How COVID-19 Will Change Travel, According to 6 Industry Experts

man looking out plane window

Denni Van Huis

When the TripSavvy team walked into our Times Square office on March 10, we all had little idea that it would be our last day there for quite some time. We had already seen COVID-19 spread across the world—affecting our writers in France, Italy, and beyond, and slowly, but surely, changing our own trips and those of our readers. The flurry of the weeks that followed saw trips canceled, from Peru to Portland, as borders closed, flights were grounded, and the entire travel landscape that our site covers ground to a halt.

Of course, we've seen some silver linings—our environment has taken this precious time to heal itself, we've all loaded up our bar carts and spice cabinets with those worldly flavors we've so missed, and the pause in our jet setting has encouraged us to take a step back and examine what the world we'll soon be returning to might look like.

The answer? None of us genuinely know—so we called on six travel pros who might have an idea. From new health certificate requirements, a newfound reliance on travel agents, and a road trip renaissance, here's what they had to say. — Laura Ratliff, editorial director

The Panel

Let's talk about the individual impact that COVID-19 has had in each of your industries.

R.S.: We basically should have started our cruise season in Europe in the middle of March. Now, we have delayed it until the end of June. The worst-case scenario for us is that we do not have a cruise season at all. This is an assumption we started in mid-March when the government announced the travel restrictions and we have prepared for it. In general, we have always been ready for a bad season: low water, high water, terrorism, or other things, so we are prepared for this. We'll go through it, and hopefully, we'll still see some good months at the end of the year.

C.R.: In Colorado, we started the year off going gangbusters. We were probably on our way to an 11th straight record year and then, of course, March hit. We just saw tourism spending fall off a cliff. Ski resorts were closed, and the state steadily shut down. Oxford Economics just shared a report that showed traveler spending in Colorado was down 89 percent compared with the same week, last year. To put that in numbers, there was a total of $49 million spent in tourism hospitality that week, compared to $387 million from the amount spent the year before. These are real numbers that are impacting governments across Colorado. It's putting us in a difficult place to be able to promote effectively next year.

G.M.L: I love the optimism that Rudi has just come up with, and I'm hoping that we're all going to get some bookings in late June. But I think we're a little bit more pessimistic about the timelines. I don't think we're expecting to have bookings until towards the end of the summer—and I think we're looking at disruption for a lot longer than that.

If we're looking at China as an example of what's happening over there, they are seeing a massive spike in domestic travel now that their lockdown is easing. I expect that to happen within European countries, but we don't expect there to be too much cross-border activity. I think international travel is not happening for some time.

J.C.: Speaking with counterparts in France and Italy and all around the Mediterranean, they just cannot envisage any movement of serious numbers of people in those regions at all because of the risk of secondary infection. And I think that's where, certainly from the yachting community, they're looking at a complete loss of the yacht charter season in the Mediterranean. No movement whatsoever that will flow throughout Europe.

A.L.T.: Similarly to Cathy, 2019 was a record year for France, and 2020 looked very promising. The U.S. market is vital to France–we welcome more than 4.5 million Americans to France every year. And what's going on right now, like almost every destination, France is under confinement, which means that our museums, restaurants, boutiques, attractions are on hold for the foreseeable future.

[On April 24], Emmanuel Macron, our president, had a meeting with representatives of the restaurant industries, the hotel industry, destination, to talk about what would be happening next. Macron said that tourism was a national priority. Tourism in France represents over seven percent of the GDP. Measures have been implemented to help in terms of tax deferment and financial help.

France is on lockdown until May 11. This being said, when May 11 comes, not everyone will be able to go back to their previous life. It will be done gradually. As some of you are stating, it all depends on borders and the state of the industry. Regarding when tourism in France will go back to normal? Of course, we have no clue—but by the end of May, we'll have an idea of how we can properly welcome a guest back to France.

