Live in the now but also look forward. Each of us are spending some portion of our days right now…imagining. Some thoughts are disturbing. Some thoughts are inspiring. Outside of staying put and doing our small part, the only certain is uncertainty. The only known is still the unknown.
As a photographer and travel writer, I am a little cut-off at the knees currently but still making efforts to stay inspired and creating. Exploring is limited to the backyard and, occasionally, the trip around the block. However, I am focused on keeping busy and productive and, with that, comes planning. Those of us that travel extensively love to plan, it is half the enjoyment of a trip. Imagining what discoveries await us and the stories we will have to tell. So, at least we have that right now. Plenty of time, make that an exhaustive amount of time, to plan.
There has been some debate, and plenty of comments, to those of us loathing our inability to travel at this moment in time. While the dialog has been mainly supportive of each other, I have not been exempt from the occasional messages that suggest I remember that “travel is a luxury” and to essentially “get over it.”
This sentiment is a hasty one that implies the world is black and white, and that we as humans are incapable of managing multiple sets of emotions and points-of-view at any one time. How can one long for a return to globetrotting when there are more pressing matters to attend too? Easy, I can focus on the most immediate matters, do everything I can control to ensure I am responsibly operating within the necessary bounds the moment demands (i.e. stay home), but also remain optimistic about what I have to look forward to on the other side of this current state.
It surprises many to learn that only around 40% of American citizens have passports. While acknowledging that the remaining percentage includes those living below basic means where international travel is neither a reality or priority, this still tells us that the majority like to talk about, watch shows about and romanticize the idea of travel. However, even the most basic step of going to the drugstore for a photo or the post office to mail a packet, much less the gumption to step outside their borders and explore, is too much. However, this is still a democracy (although, I do check anxiously each morning just to make sure) and everyone, rightly so, gets a say in the process and methods through which we emerge and eventually resume activities.
For clarity, this is not an argument or case that irresponsible travel for pleasure is something we should be considering or acting on in the near future. The displacement of my passion for travel currently manifests itself in my not traveling, and will continue as such for the foreseeable future. However, travel enriches and opens eyes. It gives us something to look forward to on the horizon. Travel breaks up the routine and challenges our preconceptions. Not to mention, it has a profound impact on the global economy. Therefore, an eventual return to travel is something we should all be rooting for down the road.
So, keeping all these things in perspective, I have been pondering what the act of travel might look like when it slowly returns. Knowing that “a return” will come in stages, will depend on a cascade list of prerequisite steps and not be absolute. I will caveat since most reading this do not know me personally, I am not a healthcare professional. These are simply a seasoned travelers best guesses, assumptions and, in a few instances, hopeful wishes for where things might go from here.
Heightened health screenings: This development feels like an obvious, and highly likely, addition to the airport check-in experience. Expect that temperature checks and questionnaires that aim to contact trace will be the new norm. My hope is that these precautions are as far as we go and incremental steps are weighed heavily. Chatter of “health visas” and tracking software have already begun to enter the debate and such measure present a slippery slope. I am all for responsible risk reduction and scientific tracing to reduce the spread, but we should be vigilant against sacrificing long-term liberties for short term comforts — no matter how badly we all long for that yoga retreat to Bali we’ve all been dreaming about the last four weeks.
Speaking of new norms, masks…get used to them: If folks want to begin to resume some level of interaction and a methodical reintroduction of everyday life, it will be done in masks. Health professionals seem to agree now that combining physical distancing with some version of surgical style mask that covers the nose and mouth helps stem the spread, although the level of protection seems still in dispute. If anything, it keeps us from touching our faces as much. However, before seeing this as an “easy give” in exchange for some normalcy, consider what wearing one of these masks for a full travel day might be like. Breathing through one for 6–8 hours is not straightforward, and there are some medical professionals that caution prolonged wear may reduce their effectiveness because of the introduction of moisture from breathing. As a result, there could be specifications on the types of masks that meet the bar — like the N95. Then we come back to the question of supply, demand and prioritization. It is not a simple answer.
Fewer flights and regulated airplane cleaning: I expect, and I hope, that the FAA will step in to provide guidance and regulations on enhanced airplane cleaning protocols. Any steps taken should be transparent to the public and airline sanitation records should be readily available for review. This seems like a very necessary preliminary step to help reinstall faith for travelers. A result of this will be fewer flights per day and reductions in schedules as longer and more detailed cleaning procedures mean slower turnover between flights. Assume it doubles or triples that time at a minimum. Just recall the experience now (or 2 months ago more precisely) when a connecting flight rolls up late to your gate. It already took roughly 10–15 minutes for them to “clean” the planes, and I think they have a long way to go versus the current state of turnover cleaning to give passengers comfort in this new reality.
