The Future of Travel in 2021

  • 7 min read

A woman with an Arlo Skye Zipper Carry-On in Black walking through a corridor of a hotel in Mexico City.

In the last 10 months, our lives, and our travel plans, felt like they were frozen in time. But as with the passing of every storm, eventually the sunlight starts to stream in. And, this year, that sunlight has a buzzy name: the vaxication, aka your first well-deserved vacation after you get your vaccine. We know we will have to wait at least 4 to 6 months before we can get vaccinated and go on a vaxication, but given what we’re already seeing in the travel sphere, we recommend that you start planning your holiday soon. Meaning, pretty much, now. According to an October 2020 survey from Vrbo, the home-rental company, 82 percent of United States families have travel plans for 2021. 65 percent plan on traveling more than they did before Covid, and 61 percent will likely choose outdoorsy destinations over urban ones. To get you on the right travel track, we’ve gathered some intel on what to expect about traveling in 2021: from vaccination passports and travel insurance to road trips, cruise adventures, and wish-list trips, here are some travel predictions and tips you won’t want to miss...

The New Normal: Vaccination Passports and Contact Tracing

With so many travelers expected to fly, there’s quite a bit of chatter about the potential necessity for a “vaccination passport” when traveling. While it remains unclear where and when proof of vaccination will be necessary, Australia’s Quantas airlines has already confirmed that once a vaccine is widely available, passengers would need to prove that they have taken it before they are allowed to get on the aircraft. In a recent interview with Newsweek, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that, “While the federal government may not make it mandatory for citizens to have a vaccination passport, there are going to be individual institutions that I'm sure are going to mandate it.” Several companies have already begun developing apps like The Common Trust Network, VeriFLY, and ICC AOKPass, along with smart cards, for travelers to upload proof of vaccination—aka, a vaccination passport. Israel plans to launch a pilot of its "green passport" program on January 5th to residents who have received a coronavirus vaccine, or to those who have recovered from the illness with antibodies. The passport will lift some restrictions, including mandatory quarantine following exposure to an infected person or traveling abroad. It may even be used for visiting malls or attending cultural and sporting events.

Until the vaccine is widely distributed, rigorous testing will remain a key part of the travel experience—before and after traveling. If you are choosing to travel prior to getting vaccinated, we recommend getting a PCR test 2 to 3 days before your departure and keeping a printed copy of the test results, since some airlines and countries will not accept confirmation of a negative result displayed on your phone. Expect to soon find PCR testing offered as an amenity within your hotel, airports, and cruise ships.

The future of contact tracing is a bit more blurry in terms of issues of privacy, but if you’re traveling internationally, expect to be traced. "Eventually, surveillance technology could assign each passenger a digital identity, with access to anything from geolocation to virus test results or immunity certificates," predicts Annalisa Nash Fernandez, an intercultural strategist at BecauseCulture, in USA Today. Current contact tracing uses smartphone apps as sensors to detect proximity and exposure to infected people.

Get Travel Insurance. Seriously.

If you're venturing abroad in 2021, travel insurance will increasingly become part of the mandatory requirements for entry. For example, Thailand is currently only accepting visa applications from residents of low-risk countries, and is also now requiring that visitors have $100,000 in medical coverage. Think of it this way: if you’re abroad and something unexpected happens, your insurance is going to feel like a true lifesaver, allowing you access to the most trusted care and services available in that country. So even if it isn’t required by the country you’re visiting—yet—consider it an important new part of your overall international travel protocol.

No-Fee Travel Won't Last Forever

From airlines to cruises to R.V. rentals and hotels, flexibility was the name of the game in 2020, ensuring travelers had little to lose if they canceled last minute. This trend will continue into the first half of 2021, as these industries start to recoup losses and get back on track. When travel rebounds by mid-year, however, expect airlines and hotels to become less generous with their exchange and refund policies. Airlines run on razor thin profit margins and if history has taught us anything, they will eventually return to the same pre-pandemic policies of exorbitant fees and overbooked flights. Remember how quickly most airlines dropped their “blocked middle seat” policy once travel demand started to come back in the fall (despite the pandemic still raging in the US)? We applaud Delta for being the only US airline that is blocking middle seats at least until March 31, 2021.

