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- The novel coronavirus has significantly impacted the travel industry and most travelers have put a pause on booking plans right now.
- However, as travel restrictions begin to lift, many will be looking to book future travel safely.
- We turned to experienced travel agents and tour operators to get their top insights on emerging trends and how they’re booking future travel for clients.
- Read all Business Insider travel reviews here.
The spread of the novel coronavirus has upended travel completely. From hotel booking cancellations and closures to less frequent flights, and car rental companies filing for bankruptcy, no part of the travel industry seems to be untouched.
Many people are also following shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines, which means travel plans have been put on pause, and travelers are left wondering if travel is safe at all right now.
However, as restrictions slowly begin to lift and travel begins to open back up, many are tentatively looking to book future travel, whether for the approaching summer season, months ahead, or even next year when COVID-19 will hopefully be a distant memory.
And while many previously approached and booked travel independently, to help guide these decisions, many travelers are turning to travel agents and tour operators for help in navigating these uncertain times. These seasoned professionals have spent years in the business and know the tricky ins and outs of everything from landing deals on far-off future travels to fulfilling oddly specific needs, finding flexible cancellation policies, and helping clients to tackle tough travel questions every day.
We always recommend following all CDC and WHO guidelines for travel and carefully assessing personal risk factors if you are looking to book post-quarantine travels once it’s safe to do so. It’s also vital to keep in mind that while travel agents and tour operators can offer great advice, they are not medical professionals or safety experts. With that in mind, here are some key takeaways you can still pick up from the pros.
Hopping on a plane next weekend may not be a viable option, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start planning a trip for next year, advisors say. “We’re seeing travelers planning ahead and booking trips for 2021. The majority of bookings coming in are for trips scheduled to depart between March and May of next year,” says Leigh Barnes, Chief Customer Officer at Intrepid Travel, which specializes in small group and responsible travel.
Barnes also notes that planning a trip now can help quell some of those wanderlust feelings and give those spending more time at home something fun to focus on. “Travel may be on pause now, but planning a trip gives our customers something to look forward to while in quarantine.”
“Travel is inspirational and aspirational. And our guests are telling us that over and over in their social posts, their emails to us, their telephone and Zoom conversations with us and in their bookings,” seconds Edward Piegaza, President and Founder of boutique tour company Classic Journeys.
He’s seen clients planning and booking trips for the future as a way to help soften the blow of canceled plans now. “Some travelers are booking trips to overcome the sense of loss that they are feeling because of celebrations that have been postponed or canceled.”
One recent Classic Journeys client booked her extended family of eight to Peru later this year to celebrate the college graduation of her daughters. As the client put it, “The girls may not be able to walk across the stage with their diplomas, but they can walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to celebrate their graduations.”
Julie Danziger, the Director of Leisure at Embark Beyond, a bespoke luxury travel advisory, also emphasizes that now is a good time to have discussions and do your research for travel down the line. “Lots of hotels aren’t sure when they will reopen and to what capacity, so before we throw out a suggestion to a client, we want to be sure we are recommending the right option at the right time,” says Danziger. “We are gathering as much intel and info from properties as we can to understand who will open and when, plus how and what that will look like.”
You can gather key intel and plan for your own future vacations by using resources like our guide to new safety policies being implemented by hotels, deciding if you feel more comfortable in a hotel or an Airbnb, and using this time to earn rewards that can be used towards booking future travel.
If you do plan to actually book right now, nearly all of the agents and operators we spoke with stressed the need to book refundable options since we don’t know for sure what the travel landscape will look like in the future.
Luckily, airlines, hotels, and even booking sites are making that easier than ever.
“Most airlines are now offering free change fees and extending these policies. If you know you want to go on a trip, it may be beneficial to purchase tickets now with the added peace of mind that you will be able to change your tickets,” says Landerson. Though she also notes that these policies are changing daily so it’s always important to read the fine print on a regular basis. Also, keep in mind that airlines are refunding for credit, not cash, unless they cancel the flight themselves. End even then, you’ll have to ask for it.
