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With U.S. coronavirus cases at approximately 580,000 as of mid-April, a Global Level 4 Health Advisory strongly discouraging all travel, and statewide shelter in place orders in 42 states, travel is currently at a complete standstill. Airlines are grounding the bulk of their scheduled flights, and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced on April 3 that anyone whose flight is canceled or significantly re-routed should be entitled to a full refund rather than a voucher or eCredit. Travel for the month of April is effectively canceled, with nearly every airline allowing passengers to cancel or reschedule flights through April 30, 2020 without penalty.
The question of how summer vacation plans will be affected still hangs in the balance. With a myriad of airport closures around the world—Paris-Orly Airport closed as of April 1, and Dubai airports closed from March 25 to April 5—the end date to these travel restrictions is extremely unclear. As for border restrictions, as of March 21, the U.S. (together with our neighboring countries) halted all non-essential travel to Canada and Mexico. And flying overseas is all but out of the question at the moment. Will that still be the case in June, July, or August?
What the Experts Predict for Summer Vacation Travel
Paula Cannon, distinguished USC professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Keck School of Medicine and known virologist, says "COVID-19 is clearly having a massively disruptive effect on both domestic and international travel at the moment, and will do so for the foreseeable future."
Cannon points out that one of the more immediate travel problems is that most states and countries will open to the public at different times. "The timeline for when the virus started spreading in a state or country, when the infections will peak, and when the numbers will decrease enough that the government of each state or country decides it is safe to relax some of these measures is unknown, but could vary widely," says Cannon. "So even if your state is open for travel, some summer destinations may still be out of bounds."
Because of the need for continued distancing, Cannon predicts that summer vacation plans may shift in the direction of car travel. "Travel that involves you being alone in your own car is going to be the safest way to travel," she says.
While a spokesperson from the Center for Disease Control said they are working to scale back strategies for summer travel, they have not yet been released.
"At this time CDC is not making recommendations concerning future travel," says Kristin Nordlund on behalf of the Center for Disease Control. "CDC, in conjunction with other federal health officials, are working on guidance on how to scale back community mitigation strategies which might impact people’s future travel plans."
Cannon stresses that, though observing these precautions for a while longer may be trying as we move toward summer vacation, following guidelines set out by professionals can vastly reduce the spread of the virus. "COVID-19 is extremely infectious, but if people stay at home and distance themselves from other people, the rates of new infections will start to decrease," says Cannon. "Conversely, without such measures, the rate of spread of the virus could be very scary, so these measures are necessary to stop the virus in its tracks."
The Hospitality Industry Weighs In
Of course, outlooks vary depending on what part of the world you’re currently in, but for the most part, hospitality professionals remain optimistic about summer travel. However, they think the nature of travel may change this summer. This could mean only being able to travel within driving distance of your home. Much as it’s challenging, limiting large-scale international travel in the spring and early summer could make travel a more viable option later in the year.
“Our hope is that the curve will flatten and we will be able to welcome our guests back to paradise at Mayakoba this summer,” says Kappner Clark, Chief Marketing Officer of RLH Properties, which owns the luxury four-hotel development Mayakoba, Mexico. “I think most people will be wanting and needing a vacation after all of this.”
Deepak Ohri, CEO of lebua Hotels & Resorts in Bangkok shares a similar sentiment, specifically calling out the interest for close-by travel this summer. “Here in Bangkok, we believe that it will be short-haul travelers from the region who will first start traveling when this situation normalizes,” Ohri explained.
Nonetheless, for overseas travel, Ohri thinks patience is key. “As for long-haul travel, I believe that will take time and rightfully so,” he concluded.
While this is certainly a thought echoed by both hospitality leaders and medical professionals, Cannon does point out that the rigorous cleaning procedures implemented in airlines helps. "For flying, although it seems kind of scary to be stuck in a small space with other people, this can be made reasonably safe. The airlines are constantly cleaning and disinfecting planes, and wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer can go a long way to making your immediate environment in a plane safe," she says.
How to Monitor the Situation if You Already Have a Trip Booked
The first thing to do is pay close attention to any communication you see from your chosen hotel or airlines, whether it’s sent directly to you, or posted on their social channels. Clark says their brands are constantly chatting with guests via social media. In addition to “formal notices letting them know that we are monitoring the situation closely and sharing with them the preventative measures we are taking on site,” he says, they’re also providing reassurance by “just staying in contact with (guests) through our social media channels.”
Clark really stresses the need for candid and frequent communication for those who already have a summer vacation booked. With the situation changing day by day—well, hour by hour really—candor and communication is the best solution. Clark brings up another crucial piece of this puzzle: cancelation versus postponement.
“If someone needs or wants to modify their trip, we are encouraging them to postpone instead of cancel,” says Clark. As the hospitality industry struggles, one easy way to support the hotels you’re loyal to is pushing your reservation as opposed to canceling it altogether. This way, the hotel either gets to keep your initial payment (if you made one), or at least, has the guarantee of your business at a future date.
How Booking Will Change This Summer
If you’re interested in booking travel for later in the summer, the smartest thing to do is book with a company whose cancelation policy you trust.
Ohri, at lebua Hotels & Resorts in Bangkok, has given his guests a year of flexibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In terms of rescheduling, he says, “Whether it’s three months from today or next week, we’re totally flexible.”
Flexibility is crucial during this time, and because so many top luxury brands are accommodating travel changes, it behooves you to book with someone who will let you change or cancel your reservation, at no additional cost, if necessary. If you’re intent on booking travel for July or August, it's important to consider how likely you are to follow through with your travel plans if they get disrupted this summer—keeping in mind that postponement is better for the hotels and destinations than cancellation.
Non-committal travel may become a short-term trend. It’s perhaps not the solution anyone was most keen on, but seems an inevitable result. And by non-committal travel, we simply mean travel that can easily be canceled, changed, or booked at the last minute.
Interestingly, private jet services are readymade for this type of travel. VistaJet, for example, allows passengers to book and cancel up to 24 hours before take-off. Ian Moore, VistaJet’s Chief Commercial Officer, says one of the major advantages to private aviation is that they’re already prepared for the last-minute booking and cancellations. VistaJet guests can cancel or make changes to their itinerary up until 24 hours before the private flight. "Because we have a guaranteed availability element, clients don't need to book right now for July, because they know if they call me a week out, I'll have an aircraft available for them," says Moore.
Moore anticipates that passengers in the summer may change their destinations, rather than opting out of their entire trip. And as long as it's 24 hours before, "you can change the destination, no problem," Moore assures.
Changing the destination doesn't impact the price of your VistaJet flight in the traditional sense. It just means a client might use more (or fewer) membership hours for the flight. In other words, if a VistaJet client based in Florida decides to fly to Europe instead of the Caribbean, the increased flight time would simply mean they use more of their membership hours on that trip.
Moore says timelines for booking private flights have gotten much more last-minute, which is a trend he thinks may continue.
"We used to know what our next three weeks would look like. Now, we know what’s happening in the next three days,” Moore explains.
Fortunately, the nature of the private flight model means always having aircrafts and crew ready at a moment’s notice. "We’re still 100% equipped to handle this—you have to be,” says Moore. He reports that VistaJet is “absolutely well-placed” for the shortened booking timelines they're now growing accustomed to.
Frustrating though it may be, the word on summer vacation plans is still TBD, but experts are cautiously optimistic. We're heartened by the hospitality and aviation industry's flexibility and their genuine faith in the resilience of travel. As of now, summer travel—in some form—is still looking like it could be a bright spot at the end of this tunnel.