Experts note that the current trend of cheap flights will also begin to slowly creep back up to pre-2020 prices in the summer. As the Tokyo Summer Olympics was postponed to 2021, expect flights to Asia to be packed, and priced competitively. For points travelers, consider redeeming your points sooner than later. Using them earlier may help you get more for your spend. As travel demand increases in the back end of 2021, airlines and hotels will likely start to devalue their points.

On The Road

For multi-generational families, new parents, and folks with furry companions, road trips salvaged many a stir crazy household in 2020—and they are poised to be huge again in 2021. In an October 2020 survey from Airbnb, 61 percent of respondents said they’re interested in trips within a 200-mile driving distance of home, with the top 2021 destinations on Airbnb including Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and Palm Springs, California. Car and RV rentals have been hard to come by, as they offer both comfort and control for families, so whether you have plans to trek upstate or interstate, book ahead (meaning now) for spring and summer.

Cruise Comebacks

Cruises, one of the travel industries hit hardest in 2020, are also expected to bounce back in the second half of 2021. Most major cruise lines had planned to restart operations in early 2021, but the resurgence of the coronavirus, including an outbreak on a recent “test excursion” to the Greek Islands aboard the Costa Diadema, forced many of them to push back their start dates. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have paused all sailings through the end of February. In the US, cruise operators are required to carry out “simulation cruises” to test the new CDC health and safety protocol framework before applying for a permit from the agency that will allow them to restart excursions with passengers. To encourage new bookings, cruise lines, including MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean, are offering changes up to 48 hours before departure and rebooking through at least April 2022—terms that were unheard-of before the pandemic. But since almost all 2020 cruise trips have rolled over into 2021, it’s smart to book your voyage early—and pick newer ships, which have better air filtration. To that point, one of the most hotly anticipated cruises — the new adults-only Scarlett Lady by Virgin Voyages— announced a new partnership with AtmosAir Solutions to retrofit the ship with an air purification system that also disinfects air on board by leveraging bipolar ionization technology. It’s a smart move, so expect similar announcements from the other cruise lines.

Wish-List Trips

With the past ten months giving many time to reflect, it’s no surprise that Expedia’s top searched destinations survey for 2021 shows that travelers have aspirations for far-flung vaxications to grand locales. Holiday-deprived Americans dreaming of their next trip tend to fall into two categories, according to the online travel bookings site: “island escapists” and “urban returners.” For the island escapists, Mexico features prominently on the list with Cancun, Mayan Riviera, Playa del Carmen, Punta Cana, and Los Cabos all in the top ten. Other top-searched island destinations include Hawaii (Oahu and Maui), French Polynesia, the Caribbean (Montego Bay, Aruba, Nassau, and Puerto Vallarta), Maldives, and Bali. 

Urban returners are longing for the experiences, activities, and culture that can only be found in iconic US cities, while also thinking about how they can contribute to the rebuilding of those destinations hit hard by the virus. With most interest starting in June through late 2021, in the United States, Las Vegas, Orlando (Walt Disney World celebrates it’s 50 birthday this year), Miami, and New York were among the most searched urban destinations for regenerative travel, according to Expedia.

Beyond these two travel trends, there are other popular dream destinations popping up on our radar. A December 2020 survey from Skyscanner showed that Greece firmly placed itself on top of almost everyone's travel wishlists.  And after almost a year of empty stadiums, Skyscanner data also showed that sports enthusiasts craving the thrill of the game (and belting out team anthems) are planning visits to Japan for the Summer Olympics & Paralympics (July 23 - Aug 8 / Aug 24 - Sept 5), Europe for the postponed Euro 2020 soccer championships (June 11 - July 11), and Colombia and Argentina for Copa America soccer championships (June 11 to July 10).

The survey also indicated that travelers are seeking more experiential, purpose-led tour packages to unexpected locales not in the traditional destination rotation. The "always-on" mentality of constant video calls is giving way to going off-grid in 2021, with the top-searched destinations including the Atacama Desert in Chile. Exploration is definitely in the air for 2021 and beyond, and to that end, by 2024, these new frontier experiences just might be interplanetary—courtesy of SpaceX, Space Adventures, and Virgin Galactic. If there is one silver lining of this pandemic, it’s that we won’t be taking any of our well-deserved vaxications for granted.

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