It’s the biggest travel question of the summer, and maybe of the year: When will travel go back to normal?
Will we ever get there? That all depends on who you are — and how you define “normal.”
“Ultimately, we will get back to a pre-pandemic normal,” predicts John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group. “We’re almost there.”
Things are starting to feel a little more normal. According to TripActions, a travel management company, a plurality of leisure travelers (23 percent) are making their bookings more than 50 days in advance of the travel date. “That suggests a high degree of confidence in the long-term outlook for travel,” says Kelly Soderlund, a spokeswoman for the company. Last year, roughly the same number of people were making their reservations on the same day as travel, she says. Just 13 percent made their bookings more than 50 days in advance.
Traveler confidence is high, according to Allianz Partners, a travel insurance company. Its Vacation Confidence Index, which has tracked traveler sentiment for more than a decade, suggests that 60 percent of Americans will take a summer vacation this year. That’s more than twice as many as in 2020.
“Right now, we’re seeing demand outpace supply with many Americans snapping up flights, hotels and vacation rentals,” says Allianz spokesman Daniel Durazo.
Nonetheless, travelers are hedging their bets. Travel insurance policies are selling briskly, according to travel insurance companies. “We’re seeing significant increases in travel, but people are still being cautious because of covid-19,” says Karisa Cernera, senior manager of travel services at Redpoint Travel Protection, which specializes in insuring high-risk travelers.
But what is normal? Boston Consulting Group has a simple definition: When the coronavirus is no longer a factor, we’ve arrived. “That will drive a return to pre-covid travel volume,” says Lara Koslow, the company’s travel and tourism leader.
Some industries can put a number on it. For example, as measured by the number of people screened by the Transportation Security Administration, airline traffic is climbing this summer, according to data compiled by analytics firm Flight Business Intelligence. “We expect the airport throughput traffic back to normal by the beginning of September in the U.S.,” says Clement Zhang, the company’s managing director. “It will be driven by stronger domestic travel, although international traffic will still lag.”
Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta Air Lines, says travelers’ perceptions of normal are linked to the vaccination rate. “As vaccines have increased consumer confidence as it relates to travel, we’re starting to see a return to normalcy,” he says.
Sharon Nachman, chief of the pediatric infectious diseases division at Stony Brook Children’s, says that, from a medical point of view, normal is more difficult to define. It’s a complicated mix of vaccination rates among adults and children, plus hospitalization rates and the rates of new infections.
“Herd immunity equations are a mix of so many variables that there is no one easy number to pick,” she says.
From a nonmedical point of view, normal is a state of mind. Byron Marlowe, a professor of hospitality business management at Washington State University who is a Fulbright scholar in Austria, says travel will be normal when people stop being afraid. That’s hard to measure.
“The definition of normal is when customers’ travel decision-making is not influenced by concerns around the safety of themselves or those they are traveling with,” he says.
Travelers see things a little differently.
“My definition of normal is nothing short of pre-pandemic normal,” says Lee Walsh, a retired college administrator from Williamsburg, Va. “Totally maskless from beginning to end. Hotel amenities, the same as before, including a breakfast buffet.”
What are the opportunities for travelers at a time when the industry is struggling to find its bearings? Warren Jaferian, dean of Endicott College’s international education office, says travelers should prepare for new rules, including vaccination requirements and mandatory quarantines.
“Travelers should expect to face some inconveniences associated with changes, regulations and requirements in the interest of public health,” he says.
But when a country or cruise line adds new restrictions, it creates opportunities. A mandatory coronavirus vaccination means some travelers can’t visit, which may increase availability or lower prices — or both. Smart travelers will tune in to those rules and make their plans accordingly.
Still, it’s an uncertain world out there, says Rajeev Shrivastava, chief executive of travel insurance marketplace VisitorsCoverage. “The pandemic has increased travel anxiety. And that’s not likely to change, even as we move into post-pandemic travel,” he says.
Virginia Tech hospitality and tourism professor Mahmood Khan says getting back to normal — if that’s possible — will take time. He likens the process to recovering from a natural disaster. And we’ve just started the assessment phase.
Travelers have been disappointed with their recent vacations, finding many attractions closed. Even with places dropping their mask rules, there’s still a worker shortage keeping restaurants and hotels operating at limited capacity.
“The normalcy will depend on the extent of dents left by the pandemic,” Khan says, “and how much time is needed to heal.”
How long will all that take? It’s hard to say.
“Everything is in a state of flux,” says Michael McCall, a professor of hospitality business at Michigan State University. “I think the takeaway for travelers is to understand their own risk levels — and comfort levels.”
“There will be some adjustments,” predicts Taylor Adams, the deputy city manager of Virginia Beach. “But things will eventually get back to normal.”
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.
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