Z.H.: We're seeing a strong thirst for leisure travel again [on The Points Guy]—and this is definitely a good opportunity for travelers to redeem miles because there's so much business- and first-class availability that we just haven't seen in the past, all the way through March and April 2021. We've been recommending that to our readers, especially using airlines' flexible cancellation policies, take advantage of those and maybe start to book some travel for far out into the future. I have a trip to Ireland planned for July 4—it's increasingly looking like that's probably not going to happen, but I haven't made any changes to that just yet.

Rudi, it sounds like others are a bit more cautious about that summer timeline. Why was June the target date for Ama?

R.S.: It's not so much that I'm not cautious about what's happening. Our guests are 95 percent North Americans, so they are probably not going to be able to travel. Still, if Germany and Austria open up the Danube and the Rhine, you will see European river cruise operators starting up towards the end of June.

Now, we don't know when our North American clientele will be able to travel and if they will be able to travel this year. But in June and July, you will see, within Europe, travel activity coming back. I think Europeans will probably stay within the EU, which doesn't really affect our business, but I am hoping that the North American market [might come back] sometime in the fall. That's all I'm hoping for. If not, then worst-case scenario, we don't cruise the entire season until March 2021.

What parts of the industry do you think will return first? Will people be more comfortable with maybe taking a road trip to Colorado, or will a smaller river cruise be something that people will be comfortable with?

C.R.: Our research is showing that people will have a much stronger preference for traveling in their personal vehicles. And Colorado happens to be pretty much in the middle of the country, so we are very accessible for road trips. The radius for a road trip is really expanding now. Back when I was a kid, my family thought nothing of jumping in the car and driving 13 hours to go to Florida. That kind of perception may come back to travelers. They may be far more willing to jump in the family car and load up the kids and drive.

A.L.T.: I think it depends on the age group. We saw through surveys that the younger group was the group that were less likely to cancel their trips. I think the families will be last; they don't want to take risks for their children. They don't want to take any risk in transit or at their destination. It all also depends on their economic condition as well.

We've seen that through this confinement that we were able to do a lot of things through Zoom. You had to travel to be present, and now you don't have to do that anymore. But this being said, people on the corporate side need to visit and talk to clients, so when the situation is easier, safety-wise, that will start happening. Individual corporate travel will come soon.

G.M.L.: We're getting inquiries now for remote travel and road trips—Colorado being one of them, but also Montana, Wyoming, and other states that really show off remote travel with dude ranches, mobile camps, and amazing campsites. There's going to be a real boom domestically when those states open up and domestically within other countries. In the U.K., we know there's going to be a rush on luxury hotels, boutique hotels, and remote lodges.

We're already hearing several inquiries of people saying, "I don't want to see anyone else. I don't want to go on public transport. I want to drive there, and I want to be locked away in a remote place, but I just want to get out of the home." We're also learning from the trends in China. You have people in Shanghai who are booking hotels in Shanghai. They live in the same city, but they're just desperate to get out of their home. There's going to be this real surge about domestic travel first this year before we can work out how to move on from there.

Zach, how do you think the airlines are going to respond to both a surge in domestic travel and people wanting to take their own cars?

Z.H.: I agree that people are going to be more willing to drive in their own vehicle and certainly stay within the United States. One big challenge for the airlines is that a lot of customers feel burned from their experience during coronavirus. A lot of people had flights booked, and they're still struggling in some cases to get a refund even when the airlines canceled the flights on their own. I'm still getting many emails a day, dozens in some cases, from passengers that had flights canceled weeks ago and aren't getting any response from the airlines, even major airlines within the United States. Airlines have been pushing customers to take travel vouchers instead of issuing credits to their credit cards. A lot of trust has been lost between customers and airlines. Going forward, even when we see exceptionally cheap fares, unless someone's certain that they're going to be able to travel, they may not take advantage of that.

G.M.L.: Have you heard anything about any plans in the U.S. [on] how they're going to allow people on planes and cope with the social distancing rules for many months to come?

