This is the year that changed travel forever.
It's difficult to understate the devastation of COVID-19. A recent study by the U.S. Travel Association projected a 45% decline in industry revenues. That translates into a $519 billion loss for the year – roughly nine times the impact of 9/11 on travel revenue.
"2020 has been a year like no other," says Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network. "The pandemic has put a halt on all types of international travel, changing the face and the mindset of travelers. Travelers are now more cautious, aware of cleanliness standards and practices which have forced airlines and hotels to impose new sanitation protocols."
But which of these changes are permanent? That's a harder question, mostly because no one knows the future. But industry experts have a pretty good idea, based on how people are traveling now. Taken together, their predictions paint a sobering but ultimately upbeat picture of travel in 2021 and beyond.
In the future, you'll pay more attention to health and safety, and you'll probably pay more for your trips. You'll also see fewer business travelers and stay closer to home. And travel experts say all of these changes could stick.
It's all about health now
No question about it, the pandemic has made travelers obsessive about their health. "We'll see a bigger focus on traveler well-being post-COVID-19 – and rightly so," says Sarah Wilson, CEO of ACE Travel. "Travelers will need to ensure that they’re aware of safety protocols, better hygiene, and more efficient and safer booking experiences, such as paperless online booking and self-check-in services." These changes are permanent. The contactless credit card readers and self-check-in kiosks are here to stay.
Travel insurance is mandatory
And by "mandatory," I don't just mean it's a good idea. If you're visiting another country, it may literally be mandatory. Thailand, for example, which is currently only accepting visa applications from residents of low-risk countries, requires $100,000 in medical coverage, according to the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles. "During the year ahead, it's especially important for travelers to make sure they understand their risks, exposures and insurance coverage before they take a trip," says John Thompson, the division president of international accident and health at Chubb, which bills itself as "the world’s largest publicly-traded property and casualty insurance company."
Somebody is watching you
Contact tracing, already required at many destinations, could become standard for travelers. "Eventually, surveillance technology could assign each passenger a digital identity, with access to anything from geolocation to virus test results or immunity certificates," predicts Annalisa Nash Fernandez, an intercultural strategist at BecauseCulture. Current contact tracing uses smartphone apps as sensors to detect proximity and exposure to infected people. But she says there will be privacy concerns, just as there were after 9/11. As contact tracing becomes standardized, health officials will need to address these worries.
You'll pay more for a planned vacation
Another travel change: Vacations won't be thrown together at the last minute and they'll cost more. A once-in-a-century pandemic can change that – and it has. The travel insurance site Squaremouth reports that spending on international trips is up 18% to an average of $4,343. And domestic trips are up 27% for an average trip cost of $3,513. Travelers are also making their reservations sooner: four months before their departure for international trips, or 50% further out than last year. Domestic travelers are planning trips 19% further out than last year, an average of 79 days before departure. Experts say these trends will stay with us for a long time.
Bye-bye, business travelers
During the pandemic, a large percentage of the workforce switched to virtual meetings. Even the most optimistic studies predict a lengthy recovery for business travel. "A percentage of business travel will never return as companies realize that employees can be as productive virtually as they are holding in-person meetings," predicts Deborah Friedland, the practice leader of hospitality advisory services for EisnerAmper, a business advisory firm. Problem is, corporate traveler has traditionally subsidized cheap airline tickets. So the price of flying will probably rise.
Lodging doesn't necessarily mean hotels
The shift to vacation rentals and other nontraditional lodging was well underway before the pandemic. But COVID-19 accelerated it and made it one of the biggest permanent travel changes. "There's a decreased desire for large hotels," says Joli Moniz, owner of A Vontade Tours, which specializes in trips to the islands of Cabo Verde off the west coast of Africa. "Instead, people want boutique hotels or private villas with fewer people and limited interactions." Social distancing may not outlast this pandemic, but the need for space and privacy could be permanent.
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We're discovering America again
Another permanent travel change: an inward focus when it comes to tourism. In 2020, did we even have a choice? "Travelers who previously would never consider taking a domestic vacation are enjoying exploring destinations close to home," says Kristiana Choquet, a travel agent with EMBARK Beyond. "People are discovering the beauty and wonders of their own countries."
Travel has changed for good. Future travelers will be healthier and safer and will plan their vacations farther in advance. Yes, they'll pay more, but each vacation will also be an adventure.
"The next incarnation of tourism is on the way," says Richard Bangs, the chief adventure officer for Steller, a travel-inspired storytelling platform. "As we go out and redefine how we experience the world – with our senses re-attuned, our situational awareness reengaged – let it bring awakenings and inventions, the way we travelers have always risen to the greatest challenges."
Beyond 2020: Tips for the future of travel
Prepare for travel change. If you haven't traveled since the pandemic, get ready for a few changes. You'll have to learn to use those new self-service kiosks and touchless room keys. (Don't be afraid to ask for help.) Authorities will enforce mask and social distancing rules. It's the new normal.
Plan ahead. Whether you're booking your vacation or buying travel insurance, you'll want to give yourself plenty of preparation time in 2021 and beyond. Waiting until the last minute may mean you don't qualify for certain coverages or even that you can't travel because of paperwork requirements. Do everything in advance – everything.
If you find a deal, book it. Experts predict travel companies will try to raise their fares and prices quickly to recover lost revenue. The fire sales of late 2020 will almost certainly give way to higher rates. So if you see a deal now, don't wait.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How COVID-19, 2020 changed travel forever – and what that means for you