More restrictive visas: Let’s face it, the last few years have been a true “golden age” for international travel. Think of the ease with which one can experience once exotic locations the same afternoon as they stepped foot out the front door. Often, the vast majority of those arrivals required little if any advance documentation. If so, visas upon arrival had become quite common and turnkey. For the next few years, at least, those days are gone. For example, the current crisis will likely accelerate the fracturing and dissolve the ease of moving through the Schengen zone in Europe. Countries will also likely use visa approvals to tighten the number of travelers entering their country and, perhaps, disadvantage countries that continue to suffer from perceptions of poor crisis management of the outbreak and higher numbers of infections.
Increase in group travel and planned itineraries: This prediction is not rooted in any logic, other than humans are creatures of habit and comfort. There is perceived “safety in numbers,” and it is likely that travelers (particularly newer travelers) will want to travel in familiar groups and with set itineraries they feel provides some structure and removes some element of risk and decision-making pressure.
Increase in domestic travel: Travelers are most likely to ease in when exploring again. That will bring with it a hesitancy to venture too far from family, friends and, if one is fortunate enough to have it, medical coverage. Also, given the speed and extreme measures we saw with little to no warning around travel restrictions and closing of borders, many travelers will question the risk exposure until some greater sense of normalcy is reinstated.
Travel insurance and refundable bookings: How many of us spent the months of February and March digging into the fine print of our itinerary confirmations? Each of us becoming experts on the cancellation policies of our booked travels and the creative carveouts that protect the airlines, hotels and booking agencies. Expect more traveler research and consideration of drastic insurance policies that offer broad coverage. Similarly, I anticipate greater consideration for the peace-of-mind of refundable fare bookings, even though they come at a premium price up front.
Reduction in mass transit ridership and funded projects: An unfortunate side effect could be less appetite for public mass transit. Many will see this as a way to mitigate large numbers of people in confined spaces. This highly affordable, and highly egalitarian, form of transportation makes getting around accessible for so many. Not to mention the positive impact it has on the environment compared to the proliferation of individual automobiles. Reduction in ridership will likely yield reduced budgets and funding cuts for proposed projects in the near-term. These stoppages may take years to ramp back up given the long-tail that accompanies these types of infrastructure improvements.
Continued trend of seeking out more remote locations: When travelers do set off for far-flung destinations again, I anticipate a greater pull to more remote locales. Currently, fewer people is viewed as lighter risk and less stressful. This has the potential to be a positive for trend for the travel industry — directing to lesser known destinations and lessening the burden on highly trafficked areas. However, one variable to remain mindful of is the healthcare and limited infrastructure in such places to handle and support any flare-ups in the current crisis. Responsible travelers must take heightened considerations on behalf of the populations they are visiting so as not to introduce a burden those cultures are unable to handle.
Renaissance of travel agencies and more credit card points bookings: A key learning for travelers the last few weeks has been the downside of online booking services like Expedia, Priceline, Kayak and others in the time of pandemic. The New York Times published a popular piece on Kiwi.com, a Czech-based service similar to those mentioned above. When customers attempted to contact them for some measure of remedy to refund or cancel after the travel lockdowns, they received an automated response for a 10 euro refund on fares upwards of $1,500 USD. Part of the model for these low cost booking sites is that they do not maintain the overhead of extensive human customer service departments — automation is key to the margins. Knowing this, there may be a trend back to full-service travel agencies, tour operations, and premium credit card booking services. By booking all your travel with one of these higher-touch services, a traveler has a single point-of-contact to deal with mass itinerary interruptions — versus 2–3 hour long calls with various airlines, hotels and recorded answering services.
Accelerated devaluation of airline miles and credit card points: A trend that was already noticed by frequent fliers and points users will only see increased velocity. The financial impact on the airlines will leave them scrambling for ways to recoup losses and increase cash flow. Seating passengers in exchange for accrued points versus cash is not the way to get there. So, pay close attention to the methods employed once bookings make sense to explore again. Similarly, popular travel cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum are backed by banks — not boom times for them either. Benefits and points were already decreasing in value and, with many cards taking the steps to extend redemption periods and partially waive annual fees — the pressure will be on to find the coins in the couch cushions.