Z.H.: Delta has blocked middle seats, United is blocking middle seats up until check-in. So at check-in, you can then select middle seats—which is kind of a strange policy. I think blocking the middle seats will help as long as it's done consistently. But as we've seen throughout this whole process, the policies vary so much from, from one airline to the next, one state to the next, one city to the next in some cases.

As policies change and the situation is so uncertain from day-to-day, do we think now is the time for an otherwise independent traveler to consider using a booking agent or a travel agent?

A.L.T.: Tourism boards will be communicating heavily to travel agents, the travel trade about the newly implemented measures. Of course, we share the news with everybody on the planet, but we have a strong communication plan with the travel trade. Travel agents will know for sure, for example, which hotels have established a great protocol safety-wise.

Z.H.: My perspective is a little bit mixed on this. Even within the airlines and even within the airline PR departments, employees have struggled to get a solid grasp on these policies because they're always changing and evolving. In theory, booking through a travel agent could be helpful because you would assume that they would know these policies—but some are put in place and changed so quickly and so frequently. It's tough for anyone to stay on top of them, especially if travel agents have a surge in bookings and they start handling bookings exclusively rather than kind of poking around into the terms and conditions of airline policies because customers in many cases are subject to the same policies whether they book directly or through a travel agent.

A lot of our readers had booked their travel through OTAs (online travel agencies), and we're strongly recommending against that in general, especially for airline tickets, but they've struggled to get refunds with hotels as well. So that's, that's presented a challenge. But, you know, OTAs like Expedia and other platforms are quite a bit different than private travel agents.

Geordie and Jimmy, I imagine that you have some clients who have had trips planned going into the summer and fall, so what does that look like right now?

J.C.: All of them have been a case-by-case scenario that we've assessed and liaised with the client. One thing we've been fortunate to be able to do and work with our clients and suppliers is to be able to refund people where we have had to cancel. Ideally, though, we've postponed. And it was only yesterday that we've postponed another trip now, which was meant to be on in a couple of months' time. We were hoping it was the end of the year, and now the client thinks it's probably just easier to push it a full year postponement, and we'll see what happens then.

G.M.L.: I think that the advantage of booking flights and everything else through a travel agent is that you should have an extra layer of protection. It's our job to, if someone wants to cancel, reclaim all of those funds, and make sure they get a full refund. And that's one of the reasons people use a travel agent. It's very easy for our industry to forget that people pay us an additional fee to look after them when times are good—and to deliver that creativity, that attention to detail, that customer service, but it's just the same when times are bad. Our job is to ensure that they get a full refund from the airline, from the accommodation, from every part of that trip.

The cruise industry as a whole has gotten a black eye from all this. And I think people have lost a lot of confidence, especially in the more massive lines. Do you believe that this might be a boon in a sense for some of you, as people look to smaller river cruises or yacht expeditions as an alternative to a mega-ship?

R.S.: If you look at our ships, the ships are about 150 passengers. In most cases, they're smaller than most hotels. You are spending most of the day on land. The ship is really kind of a floating, luxury, boutique hotel. You limit the group sizes on excursions to 20 or 30 people. I think that this small environment of the river cruise now has a strong attraction for the big ocean cruisers. We all want to move back to a smaller setting.

G.M.L.: You spend a lot of your time on land, and the cruise ships spend a lot of their time near population centers. The disembarkation points are often very, very densely populated places, and they have multi-country itineraries. I think that industry's going to be disrupted by far the longest, out of all of the travel sector because of the number of destinations they cover.

Remote yachting is going to see a spike in interest, and I think single-country yachting as well. Norway, for example, is a cruise destination, but it's also fantastic for smaller yachts, and you're going to very remote destinations at each point. You're getting out in the fjords that might have a village, it might not have a village at all, but it's a great hiking spot. I think that remoteness, and staying away from big population centers, is going to be popular for the next 24 months because we know social distancing is going to have to be in place for a lot longer. It's a sort of two-fold problem for the cruise industry.

