Travel agents tell all on what taking a trip really looks like right now

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Travel has been in flux for over a year, with many people eagerly awaiting what has been called the return of travel. Of course, this long-anticipated return was never going to happen overnight. Certain countries are dropping restrictions and reopening, while others are ensuring travel is more sustainable when it picks back up. Others still are trying to contain COVID-19 by keeping their borders closed. In short: travel might have returned in earnest, but it doesn’t look anything like it did in 2019.

From navigating confusing restrictions to the rising popularity of travel insurance, many are left wondering if travel has actually “returned”? If anyone knows the answer, it’s a travel agent. They have their finger on the pulse of the travel industry, and we talked to several to learn what the return of travel actually looks like right now.

Demand is rising

If there’s one certainty about travel in 2021, it’s that people are more eager than ever to do it.

“People are ready to travel now,” says Christine Petersen, CEO of smarTours. “Travelers have been vaccinated and are ready for some revenge travel. We recently surveyed our travel panel and only 15 percent of survey respondents reported that they don’t know when they are ready to travel next, compared to 35 percent in July 2020.”

Americans were largely confined to their own country when it came to planning vacations for the past year. While domestic travel is still popular, international travel is encouragingly on the rise again.

“We are starting to see business travel domestically in the United States and some short haul international travel start to pick up,” says Sudeep Shah, CEO of Travel King International. “The fact that business travel is increasing is a great sign that air travel is headed back to a more normal state.”

John Potts, who runs the Happy Gringo travel agency in Ecuador, has noticed a rise in demand from foreign tourists looking for a South American escape.

“Here in Ecuador, we have seen a decent increase in demand from foreign tourists, especially from the USA,” he says. “These past three months in particular (April, May, June) are up over 200 percent in terms of customer contacts compared to the first quarter of 2021. I think there are more North Americans willing to travel now that they have been vaccinated.”

This dramatic increase in demand also applies to wedding and honeymoon travel — one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. Destination weddings can sometimes be a tough sell, with only a fraction of the invited guests actually attending, but that trend seems to be changing.

“The pent up demand is real,” says Jared Benoff from Vacationeeze, a family-run travel agency that handles weddings and honeymoons. “We’re not just seeing it from brides and grooms, but also their guests. Normally we expect about 30 percent of invited guests to attend a destination wedding, but right now we’re seeing an incredibly high conversion rate north of 60 percent.”

Destination preferences are changing

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Photo: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Travel demand might slowly be returning to 2019 levels, but that doesn’t mean the same destinations are in demand. Unsurprisingly, domestic destinations were more popular than international ones this past year, and as global travel resumes some are deciding to continue traveling domestically while others are broadening their destination wish lists.

“Prior to the pandemic,” Benoff says, “there was a ton of interest in Southeast Asia and Europe as honeymoon destinations, but it’s nearly 80 percent Hawaii right now given the concerns for international travel restrictions.”

Even those who do choose to travel internationally are sticking closer to home.

“People are choosing locations that are close to the US and mostly staying within a five hour flight of the United States,” Shah says. “Mexico and the Carribean are open and, due to demand, you’re seeing flights and hotels that are almost double what they were in 2019.”

Lauren Doyle, president of The Travel Mechanic, acknowledges that travel certainly hasn’t returned in full, especially places that used to be popular tourism draws like Asia and Southeast Asia where borders are still closed.

“Many of our clients who would have chosen Europe or Asia for a honeymoon or dream vacation are sticking to places that are open now such as Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean,” she says.

Potts, speaking about Ecuador tourism, notes a rise in interest for private, custom-made trips compared to package cruises.

“The trend is that travelers are looking for flexibility and more control of their trips,” he says, “Demand for outdoors activities and national parks is also far outreaching demand for city breaks.”

This trend might also indicate that travelers are wary of traveling in large groups, preferring private tours with people they know and trust.

Insurance is key

The return to travel is also accompanied by a healthy dose of trepidation. More flexible cancellation policies and robust travel insurance options might be the best thing to come out of the pandemic.

“Travelers are looking for some form of surety that they won’t have any issues,” says Shah, “or in the worst case, if there is an issue we are able to help them salvage their vacation. Most of our clients are purchasing some form of travel insurance.”

Cancellation policies are also being extended types of travel they haven’t always applied to.

“A lot more people are asking questions about the travel policies and advocating for themselves,” says Jared Benoff from Vacationeeze, a family-run travel agency. “We’re seeing people add things like cancellation policies on our wedding sites, which we’d never done prior to the pandemic. In the past, only a small percentage of our guests would opt for travel insurance but now it’s a much more normal line item for people to tack on to their trip.”

Sarah Reiss, a travel agent with Engineered Adventure, makes no secret about her feelings for travel insurance.

“I refuse to sell a package without travel insurance,” she says. “None of my customers ever complain about this either. There are too many variables post-COVID that weren’t a concern before like canceled flights or last minute restrictions in their destinations.”

Travel insurance used to fall more into the optional category for many people. Now travel insurance has become part of the essential travel toolbox. We live in a time when peace of mind is priceless, yet you can get close with a $40 travel insurance policy.

Perhaps equally rattling the nerves of travelers these days are questions surrounding travel restrictions. Confusion about which destinations are actually open, and what is required to go there, could easily prove daunting enough to discourage travelers from planning a trip at all.

“Travelers are looking for help navigating which countries have reopened,” Petersen says. “Understandably, many are very confused as almost every country is different. They also want to make sure that the venues and activities they want to do are actually open and available.”

Spontaneity is king

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Given travelers’ growing preference for flexibility, it’s not surprising that last-minute trips are in vogue. Since travel restrictions can change on a dime, travelers are increasingly booking last-minute to avoid the hassle of trip cancellations and rebooking.

“Younger, more intrepid travelers are booking last minute trips to Sicily,” says Allison Scola, owner of the Experience Sicily travel agency. “They feel more confident in traveling on a plane and dealing with it [even if] things aren’t exactly smooth. Those over 55 are reserving their tours closer to departure for fall 2021 than they normally would have. This started to happen once it was clear that Italy was accepting vaccinated Americans without having to quarantine.”

Shah has also seen that clients are more eager to book within a month of travel unless there’s an extremely flexible cancellation policy.

“Most of our clients are booking within 30 days of travel,” she says. “It’s almost too hard to predict what travel restrictions will be in place further out than that. The clients that are booking further out than that are usually trying to take advantage of a great deal or have a fully refundable option so they are able to come out losing very little if all doesn’t go as planned.”

Despite the trend toward last-minute bookings, spontaneous trips might just be temporary thirst quenchers while people plan longer-haul trips down the road.

Cindy McCabe, Owner of Bethany Travel, says that clients are booking shorter last minute trips for now just to have somewhere to go.

“At the same time,” she says, “many are also booking a second trip for 2022 that is longer, or to a destination where they will feel more comfortable traveling to in the future including places such as Alaska, Hawaii, and both river and ocean cruises.”