The end of the U.S. ban on international visitors has kicked off a surge in travel both foreign and domestic. Here’s what to expect for the holiday season and beyond.
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When the Biden administration announced that vaccinated foreign travelers would be allowed to enter the United States starting Nov. 8, it was as though a starting gun had been fired.
Skyscanner, a travel booking site, saw an 800 percent spike in bookings the day after the announcement. In the week after the administration confirmed the date travelers could arrive, Expedia, the online booking site, saw a 28 percent increase in searches for U.S. hotels from Britain and a 24 percent increase from France.
And not only international tourism was given a boost. Experts said that the U.S. reopening signaled to American travelers that they could leave their homes this coming holiday season, too. Searches for outbound international travel on the booking application Hopper, for instance, have increased by 24 percent since the announcement, the highest uptick since the spring.
“There’s just something about the fact that we’re lifting our borders that changes the perception of travel right now and makes people much more comfortable and confident in doing so,” said Misty Belles, a spokeswoman for Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies and advisers.
Though the travel industry continues to face staffing and regulation challenges, the process of traveling is becoming smoother. Coronavirus tests are easier to book, and the process for checking documents at airports has been streamlined. But most important, travelers are becoming accustomed to the uncertainty, planning for rather than dreading it. If you’re traveling this holiday season, here’s what to expect.
Traveling during the pandemic requires both long- and short-term planning to secure flights and accommodations while leaving room for last-minute changes in regulations, flight schedules or coronavirus infection rates.
Travelers are either “booking for tomorrow or they’re booking for next year,” Ms. Belles said, adding that many travelers “want to get away, but they’re kind of pushing it to the last minute just to make sure nothing changes.”
Waiting can be expensive, as prices have increased across the industry and may continue to do so as international travel rebounds, Ms. Belles said. Travel agents also say that many top resorts, such as Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos, Mexico; the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai in Hawaii; and The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., are booked for the holiday season, and that those who wait, particularly families with children, will have a smaller selection of places to stay. The app Hopper estimated that domestic airfare over Christmas would likely match 2019 prices, while international airfare is currently cheaper but likely to increase by December.
Still, Willis Orlando, a travel expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that tracks and emails flight deals to subscribers, said that travelers have an opportunity to snag low fares now, particularly on international flights, as airlines continue to scramble to match supply with demand, which has fluctuated according to travelers’ sentiments about the virus or announcements of country reopenings.
“It’s not going to be long-lived,” Mr. Orlando said. “I think once the rest of the world opens up, those planes will get back to flying the old high-demand routes, but for now, it’s a wonderful opportunity.”
Ariel Vinson, 31, a digital content manager for a consumer packaged goods company in San Diego, went to Alaska at the beginning of October. It was her second trip there this year, and she is contemplating moving there.
But her trip was extended when she got Covid-19 a week in. She ended up having to stay an additional week, before flying home on Oct. 24.
“That was a wake-up call for me,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to stop me from traveling, but I think it’ll make me think about my behaviors during travel,” such as masking outdoors or being more cautious when interacting with strangers, which she had become more comfortable with since getting vaccinated this spring.
Sandra Torres, 32, who manages vendors at a biotech start-up in the Chicago area, said that the couple of times she had traveled by air this year, “the flights themselves were changed multiple times.” A coming November trip to Hawaii, booked in the spring, was changed a month out, with one leg ultimately canceled. She had to rebook with another airline. A planned birthday trip to Tokyo, in February 2022, was recently canceled by the airline.
“It does make it harder to plan things,” Ms. Torres said. “I’ve learned to be more flexible, to be more open. Even if you book things ahead of time, you might still have to change them.”
She added that she’s learned to “have more of a cushion, both financially and just around logistics and departure times.”
The experience of travel continues to be affected by staffing and other challenges. Your hotel’s restaurant may be closed, for instance, and daily room cleaning is only available upon request in many places.
“That part of the business requires a lot more staffing than just the standard hotel operations,” Chip Rogers, the president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said of hotel restaurants. “That’s where hotels are having to cut back, because they just don’t have enough people.”
Rental cars remain in short supply, and prices are high, in some cases double or triple prepandemic rates. Many concessions and businesses in airports are still closed, and airlines have canceled hundreds of flights in the last several months, including recent cancellations by Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.
As a result, customer satisfaction has dropped in both the rental car and airport industries, according to recent studies by the data and analytics firm J.D. Power.
Martina Johnson, 35, and her husband, Leslie, 40, who work in marketing and digital advertising in the greater New York City area and document their travels on social media, are planning to spend a couple of weeks visiting family in the Midwest leading up to Thanksgiving.
But they decided to drive there rather than rent a car, because the prices were prohibitive. In the past, Ms. Johnson said, they paid $50 to $75 for a weekend car rental, while the price now would be closer to $300. For two weeks, the price would have been nearly $2,000.
“The price of rental cars is ridiculous,” she said. “We want the flexibility without worrying about the cost.”
People are still gravitating to outdoor travel, with the most popular destinations being domestic beach locations or the Caribbean and Mexico.
Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer for Squaremouth, a travel insurance company, said that eight of the company’s 10 most popular international destinations were Caribbean countries.