Trusted booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and CheapTickets are also stressing opting for refundable options when it comes to booking hotels. These sites are making it easier for travelers to find refundable hotels versus non-refundable options. There is a “free cancelation” payment filter you can use to easily find options within your travel window and price point.
However, it’s also important to consider who you’re traveling with, the type of trip you’re planning, and how easy it will be to change or cancel plans for everyone involved before booking. “With that uncertainty, you’ll also want to consider how difficult changing travel plans may be for you before booking as part of assessing if you’re comfortable booking a trip. “It is much simpler to transfer a trip into the future for a solo woman than it is for a multi-generational family,” points out Landerson.
It can also be a good idea to make sure you have the right travel insurance for upcoming travel. Check out our guide to the best travel insurance to learn more.
It almost goes without saying that considering cleaning policies for places you plan to stay is a must. Nearly all major hotels are implementing new policies and guidelines surrounding cleanliness, but you’ll want to do your own research, too.
However, before you even get to that step, you also need to make sure where you plan to go will actually be allowing tourists to visit and read up on what their COVID guidelines are, so you know what policies you’ll be expected to adhere to.
“First and foremost we are reaching out to properties to get an idea of who can visit. We are hoping restrictions get lifted soon, but right now we need to monitor that closely to avoid sending someone where they may have to quarantine or may not be permitted in at all,” says Danziger. “Next is the COVID guidelines. We are asking about what they are and what they look like for tourists. Then we are inquiring about cleanliness practices.”
Some tour operators are also implementing their own new practices to ensure clients feel safe. Vacation and booking company Trafalgar, for example, is introducing enhanced health and hygiene protocols. In addition to ongoing training of Travel Directors in enhanced hygiene and physical distancing procedures, the company is also following World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines to introduce elevated hygiene practices on all their luxury coach trips. Drivers have been trained in the latest protocols and will disinfect all surfaces including handrails, door handles, tray tables and overhead bins daily, as well as change air-conditioning filters. Plus, all of their partner suppliers, including lodging establishments, attractions, ground handlers, and restaurants will be vetted to make sure they comply with the new protocols.
Piegaza also noted that now is a better time than ever to go through a trusted booking agent or tour operator who may have better insights into what’s going on at specific hotels they work with and how clean and safe they will be. “We are exclusively working with hotels that are following the best practices in cleaning policies,” says Piegaze. “Classic Journeys works directly with all of our hotels around the world. We’ve worked with many of them for 20 years or more. We know the general managers and their teams personally. Our communication has gone into hyperdrive during COVID as we and they have collaborated to benchmark the very best practices from epidemiologists, governments, the CDC regarding cleaning programs and guest safety.”
Don’t forget to think about how new protocols and cleaning guidelines may affect hotels beyond just the bedroom, too. Danziger also points out that she’s asking not just about common space cleaning practices, but if those areas are even open since that has a big effect on the overall stay. “I’m asking can clients swim in the pool? Can they enjoy the spa? They want to enjoy their vacation without having most of what they are visiting for closed.”
Consider your own comfort level and individual risk factors
Assessing your own risk factors and comfort level is essential for future travel. Keep in mind that consulting with travel agents and tour operators for options and researching hotels and airlines is a good idea, but none of those people are medical professionals or safety experts.
“We never guarantee safety,” Danziger says. Instead, you should always follow all CDC and WHO guidelines and consult with a medical professional to assess your own risk factors when deciding when and where to travel, and if it is right for you.
It’s also important to think about what will make you feel comfortable. The whole point of a vacation is to relax, which won’t be possible if you’re anxious and worried. “Peace of mind, quality of experience – that is what will bring travelers back,” says DaSilva.
All of the travel agents and tour operators we spoke with are following the lead of their clients and letting client comfort levels dictate the where and when of future trips. While some people are ready to travel right away, others are understandably hesitant. “We are recommending travel when clients are comfortable and ready. Frankly, if they are ready right now then why not? Let’s send them somewhere they can feel comfortable and enjoy,” says Danziger.
