How 2020 became the lost year for travel

Why 2020 is a lost year for travel.

No two ways about it: 2020 is a lost year for travel.

Regan Johnson and her husband, Scott, forfeited a spring vacation to Hawaii. Then they skipped a weekend trip to Ashland, Ore., to see the Shakespeare Festival. Finally, they reluctantly canceled a tour of Europe scheduled for next month.

“Staying home is not much fun,” says Johnson, a retired receptionist who lives in Davis, Calif.

For Louisa Gehring, a travel advisor in Cincinnati, the loss has been even more dramatic.

“This summer, we’re booking 90% less than we were in the same period the year before,” she says. Her clients are in a holding pattern, unsure of what to do next.

“I believe they’re waiting to see what the school year brings before they make plans for vacations,” she adds.

It’s hard to imagine an industry more battered by COVID than travel. No matter how you look at it, travel has taken a nosedive in 2020. The few people who dared to travel did so cautiously, if not fearfully. But bargains abound for those willing to take a chance on travel. That leads to the inevitable question: When is it time to leave the safety of your home?

“It’s nearly impossible to quantify just how significantly the pandemic has impacted the tourism sector,” says Daniel Guttentag, the director of the office of tourism analysis at the College of Charleston. “But there is little question that the impact has been devastating in many ways for the travel industry. Revenue and job losses have been incredible, and countless businesses have already closed or eventually will be forced to close before the pandemic is behind us.”

How did 2020 become a lost year for travel?

Here’s what’s happened in 2020 so far:

Air travel’s recovery is sputtering. The latest numbers from the Official Airline Guide show air travel in the United States is down 45% from January. Most troubling, it’s trending in the wrong direction. Globally, airlines clipped an additional 2.2 million seats off their planned weekly capacity, with more cuts to come.

Hotels are only half-full. That’s according to the latest figures from Smith Travel Research. Average occupancy levels from Aug. 9 to 15 are 50%, down a stunning 30 percentage points from a year ago. And average daily room rates, at $101, are down 23%.

Cruising is pretty much dead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently extended its No Sail Order for cruise ships through Sept. 30. Some cruise lines, such as Viking, have already suspended operations until the end of the year.

Travel sentiment is circling the drain. Boston Consulting Group’s latest report on consumer sentiment in travel and tourism concluded that 60% of U.S. consumers worry about being infected from flying. And 70% of respondents expect travel spending will not return to normal for more than a year.

The big picture looks even more depressing. Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management publishes a tourism index that tracks the major industries and consumer sentiment. The global tourism index scores a lackluster 29.32 out of 100, while America’s index is at a slightly better 31.03. Yang Yang, an associate professor and assistant director of Temple’s U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism & Hospitality Research, calls the effects of COVID-19 on the tourism industry “devastating.”

“It’s the apocalypse,” says Felix Brambilla, CEO of Overseas Leisure Group, a luxury travel operator. “It felt like someone pulled the handbrake and slammed the business in reverse. We went from 100 to zero in a matter of days.”

Although some businesses have partially clawed their way back, there are no two ways about it: 2020 is already a lost year.

How we traveled in 2020

People still traveled this year, but they didn’t really travel in the traditional sense. No planes. No resort hotels. And no elaborate itineraries.

“Instead of flying, we drove halfway to Philadelphia from Michigan,” says Susan Stevens, a retired publicist from Lakeside, Mich. “I met my son-in-law, who handed over our grandson.  Each of us turned around and drove back home, which was about 10 hours of driving. After two weeks, we repeated the itinerary and reluctantly handed him back to his dad.”

Stevens says she had a lot of fun playing with her 10-year-old grandson — playing ball, riding bikes and baking.

“That was the highlight of the summer,” she says. “Except for pulling crabgrass.”

I know what a lost year for travel feels like. The highlight of my summer was staying home and watching the hillsides in North Reno burn. I count at least six separate wildfires, one of which came within just a mile of my home. As the pandemic raged, we made quick trips into town to buy groceries and then returned to the safety of our house. We made just three day trips in three months: one to nearby Virginia City and the other two to Lake Tahoe.

Travel was the last thing on my mind. And I’m a travel writer.

Why their loss is your gain

Usually, I would wait until the end of November to declare 2020 the year of anything. But who will disagree that 2020 is a lost year for travel?

Borders remain closed. Lockdowns and restrictions are still in place. Many hotels and restaurants have closed permanently, and a few airlines have stopped flying.

Bigger cuts loom. As the airline industry’s government bailout money runs out, air carriers are preparing to make massive cuts. Earlier this week, American Airlines announced an unprecedented 40,000 layoffs this fall.

Taking advantage of the travel industry at a time like this might seem opportunistic. Yet that’s exactly what some smart consumers are doing. And it makes sense. Not only do the airlines, car rental companies and hotels need your business, but they’re willing to make you a deal.

Scroll back to the top of the story for an idea of how much you could save. Average daily room rates are down 23% to $101. That means you don’t even have to look for a deal; you’ll save an average of 23% on a hotel. Also, with occupancy rates so low, you’ll practically have the place to yourself.

Sara Shamblin, a veterinarian from Nashville, Tenn., traded her two-week trip to China this summer for a few shorter trips.

“I flew from Nashville to Providence in June and went on a 42-foot sailboat with a sailing school there,” she says. “We sailed from Providence to Martha’s Vineyard and back — five days with a total of three people on board.”

She and her husband are also driving to Washington, D.C., and southern Virginia, for another sailing vacation later this summer.

“We are not foolhardy”

Interestingly, some forward-looking travelers are already looking to travel this fall. A survey conducted by Small Luxury Hotels of the World found that 29% of North American travelers are planning a trip before October and an additional 24% are looking at getting away in the fourth quarter.

Johnson, the retired receptionist from Davis, says she’s keen to travel soon. But there are certain things she won’t do.

“It will not be on a giant cruise ship,” she says. “We hope to rebook our trip to France, but when that will be is anybody’s guess. I’m not hopeful for any travel away from home until there are protections in place and a vaccine. We love adventure travel — but we’re not foolhardy.”

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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