Better government coordination: Pipe dream, but a dream nonetheless. Whether some are willing to accept it or not, we live in a global community. That fact should, repeat should, result in more transparent efforts to share information, coordinate on visas and improve relations. There is much we can learn from each other. Some will be better than others at recognizing this possibility.
Tools for booking management and self-cancellation: I am a loyal Delta and Chase customer. Because of the amount of travel my profession allows, I had become accustomed (and spoiled) by the response expediency my status with these partners and other allowed. Then came this crisis, and the understandable nightmare their call centers endured. Gone was the quick pick-up, or even the automated offer to “call you back so you don’t have to wait.” Instead it was warnings that wait times could exceed two hours and directives to call back within 48 hours of your travel to manage queues. Luckily, Chase has already implemented changes that allow for customers to manage, and even cancel, bookings on the website. Expect this to proliferate around the industry. As someone with an e-commerce background, I know the cost of a customer service contact is prohibitively expensive for these companies. Any tools they can automate on behalf of the customer to self-service and triage will be examined very closely and brought to market if possible.
More expensive flights: This may seem to run counter to the emails and offers bombarding inboxes right now for $400 roundtrip fares from the States to far-off bucket list destination like Cape Town, Melbourne, or Tokyo. Savvy travelers everywhere have spent the last weeks pondering over these lowball offers that seemingly mock anyone responsible enough not to pull the trigger yet, given the timing unknowns. These low fares are a hedge for the airlines to begin generating fresh cash flows — knowing the likely remedy offered, and accepted, by the average traveler is voucher credit if times do not improve. Best case for the airlines, that $400 fare gets you a voucher to use later for a trip to Toledo rather than Tokyo. In the long-term, my guess is this crisis is not a good thing for the bargain traveler. The most vulnerable airlines are the bootstrap budget airlines, and a number of them will not survive this event. The result will be fewer routes, reduced airlines in operation and less competition. I should not have to inform you how that typically works out for the consumer. Add to that airlines desperation to boost shareholder value as quickly as possible, and you get higher fares and more of those much-loved fees. An example, expect sticker shock and overreach on the coming “cleaning fees.”
Increased comfort level on flights: Hey, a traveler can dream still right? However, it is likely airlines will meet a near-term decrease in demand with mitigated steps to better space and heighten comfort level for passengers. After all, every selling point to differentiate themselves from one another will be critical in winning back non-essential trip takers. Already, Delta is taking the proactive step to limit the number of passengers on flights (not really a big “give” given demand at the moment), but also blocking middle seats from booking to allow for more distancing. Not to say these profit-driven companies will stick with reducing their passengers loads by 2/3, but it is a thought starter for potential changes.
So, as I re-read this list now I feel a little…ugh. Not a ton of positives on the surface, but that is to be expected at this stage. The timetable for, and extent with which, we resume any travel for pleasure will likely evolve into a hotly debated topic among avid destination-seekers over the remainder of this year. Like so many aspects guiding this pandemic, many of those decisions will be left to personal discretion and judgement. I am not sure this level of autonomy is a great thing, but I feel the same way about citizens of a prosperous land being left on their own to make masks out of old t-shirts and Youtube how to make bathtub hand sanitizer.
When travel does resume, patience and flexibility will be critical skills. Acknowledge the likelihood that a location may, without warning, impose a 14-day quarantine — and the itinerary disruptions down the line that come with such a measure. Already, we have seen regions like Singapore, Thailand and other countries with early cases revert to “suppression and lift” strategies to deal with renewed spikes in infections.
Similarly, one may be arriving to a place that understandably resembles nothing like even the most recent guidebooks or websites describe. Street food stalls may be shuttered, dining may be limited to take-out meals consumed in the hotel room, transit may be reduced, museums may be closed or more. These examples are not meant to discourage. They are meant to instill realistic expectations where travelers, myself include, often like to idealize. These just some of the facts and considerations involved when weighing the goals of a trip, versus travel for travel’s sake.
Still, there is underlying optimism behind all of the predictions and “finger-to-the-wind” analysis above — people moving and meeting once more. Resumption of some sense of normalcy and prerequisites steps will be necessary for each of those things. I expect many predictions will change and I also expect I am off-base about most of them too. But, amid this certain uncertainty, I am sure of this — our desire to travel is eternal and this challenge will not eradicate it, but only serve to strengthen it. Yes, it will take time and patience. However, weeks and months spent confined will yield an appreciation and an increase in the desire to travel. Take care, do your part, prepare by staying healthy. Be ready when the fasten seatbelt sign lights up.