“The Dominican Republic, Turks & Caicos and the U.S. Virgin Islands had never been top destinations during the holiday season, but they are this year,” she said, because those places have largely stayed open when other countries closed their borders.
Ski destinations are also seeing increased interest, said Natalia Sutin, the vice president of revenue management at Vacasa, a vacation rental management company.
“People look for a festive atmosphere, and guests are looking to make up for ski trips from last year,” Ms. Sutin said. In a recent Vacasa survey, 61 percent of respondents said they were replanning a ski trip that they had intended to take last year but canceled.
Demand for ski destinations on Vrbo, a vacation rental company, is also up more than 40 percent this winter compared to the same period in 2019, and up 31 percent compared to 2020.
Victoria Neff, a 34-year-old assistant director at an education and technology nonprofit in Boston, is spending Christmas in Aspen, Colo. She said she booked her flight and rental car ahead of time because she “was worried about availability” and knew demand would be high.
The resumption of international travel to the U.S. on Nov. 8 is particularly important for cities, which derive significant revenue from and are a main attraction for foreign visitors.
“It’s so desperately needed in your gateway markets like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C.,” said Mr. Rogers of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “Those are markets that really depend on international travel, and those are also the same markets that have been hurt so bad during the pandemic.”
While only 3 percent of hotel bookings nationally come from international travelers, they account for 15 percent of hotel revenue because they stay longer and spend more money.
In Los Angeles, where international travelers were a quarter of overnight visitors and made up 50 percent of overall spending in 2019, bookings and search interest spiked after the reopening was announced, said Adam Burke, the president of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.
“We’re now seeing an acceleration of the recovery process,” he said. Tourism Economics, a global travel data company, is projecting 1 million more visitors to Los Angeles by the end of the year and an additional $1 billion in revenue from international travelers.
British Airways and its vacation-booking arm, British Airways Holidays, said that the desire to see friends and family for the holidays was driving a surge in searches for destinations in the United States, particularly in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago. Searches for Thanksgiving were up 2,000 percent this week over the previous week, the company said in an email, and searches for the days before Christmas were up 900 percent.
For domestic travelers, visiting the country’s urban centers could be cheaper than in the past. Expedia found that accommodations in cities are 10 to 35 percent cheaper than in 2019.
The survey by Vacasa, the vacation rental management company, found that parents with children under 5 were more likely to say they were planning travel than non-parents, 65 percent compared to 41 percent. And road trips continue to be popular, with 72 percent of travelers saying that they will drive to their destinations.
“We do see that family travel is the trend this year,” said Ms. Sutin of Vacasa. “Most people are traveling with their spouse, children or immediate family.”
Katie Cherico, a travel adviser for In the Know Experiences, a New York City-based agency, said that among her clients, families’ decisions around travel depend on their children’s ages. Those with children under 12, who until recently have not been eligible for vaccination, have been sticking to domestic or nearby resort destinations, like Puerto Rico, while those with vaccinated children 12 and over feel more comfortable traveling internationally. Immunization with the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children 5 to 11 by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday and, if approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may be rolled out as early as this week. That is likely to boost traveler confidence just as the adult vaccine did in the spring.
Stephen Scott, a Chicago-based travel adviser for Protravel International, added that cruises remain difficult for families with children under 12, because many cruise lines require that passengers be vaccinated and do not make exceptions for children. But these restrictions may be eased on Jan. 15, when the industry will no longer be required to follow federal Covid-19 rules, the C.D.C. said in a statement.
Covid-19 safety concerns are still top of mind for travelers, keeping them close to home or preventing them from staying with relatives. While most people traveling for Thanksgiving, for example, are staying with family this year, the number is still lower than in 2019, dropping to 73 percent from 83 percent, according to a recent survey by the market research company Morning Consult. Only 57 percent of people stayed with family in 2020, suggesting fears surrounding Covid-19 are lessening but still present.
Lindsey Roeschke, the firm’s travel and hospitality analyst, said that more than a quarter of survey respondents intended to stay masked during Thanksgiving, and that they may be choosing not to stay with family to minimize the need for masking. She added that millennial parents, the group most likely to have young, unvaccinated children, planned to spend more on accommodation than other groups.
Vaccination rates could also be affecting people’s decisions to stay with or travel to visit family. In a survey by The Vacationer, an online resource for travelers, one in three Americans said they were unwilling to celebrate the holidays with people who had not been vaccinated.
Ms. Torres, the traveler who has had to deal with changing plans, said her family members’ vaccination status was part of the reason she decided to stay home in Chicago for the holidays. She typically would have taken a trip to Mexico or El Salvador to visit relatives over Christmas and New Year’s, but because of a lack of vaccine accessibility in those countries, several family members have not been fully vaccinated, and she decided not to risk it.
The record number of pet adoptions during the pandemic is also influencing how people are traveling. Pet-friendliness was the top search priority for travelers in a new survey of 1,000 Americans across the U.S. by the analytics company Zeta Global.
“People are more interested in pet-friendly hotels than they are in clean hotels,” said David Steinberg, the company’s chief executive. “It’s probably not even a metric that would’ve been on the radar two years ago.”
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The long-awaited reopening of the U.S. came just ahead of the holiday season, and the complicated set of entry rules may change again. But here is what we know right now.