C.R.: The Colorado equivalent to all of this is whitewater rafting. There's been a lot of conversation about social distancing on a whitewater raft. How does this industry operate? Zach, you were also talking about protocols for airlines and other settings, and I think this is just such an illustration of the challenges operators in every sector are going to be facing. How can they be successful with new requirements that may require people to sit six feet apart? It takes a certain number of people to paddle a raft. We get 500 to 600,000 people every summer on our riverways. And to think of creating obstacles for this particular sector even to operate is very concerning—but that problem is being repeated industry-by-industry.

Z.H.: I'd love to get Rudi's perspective there too. Just as an operator, what are you planning to do to ensure the safety of guests once cruising resumes?

R.S.: We went through all the scenarios—the question is, what can you do? I mean, let's say people come to the ship to embark. Do you test them at the ship? Too late. Do you test them in front of the ship? Too late. What do you do if, because you have a tent out there and you test somebody, and somebody tests positive and they came with a transfer from the airport with 15 other people, what do you do? Do you call an Uber? No Uber will take him back. I think what might happen is that the travel restrictions will start already at the airport. I'm flying to a country, at the arrival point of the country, getting into the country. Maybe within a couple of months, there might be some kind of certification requirement that you are tested negative to even get on.

Anne-Laure, Rudi's line has visitors coming to France to cruise. Do you agree with him that it's more likely that vaccine cards or health checks would begin at the border or the airport?

A.L.T.: Absolutely. It will start at the airports, and it will be different from every airport. We are looking at that very seriously because, of course, everybody can't wait to open everything for business. But what a destination doesn't want is to make the headline because it was the strong concentration of new cases coming either within France, the Schengen Zone, or outside. Airport checks will be critical, and airports are talking to each other in France and abroad about what is an appropriate measure. If you have one airport in one country doing something, the one welcoming the guests that departed from that country won't be as meticulous. It's a concern that has to be addressed right now before anything starts.

There's been so much doom and gloom, so I would love to hear what silver linings you think are going to come out of this. How is this going to change the way we travel for the better?

A.L.T.: We've seen that climate change can be reversible, and I think this is the best news! We can do something about it, and I think people will be conscientious about how they treat the planet, so that is where we see opportunities. We also talk about over-tourism—Americans love Paris, they love Provence, now there will be great opportunities to see secondary cities. People will still be able to enjoy Paris and Provence, but there are many other places to go to and to discover something else without the crowds.

C.R.: I echo that. It is wonderful to see how quickly the earth recovered when we all just stayed home. I almost wonder if we should give the earth a break one month a year for now on. But I think the other bright news is that the importance of the tourism industry was clearly demonstrated. What we saw was just the impact that shutting down restaurants and hotels and airlines had on everything. And I think that elevates the importance of this industry.

Z.H.: I think that from a consumer perspective, we're going to see a lot more emphasis among travel providers on sanitation procedures consistently across the board. I've experienced this myself over the last few years traveling through certain countries in Asia where they take sanitation to kind of a level we never really see in Europe or North America. That is going to become so important in the future, and if there's any good to come of this, that might be one positive aspect.

G.M.L.: Our travelers are already thinking about traveling more consciously, as Cathy said, and more sustainably. I think with fewer seats on airplanes filled up, it can be more expensive. I think that's going to push a drive towards lower-volume travel, higher-end travel. That's not a bad thing for the planet to have for a few years, and I think that might shake the travel industry as a whole. The airline industry is not going to recover from this for a long time. People are going to be communicating much more like we are now. And that will push an emphasis on private travel and personal travel. I think that's a really good thing. People will spend more time and more money on their travel because now they're going to appreciate their time like never before now that they've had it taken away. People are now thinking, "Well, I can't just take a holiday next month. I've got to plan ahead, and I've got to really make the most of it and travel with purpose." And I think that's a huge positive for the industry as a whole.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.