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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Fall travel trends: Have you heard of ‘trip stacking’? (You will)

You may have more room on the plane, but your rental car may cost more

By: New York Times |
September 8, 2021 10:30:00 pm
fall travelUncertainty remains the new normal in travel this autumn driven by the rise in cases and ever-changing travel restrictions, but here are eight things you can expect. (Dalbert B. Vilarino/The New York Times)

Written by Concepción de León

After a summer in which travel accelerated rapidly, nearly reaching pre-pandemic numbers, fall is looking like the season of uncertainty. Increasing concern about the delta variant and a seasonal travel dip have slowed bookings. Fear of the variant and the potential of changing regulations have prompted travelers to plan more cautiously.

International trips are being pushed to 2022, with some people monitoring conditions week by week before booking. The European Union’s announcement Aug. 30 that it was removing the United States from its “safe list” of countries raises the question of whether European nations will reinstate restrictions.

Seth Borko, a senior research analyst at Skift Research, an arm of the Skift travel trade publication, said that while he thinks some countries — especially those dependent on international tourism — will ignore the guidance, some travelers may still be dissuaded. “The travel lists themselves reduce people’s inclination to go to those destinations,” he said.

Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel, a luxury travel agency based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said that as the virus continues to develop, “the one thing to know for certain is that everything is going to be uncertain, that things can change at any time.”

Here is what you can expect if you plan to travel this fall.

Booking a flexible ticket will be easier.

Because of the uncertainty raised by the delta variant, said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel at AAA, travelers are adopting a “wait-and-see approach,” delaying bookings or opting for flexible tickets.

Hopper, a travel booking app, has seen an increase in the use of its services that allow people to cancel or rebook flights free of charge. Purchases of its “cancel for any reason” add-on have increased 54% over the past 12 weeks and the number of people opting for its “rebooking guarantee” has grown by 50% since early spring.

Some airlines, including Delta and United, have reintroduced flexibility for basic-economy passengers, who would not normally be allowed to change their tickets. This was a hallmark of early-pandemic travel, said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that alerts subscribers to discounted airfares, adding that the reversal demonstrates the airline industry’s understanding of people’s skittishness in light of the delta variant.

Some luxury travelers are opting for what some people call “trip stacking,” or buying two trips over the same time period in case one of them falls through, said Bush, who has been offering this service. Many of his clients had been forced to cancel travel plans because of regulation changes during the pandemic. Booking two trips, he said, ensures that “they wouldn’t be left out in the cold without having any trip at all.”

“Ultimately, they’re going to take both of those trips,” he said. “It just matters which is the one that is going to be most likely to come to fruition in October.”

You may have more room on the plane, but your rental car may cost more.

Both domestic and international airfares are expected to drop this fall as demand drops, said Adit Damodaran, an economist and chief travel expert at Hopper. Although flight prices do not seem to have been affected by the new EU travel guidelines so far, Damodaran said that if restrictions are put in place and demand declines, prices could drop further.

“I would say that the general theme going into the fall at the moment is kind of a return to the way that travel was in the spring,” Damodaran said. “What I mean by that is lower prices compared to the summer, and also a little bit more domestic travel compared to international travel.”

But prices are still high in other sectors, especially for hotels and car rentals. A recent survey by Skift found that 73% of respondents intended to take a road trip in 2020, and Borko said the EU action will probably accelerate that trend.

Because so many international destinations remain closed, “what is open, there’s such a high demand,” Twidale said. “If you’re waiting for a last-minute booking or a last-minute deal, it’s really not a good value proposition for you to do that,” she said.

Jasmine Jordan, 31, a singer-songwriter and marketer who lives in Seattle, said she also now spends more on travel expenses that she considered unnecessary in the past, including travelers insurance.

Traveling domestically? You’ll have company.

The spread of the delta variant has made many would-be travelers wary of making international travel plans, both because of personal reservations and also out of concern that changing regulations will force them to cancel.

The EU taking the United States off its “safe list,” for instance, raises uncertainty about whether European countries will change regulations when it comes to American visitors. But Borko said that even during the summer while Europe was open, travelers were still inclined toward domestic tourism — a trend he expects to continue.

“I think what you see in the data is when people become more fearful, of the pandemic, of COVID, to the extent they’re traveling, it tends to be more focused domestically than internationally,” Keyes said.

Damodaran, of Hopper, said international bookings have been going down month over month on that platform, while domestic bookings have remained stable.

“Part of that is the ‘seasonality’ that we’re seeing just going into the fall,” when travel normally falls off, he said, “and the other part of that could be some impact from the delta variant” making travelers more hesitant to book trans-Atlantic travel.

This unpredictability led Jordan, who had a trip planned to Italy this fall, to postpone it for next year. Although she and her friend, a nurse, were sure they wanted to go, they had not yet booked their flight.

And the beach may be crowded.

Many travelers are gravitating toward beach vacations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Hawaii, which are close and provide an outdoor escape. Hawaii has been so overwhelmed by tourists amid rising coronavirus case numbers that Gov. David Ige, in an Aug. 23 news conference, urged travelers to stay away.

This is a trend that continues from last winter and spring, when travelers gravitated more toward these places because of the stringent restrictions in place in the EU, for instance, said Damodaran.

Lia Avellino, 33, director of a mental well-being program at The Well, a wellness center in New York, has traveled quite a bit throughout the pandemic, primarily to places near the city. But this fall, she is taking her family to Costa Rica for a beach surf vacation, their first international trip since the pandemic.

Budget carriers are making a play for you.

One area in which there appears to be growth is among the budget airlines, which have taken advantage of the shift toward leisure travel during the pandemic.

Keyes said that while the number of available “seat miles,” which refers to available seats, are down across major airlines compared with before the pandemic, budget airlines have actually added seat miles. Spirit has 14% more than it did the same time two years ago, while Allegiant has 28% more.

Taking young children? Think road trip.

With vaccinations still unavailable for children younger than 12, families must calculate the risk of traveling with their young children.

“That’s why there’s a high propensity of road trips and domestic travel happening,” Twidale said. She encourages families to go places where they can have more control over their environments and limit the number of people with whom they interact, such as national parks.

That’s the route that Dr. Amber Schmidtke, 40, and her family, who live in Kansas City, took during the pandemic. Over the summer, for example, she and her family packed up their camper and traveled for three weeks through Colorado and Utah. Camping, she said, is “sort of pandemic-proof.”

You really should be thinking about 2022.

Bookings have already started to pick up for next year. Gemma Jamieson, a spokesperson for Skyscanner, a flight-booking app, said in an email that bookings for 2022 created in the last week were up 30% compared with the same time in July. The top bookings were to Cancún, London, Paris, Rome and Tokyo, indicating a continued demand for travel worldwide.

It’s too early to tell how these bookings will be affected by the EU’s action last week. But, said Dia Adams, a travel expert at Forbes Advisor, “I do think the top line will scare some European travelers off booking their trips.”

Borko said he anticipates a continued interest in domestic or regional travel, to places such as Mexico and the Caribbean.

“International travel is recovering very slowly and still very much below where we were,” he said, “and the sentiment about COVID has turned much more sharply negative.”

Despite the continued challenges to the travel industry, Twidale said she’s optimistic about next year.

“2019 was a banner year for travel,” she said, adding that 2022 “could be an even bigger banner year than 2019.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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