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Can Americans book European travel in 2021? Here’s what experts predict.

Thanks to vaccine rollouts and flexible cancellation policies, vacation planning isn’t off the table


(iStock/The Washington Post illustration)

Like many other Americans, Chris Morrison, his wife, Jill, and his two young daughters are hoping to go on a vacation this year. When promises of a vaccine emerged last fall, Morrison booked Air France flights to Europe using miles, feeling more confident than ever that a summer 2021 trip to France and Greece might finally be possible.

But despite the optimism, Morrison is still holding off on locking in any other part of the trip.

“It’s a weekly conversation between me and my wife,” says the Fairfax, Va., resident. “Do we book the rest of the trip? If we do, should we go ahead and pay for that no-cancellation-penalty flavor of hotels? Travel insurance isn’t an option.”

Around the time that Morrison reserved his plane tickets last year, we spoke to insiders for their thoughts on when Americans may be able to return to Europe. They accurately predicted that 2020 was off the table, and some hoped for a spring and summer bounceback.

But does that forecast hold up now that 2021 has arrived, a highly contagious coronavirus variant is spreading and vaccine distribution is lagging?

Gloria Guevara Manzo, chief executive and president of the World Travel & Tourism Council, says she would have had a less hopeful answer to that question just two weeks ago, but her attitude has since changed.

“Now, based on my last conversations with a minister of tourism here in the U.K. and some conversations that I have had with the government of Spain and the E.U. and others, things are more optimistic,” she says.

Manzo says that with countries changing their vaccination strategies to distribute all of their doses instead of holding second doses, vulnerable groups may be better protected sooner.

“In my conversations with governments, they told me generally it’s going to be a very bumpy ride, it’s going to be very complicated, but after mid-February, we’re hoping to see a lot of more positive and good changes,” she says. “That might help us to start seeing that recovery, … and what does that mean for travel? We might have a very good summer.”

For that same reason, Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission (ETC), stands by his prediction that spring or summer trips to Europe may be possible for Americans this year.

According to ETC data, Santander says they’re also seeing that people’s perception of travel is changing. More have aspirations to book trips abroad.

“People are starting to look into [online travel agencies] and booking engines for the summer, so there is an appetite again — which is a very, very, very good thing,” he says.

Despite his positive outlook, Santander also recognizes that when travel picks up again, it won’t look like it did before the pandemic. He believes travelers will have to get used to the health and safety procedures at airports and tourist attractions.

“We cannot just assume that we will go back to 2019 and everything is fine,” Santander says. “Many of the [coronavirus] measures will remain in place for many, many months and even years.”

For those contemplating 2021 travel to Europe, both Santander and Manzo feel confident giving the green light to start booking as long as the flight, hotel reservation and any activities can be easily canceled or rescheduled.

“Right now, there’s a lot of flexibility. If things don’t move in the direction that we’re hoping they will move, you can always make changes,” Manzo says, adding that she encourages people to take advantage of the unprecedented promotions that are now available. “Make sure that you just monitor the progress of the vaccinations.”

In an email to The Washington Post, a U.S. State Department official said Americans considering traveling abroad should review the entire travel advisory for their destination(s) on travel.state.gov, and they should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive important messages, such as alerts and updates on travel advisories, from their nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

“The COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented risks for travelers, and our destination-specific advisories take into account the latest data and public health and safety analysis on COVID-related risks,” the official said. “We also urge those contemplating travel abroad to review [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] country-specific recommendations and their overall guidance on international air travel.”

For now, Morrison feels as if his family’s booked flights are a double-edged sword. The tickets to Europe are both a blessing and something that weighs over them.

“It’s somewhat reassuring to us that we have a big part of our trip taken care of in the event, touch wood, we’re able to have the trip,” Morrison says. “But that is but one part of a very complex puzzle, and there’s still a lot of parts that we’re not able to put in place — and we may not be able to for some time.”

Read more on travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Using Uber and Airbnb

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on a plane | Fly or drive | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drives

Destinations: Puerto Rico | Hawaii | Private islands | 10 covid-free spots | Caribbean | Mexico