Sanitizing stations throughout.
- “Absolute privacy” signs: It’s the now suddenly old-fashioned “Do Not Disturb” sign squared—requested services will be met, but, like room service, delivered to your door. No hotel team member will enter your room during your entire stay if you so desire.
- Room cleaning protocols. There is much discussion around this: Should rooms be allowed to sit unoccupied three days before they are even cleaned? What do new cleaning products look like? Whatever the final consensus, this will be housekeeping supercharged.
- Amenities: Is this the end of the environmentally correct reusable shampoo and conditioner bottles? Of in-room coffee table books and magazines (because they will have to be disinfected)? Of the mini bar (gasp!)? Of coffee stations in the lobby?
- Valet parking: With your car increasingly your sanctuary, is it the end of that, too?
What Is It Like Fo Fly Commercial Airlines
Once travel restrictions lift or loosen and planes are able to fly again, the questions will be will we feel comfortable getting on the planes? And with airlines struggling to recover—and some going under—will there enough routes for the places we’ll want to go to?
The latest thinking is that airlines will only be permitted to fly essential routes with traffic at only 10 to 20% of normal. And some airlines will likely not emerge from lockdown.
Like after 9/11, new safety protocols will need to be developed—both governments and travelers will demand them. Otherwise, we are not getting on those planes.
The worry about airlines flying on diminished schedules is that getting from point A to point B—say, New York City to Barcelona—will now frequently require a connecting flight. “And that means we will need to spend more time at airports connecting,” points out Wendy Perrin. And that’s the last thing anybody wants to do or should do. Just think about the TSA lines,” she continues. “You take off your shoes, walk through in your socks. Ugh. I actually have more confidence in people being safe once they get to their destination. I have much less of a problem with that.”
So what will it take? As in everything concerning Covid-19, the ultimate solution, now likely 12 to 18 months away, is the vaccine. Meantime, the following measures are being considered and most will likely be mandatory:
- Advanced cleaning protocols. Nothing will happen without radically sanitized planes. And we will need details, lots of them.
- Health buffer zones around airports, to control and contain possible contagions from incoming flights.
- Universal testing of all passengers and workers/crew. The key will be the development of an effective, inexpensive, and quick test—otherwise travel will be impaired (if you think security lines at airports are bad now….).
- Middle seats will not be booked, to allow for at least some distancing.
- Meals and beverages will not be served—consumption, at least on short to mid-distance flights, will be strictly “bring your own.” (Those hot nuts and a drink served at take-off in business and first class? Probably relics from another era.)
What About Private Aviation?
Flying private does not solve your access problems. If borders are closed, you cannot fly in—private or commercial. And if there is a quarantine in place, flying private is not a golden ticket to freedom.
Still, many in the travel industry believe that private jet travel will lead the travel comeback as people seek to maximize social distancing. “One jet company did an analysis and found you can cut potential exposure 30-fold by flying privately, ” says Doug Gollan, founder and editor in chief of Private Jet Card Comparisons, which rates what are in effect the different “debit cards” you can purchase for private flying (the alternative to full or fractional ownership of a private aircraft).
“What I’m seeing with my website, and others in the industry are as well, are two things: Current private jet travelers are now planning to do 100% of their flights on private aircraft, completely ditching the airlines, at least until there is a vaccine or cure. And those folks who have the money, but until now have flown commercially, are looking into private aviation solutions, jet cards, and charters.”
The Question of Cruises
The cruise industry has been especially hard hit by the pandemic, with infection spreading quickly on some ships, and cruise lines scrambling to repatriate thousands of passengers and crew. On March 14, the CDC issued a “no sail order,” currently in place until July 24.
Since then, industry leaders have been in a huddle, figuring out how to devise and implement new health and sanitation and social distancing protocols—no small feat for ships. Many are not talking yet. And some are saying a bit too much, too soon.
Just this week, on Monday, April 4, Carnival Cruises announced that their ships would be sailing by August 1, one week after the government order banning cruises in the United States is set to expire. Everyone was atwitter. Turned out the company was considering taking out of mothballs only 8 ships of its total 105; a CDC spokeswoman told the New York Times that they, the CDC, “do not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing”; and in the course of the day Carnival essentially backpedalled.
A spokesman, as the New York Times reported, stressed a phased-in approach “no matter when that is” (my italics)—i.e., definitely no “ta-da” day one for that reopening—and a focus on new health and sanitation protocols.
Look up cruise line sites and you will largely find rolling dates for the resumption of sailings—dates that get repeatedly cancelled and pushed further as protocols are painstakingly worked out.
But by all accounts real progress is being made and the start dates—for everything from big ships to small expedition ones—may soon be real.
One thing we already know for sure: Passengers who had booked sailings for this spring and summer have been rescheduling those bookings for a year from now. One industry source told me: “Bookings for 2021 are up 2% to 36% over this time last year. [Although a significant portion of that is trips postponed.] Small ships are doing well, and so are expedition cruises. And if you want an Alaska sailing for next summer, hurry.”
Look to this space for updates. Meanwhile, here’s to “bon voyage” soon not sounding like an antiquated phrase from a bygone golden age of travel.