What does a post-pandemic travel comeback look like?

So, what’s the difference between cabin fever and spring fever? Well, probably for the first time in history…absolutely nothing. As many consumers enter their 8th week of quarantine, those early days of isolation filled with adolescent drinking games have left us all with an enormous hangover. Schools are closed, graduations cancelled, airlines grounded, restaurants and retail outlets closed (possibly forever), and toilet paper is now a better investment than Bitcoin.

Unemployment has reached undesirable records with the travel and tourism hit the hardest. But as the number of new COVID-19 cases decline, governments around the U.S., and the world, are discussing and even implementing safe and effective ways to re-open their respective economies.

That said, summer is around the corner, the kids are driving us nuts, and consumers wonder when they will be able to “get away” or take another family vacation. International trips are not good options. In fact, getting on a plane to anywhere is questionable at this point. The biggest problem, admit some experts, is consumers are absorbing all these factors in one giant vacuum and it is swallowing them alive. The solution? Baby steps, and patience!

ExpertFlyer.com went one-on-one with several travel industry experts to get their thoughts and advice on summer and fall travel options this year and create a roadmap to help consumers determine when and where to travel over the next 12-18 months. In addition, experts offered tips on a number of topics, including how travelers can protect themselves against ongoing cancellations, when they should consider booking a flight or stepping aboard a cruise ship, and when they can begin venturing to destinations beyond their backyards.

For the sake of planning, if not for their sanity, consumers need to place future travel options into buckets, or phases, with “Phase I” including the most realistic short-term options, and subsequent phases incorporating additional options over windows of time, such as air travel, cruising, and specific destinations.

“The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the ‘Year of the Staycation’ and the sooner travelers understand and embrace this, the quicker they can begin to regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives,” says Chris Lopinto, president of ExpertFlyer. Many experts concur and suggest this is the year to experience what’s in your own backyard. That long anticipated trip to Europe or that cruise through the Panama Canal will have to wait, at least for a little while.

In any case, the need for travelers to enlist a trusted third-party consultant (travel agent) and access expert insight to specific destinations, airline and travel insurance policies, and navigating through the maze of travel restrictions, even for local staycation destinations, are essential in today’s travel environment. Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Co-Owner & Co-President of Valerie Wilson Travel joins ExpertFlyer’s podcast to share some insight about why working with a travel advisor today is not only a wise move, but an essential one.

“Now that we seem to have moved from the ‘crisis’ phase of the pandemic to the ‘rebuilding’ phase, travelers have dozens of questions about future travel that are probably best answered, along with professional guidance, by a trusted travel advisor,” explains Ms. Wetty. “Should I take insurance? How do I know my money’s protected? Is it safe to travel there? When can I go? Consumers are looking for someone they can trust to answer these, and many other questions, with a level of confidence and expertise,” Wetty explained.

Who needs insurance?

Insurance is another area travelers will seriously consider as they begin to plan future trips, including those close enough to reach by car. But the stigma about insurance has kept millions of travelers rolling the dice, hoping their trips are not interrupted for any number of reasons. But what type of insurance is right? What is covered? More importantly, what isn’t? ExpertFlyer posed these questions, and others to Jonathan Breeze, a travel insurance expert and CEO of AardvarkCompare, an online travel insurance marketplace where consumers can compare policies and prices from several insurance providers.

To help breakdown the types of insurance available for travelers, Mr. Breeze thought it best to divide coverage into two areas – Medical / Evacuation, and Trip Cancellation. “Consumers planning to travel within the U.S. should review their current healthcare policies to determine which benefits might be active while traveling,” Mr. Breeze said. “The benefit of a travel insurance policy is that it can pick up medical costs while on the road, as well as cover medical evacuations, as required.”

On the other hand, “Cancellation Insurance” is designed to cover travelers when illness, injury, and other unforeseen events prevent travelers from taking the trip. Although all policies available through AardvarkCompare cover illnesses, including illness due to COVID-19, Breeze recommends reading each policy carefully. “For the range of COVID-inspired challenges consumers face today, beyond contracting the virus, ‘Cancel for Any Reason’ travel insurance is the way to go,” he says. “It allows for 75% of the trip cost to be reimbursed in the event of cancellation.”

Breeze adds that ‘Cancel for Any Reason’ insurance policies tend to be a bit more expensive but the increased coverage is significant. These policies must typically be purchased within 20 days of making your first payment on a trip. “As always, it is worth comparing policy options. It is not unusual to see a 100% difference in price between the least expensive and most expensive Cancel for Any Reason policies so comparison of multiple policies from different insurers is really essential,” Breeze added. While many insurers have simply “dropped” this level of coverage, four insurers at AardvarkCompare still offer several of these policies.

