Ask a Points Nerd: What Positive Travel Trends Could Come From Coronavirus?

Sam KemmisApril 6, 2020
On a similar note...
On a similar note...

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Who’s ready for some good news?

Well, we’re probably not going to hear any truly good news, especially in the travel world, for some time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate about positive developments in the post-COVID world.

From better environmental protections to more flexible booking options, here are some ways I think travel could improve in the long run.

More flexible change and cancellation policies

Many of us became all too acquainted with the specifics of travel cancellation policies this spring, as we scrambled to change and cancel plans without incurring fees.

To their credit, most airlines and hotels eventually offered flexible change and cancellation policies through the spring. Yet many travelers got stuck paying fees or (at best) spending several hours on the phone.

Many came out of the ordeal wishing they had booked with Southwest Airlines, which always offers highly flexible fares. This not only bodes well for Southwest post-COVID, but also means all airlines may offer more flexible policies in the long term to match customer demand.

Many other airlines have been sneakily increasing these fees for the last few years, making them a centerpiece of their business strategy. I expect customers, including myself, will track changes to these fees with much more attention in the future, forcing airlines to provide more customer-friendly policies once travel resumes.

Better online travel tools

Airline and hotel customer service centers have been hammered this month as thousands of customers picked up the phone to change or cancel their plans. Many airlines pleaded with customers not to call unless scheduled to travel within a few days, and I’ve heard many horror stories of multi-hour wait times trying to reach third-party booking services like Chase Travel and Booking.com.

This disaster raises the question: Why are we still using telephones to manage travel in 2020?

Many airlines, hotels and online travel agencies do offer online booking management tools, of course, but they proved too inflexible to handle the ad-hoc policy changes that resulted from the pandemic. The upshot: Customers had to pick up the phone to change their reservations.

Not only is phone-based customer service frustrating for customers, it’s also expensive for the airlines themselves. Hopefully, airlines will leverage some of their federal bailout money to improve their own technology and finally render many of these phone calls obsolete.

Better plane sanitization

One of my biggest occupational hazards was always — even before the pandemic — infectious disease. Usually this meant catching a cold or stomach bug while taking a trans-oceanic flight, so it was more of a nuisance than a serious concern until recently.

Airlines were quick to roll out improved plane-cleaning and air-sanitizing procedures early in the coronavirus outbreak to assuage wary customers, which raises the question: Why wasn’t this always standard procedure?

Whether mandated by the government or coaxed by customer demand, I hope we see these sanitization procedures stick around long after the specter of this pandemic passes. At the very least, it seems likely that the rest of the world will follow Asia’s lead in wearing face masks while flying.

Packing several hundred people into a small metal tube will always carry heightened infectious disease risk, but hopefully we’ll see airlines, governments and individuals doing more to mitigate these risks.

Reduced carbon emissions

Here’s one silver lining to the COVID cloud: We’re going to see an unprecedented reduction in carbon emissions as both air and ground travel near a halt. Obviously, that’s not sustainable economically, but it does provide an opportunity to reconsider the environmental impact of air travel.

Shortly before the pandemic, Delta Air Lines had committed $1 billion to a 10-year plan to become carbon neutral. This major initiative didn’t receive much attention in travel blog circles, but maybe this year’s reduction in emissions will remind us how impactful air travel is on the environment and motivate us to keep the momentum going.

I’m currently hunkered down in Los Angeles, where skies are suddenly clear. It makes me wonder why it took a global pandemic to finally reduce our carbon footprint. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what “essential” travel means when restrictions begin to lift.

Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected]

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