On the flip side, Barnes recognizes the issue of uncertainty about what will happen in the future as a major factor, both in terms of what’s comfortable for travelers and what will even be possible. “The tricky part about this situation is that there are still so many unknowns. While we’re starting to see various places around the world slowly lift their local restrictions, it’s uncertain when international borders will begin to re-open.”
Unsurprisingly, travel agents and tour operators are seeing a surge in clients looking for vacation options where they won’t be packed into crowded city streets. “Many of our family clients are looking to stay at a secluded villa or hotel where they can enjoy the family, reconnect, and get away,” says Danziger. “Just recently, ranches and the wild west have been something on our clients’ minds more than some other spots,” she adds.
Barnes has also seen an uptick in travelers wanting to enjoy the great outdoors. “We’ve seen a surge in interest for active tours that include experiences like trekking, hiking and cycling, and for far-flung destinations with fewer visitors that can offer a deeper connection with our natural world,” she says. “We’re already seeing places like the Galapagos resonating with future travelers.”
Piegaza has seen similar interest. “Whether it’s a place that is known to be highly restrictive like Zion National Park where the Bureau of Land Management caps the number of people in the Zion Narrows to no more than 13 at a time, or Iceland where the popular perception is that it is wild and open with few people, our guests are definitely prioritizing destinations where they think they will be able to have a great experience without being around very many people.”
To help lure travelers back in, airlines and hotels are offering many attractive deals and incentives. “Many hotels are offering complimentary nights for extended stays, and giving good added value incentives,” notes Danziger. She also emphasizes that booking early can lock in solid travel rates that are likely to go up later.
Even tour operators themselves are going out of their way to make sure clients feel safe booking future trips. “We are giving our newly booked guests leniency with our booking conditions, including extending our final payment deadlines, which makes them feel more secure,” says Erica Landerson, co-owner of AdventureWomen, a travel company focused on women-only adventure trips.
Beyond just hotels, airlines, and tours, some destinations are really going out of their way to market themselves to future travelers. Take Sicily: The dreamy Italian island recently launched a campaign offering to pay for half your flights and a third of your hotel costs if you visit later this year.
However, deals like this come with a lot of uncertainty, and you should always exercise caution and judgment when looking for promos. While starting on June 3 the Italian government will eliminate the 14-day quarantine for people arriving from abroad, and will open both regional and international borders, that doesn’t automatically mean it will be safe to visit.
If you do plan to take advantage of current travel deals, be sure to check and follow the CDC recommendations and considerations for different types of travel.
“Domestic travel will come back first once restrictions begin to lift, especially as we suspect people will initially feel more comfortable exploring their own backyard,” says Barnes.
Melissa DaSilva, president of Trafalgar, feels the same way. “With borders closed and travelers looking to minimize the amount of time they spend in airports and on planes, which are valid concerns, we are confident domestic travel will relaunch the travel industry. And this syncs with what our customers are asking for,” says DaSilva.
Sites like Booking.com have also seen a rise in interest in domestic travel in searches. According to Booking, in the US, the shift toward domestic travel planning has increased to 71% up from 58% last year.
Trafalgar feels confident enough in domestic travel that they’re launching a new domestic trip series in response to the pandemic. The two new itineraries include an 8-day exploration of some of the Southwest’s most grand landscapes including Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, as well as a beach-focused trip that goes to San Diego, Palm Springs, and Orange County Beaches. Both trips will strictly adhere to the companies new safety and health protocols.
Danziger is also recommending national parks as a great domestic option. “They are absolutely perfect and provide fun in the sun but also substance and even education,” she notes.
Piegaza is also suggesting a lot of domestic destinations, but for those who do feel comfortable going international, he sees Iceland as a great potential first trip. “It has no one in the hospital with COVID and has had no cases of COVID in the month of May. Additionally, they have a totally innovative way of welcoming visitors, with a same-day COVID test on arrival and tracing app. The country is opening to visitors on June 15, 2020, and we are seeing strong demand for travelers wanting to go there.”
For domestic travel ideas, check out these top US road trips and scenic US getaways within easy driving distances of major cities. If you are planning a road trip, be sure to read our guide to the best RV rentals and rental car safety.
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