Phase I: Road tripping

Most experts agree that the balance of 2020 will be the year of the staycation. Cited for both safety and economic reasons, travelers should look at vacation opportunities within their respective states and neighboring states that are within a few hours’ drive. “For example, if you’re in New York or somewhere in the Northeast, you might look as far north as Massachusetts or Maine, or travel south along the Jersey Shore,” says Kim Wetty.

“Weekends at the beach, local camping trips and other (local) outdoor activities will likely be the extent of our travels this summer,” explains Chris Lopinto, who says there are amazing opportunities to explore things we take for granted. “Thousands of New Yorkers have never been to the Statue of Liberty, thinking to themselves, ‘no big deal. It will be there tomorrow.’ Well, tomorrow is here! It’s a chance to experience what’s right in front of you.”

Jay Singh, deputy content manager and journalist at Simple Flying concurs. “This is a wonderful opportunity to experience locations and activities we take for granted because they are in our own backyard.” Singh also says this is a great opportunity to reflect on past vacations and use the time to research and prepare for next year. “Museums and other destinations around the world are creating virtual experiences, which can help determine where your next vacation might take you.”

Phase II: Domestic air travel

There is some debate among travel experts as to when consumers will look at airlines and cruising as viable travel and entertainment options again, but many believe that air travel, at the very least, will begin to pick up sometime this fall. “I think that Phase II will include increased levels of confidence with airline travel in the fall, this year. I also think that diehard cruisers will begin considering options at this point,” Kim Wetty says.

For those hoping to land a great deal on an airline ticket this fall, Chris Lopinto says “go for it,” but do your homework. “If you can get a cheap fare on future travel, go for it, but make sure you understand what the airline’s cancellation policy is for that booking and travel date in case you need to cancel.”

For cruisers beginning to get the itch, ExpertFlyer asked Douglas Ward, cruise industry expert at Cruise Voice and author of Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships 2020, for his thoughts. “It is my opinion that cruisers might realistically be able to take a cruise vacation again from September onwards. However, it is important to understand that ships will be selectively re-introduced and sourcing crew will take some time. In addition, the infrastructure for things such as shore excursions and transport facilities will take some time, so the overall cruising ‘experience’ may be lacking at this stage of the recovery.”

Mr. Ward added that many cruise lines are still repatriating crew members and bringing ships back to port, as well as dealing with cancellations, refunds, operations and logistics. While they have been overwhelmed, Mr. Ward says cruise lines are coping well, and planning for the future.

Phase III: Cruising and international air travel

While most experts will refrain from viewing Phase III as the “full recovery” phase, most will concede that airline bookings will begin to approach pre-COVID-19 levels, most of the economy will be open for business (with some broad safety precautions), schools will be open, and cruise lines will sail with a level of consistency, passenger amenities, and bookings not seen since January. Most also agree that timing for Phase III will be late winter / spring of 2021.

The major cruise lines have sufficient cash reserves to keep them afloat without a single passenger through 2021, and the U.S. government will likely take an equity stake in the airline industry with loans and grants to keep them flying. In the end, however, a recovery in the travel industry will rely on essentially two things: governments re-opening the economy and the confidence level consumers have to venture out again.

“I believe that many ships, particularly the large ‘resort ships’ with 2,500-plus passengers, will not be in service until the beginning of 2021,” Mr. Ward suggests. “For anyone able to defer their cruise vacations, 2021 appears to be a better choice given the uncertainties of the present situation and challenges that lie ahead in the relative short-term.”

Cash of credit?

For many travelers left with unused airline tickets and cancelled vacations, that is truly the question. While airlines, cruise lines, and other tourism destinations are offering customers credit toward future services, and often with additional incentives, many consumers simply want their money back. Experts agree that the decision is for the most part, personal. Travelers who fully expect to rebook a trip in the near future should seriously consider taking the credit, along with other incentives they’re offered. Those who are less certain about future travel plans should probably opt for a refund.

But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Airlines in particular are strapped for cash and the last thing they want to do is provide a refund. In fact, they may tell customers they aren’t entitled to a refund; only a credit. According to Chris Lopinto at ExpertFlyer, it’s important for passengers to know the rules, and their rights. “The bottom line is refunds are not optional for canceled or severely delayed flights,” Lopinto says. “Both the DOT here in the USA and EU regulations for European airlines clearly state that this (passenger refund) is a requirement.” Mr. Lopinto suggested that dissatisfied travelers can register a complaint with the DOT, or dispute the charge with their credit card company.

For passengers concerned about losing award miles or their status on airlines, Jay Singh at Simple Flying says passengers should not be concerned. “Most airlines, including the big three US airlines, have extended status by a full 12 months meaning you’ll keep your current status through the start of 2022, even if you don’t fly this year.”

For cruisers, the thought process is essentially the same. “If value is important to you and you have travel flexibility, using credits to enhance your future cruise would provide a better overall vacation experience,” says Douglas Ward. “If you take a refund instead, it means you will need to start planning all over again and, judging by the way bookings are flooding in for 2021, you may not have as many choices.”