How the COVID-19 Pandemic Could Change Domestic Travel

June CasagrandeJune 8, 2020

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Empty middle seats in every row. Airfares that pass those costs on to you. Deeply discounted points redemptions for hotel stays and air travel. Very crowded national parks.

These are just a few of the changes domestic travelers might see in the coming months and years, travel experts say. But of all the post-coronavirus possibilities, the one certain thing is that travelers will have a new companion: fear.

“Right now, fear is driving everything,” said Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News. He expects this will be the primary force behind the choices of travelers as well as travel providers, who want to avoid legal liability. This will continue to be true for as long as it takes to develop a vaccine, Greenberg said.

According to a recent survey by the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the University of Florida, a whopping 93% of travelers said that when they resume travel, they’ll make sure their destination has taken steps to keep them safe. Only time will tell what the full extent of those steps will be, but many airlines are already giving us a glimpse.

Delta Air Lines, for example, is providing face masks to employees, blocking middle seats and streamlining food and beverage service to reduce touch points. It's also overhauling its boarding procedures to let passengers seated at the back of the plane board first, reducing the number of people walking by others to get to their seats.

Greenberg also expects to see hotels finding ways to keep guests safe, including stepped-up cleaning procedures, resort spaces reimagined to promote social distancing and an end (for now) of the hotel breakfast buffet.

“Businesses which invest in safety measures beyond the status quo will have more successes on winning back travelers,” said Lori Pennington-Gray, director of the University of Florida initiative that conducted the study.

Naturally, those safety measures won’t come cheap. Greenberg predicted that airfares on domestic flights could go up anywhere from $80 to more than $300 as airlines pass along the cost of flying with empty middle seats.

In addition, he said, hotels and airlines are likely to capitalize on the trust they’ve already built with their regulars, offering loyalty program members deeply discounted award redemptions that will help the companies by encouraging travelers to use up their accumulated points.

Eventually, when folks start planning vacations again, these experts believe they’ll be sticking closer to home.

“They will choose destinations where they feel safe,” Pennington-Gray said. Domestic destinations like California, Florida, Texas and New York could be among the most popular choices, and national parks and beaches may be overrun with vacationers relying on cars instead of planes. Smaller state parks could be a better choice for travelers determined to keep up the social distancing.

As for when domestic travel will get back to normal, that depends entirely on when this novel coronavirus outbreak is well under control.

“Our dreams are just delayed,” Greenberg said. “They’re just on hold. They’re not dead.”

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