Tim Plyant doesn’t know what it will be like to travel this summer — and that’s making him nervous.
He’s trying to squeeze in a road trip between now and Labor Day, but he’s not sure where to go. His next scheduled vacation is a domestic trip to Maine this fall. It’s somewhere safe and far away from the crowds.
So much is still up in the air when it comes to summer travel. Will there be a second coronavirus wave? Will the political conventions and presidential election cause more civil unrest? And what if the economy takes a turn for the worse?
Plyant, an architect from Austin, Texas, is among millions of American travelers who are worried about, well, everything. But he’s staying flexible.
“Our summer travel plans have been in limbo for quite some time while we waited to see what was going to happen with reopenings,” he says.
Americans are traveling this summer
More than half of consumers (53%) plan to get away on a summer vacation, according to a new survey by The Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA), a trade association representing billboard advertisers. Road trips will be back in a big way this summer, with 62% of consumers planning to travel by car for summer vacation — up 72% from last summer.
“Consumers around the country are eager to get out of their homes and travel this summer,” says OAAA president Anna Bager.
To get an idea of how drive-happy Americans are this summer, consider this number from a recent Turo survey: 46% of respondents said they would be willing to drive more than five hours instead of flying to a destination.
Yet some travelers are scared. Another survey by RetailMeNot suggests that fear and anxiety will continue to keep many Americans at home this summer. Over a quarter (26%) say they are afraid to travel for any reason in the near future, whether for work or leisure.
So what will it be like to travel this summer?
“It is relatively difficult to predict summer travel now, particularly after the massive national protests,” says Zongqing Zhou, a professor at the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management of Niagara University.
He says the protests have changed the dynamic of the summer travel season. They could trigger a second coronavirus wave, which may crush a fragile economic recovery. And we won’t know about the effects of the protests and the possible coronavirus resurgence until the end of June at the earliest, by which time most summer vacations will have been planned.
What are American travelers afraid of this summer?
- Coronavirus. Specifically, a second wave of the virus later this summer. Those fears pummeled the stock market last week, as several states showed an unexpected increase in infections.
- Civil unrest. While the protests have eased up and been mostly peaceful, it wouldn’t take much to ignite them again.
- Collapsing economies. With unemployment at 13% and the recovery in a fragile state, the future is anyone’s guess. Other countries are in worse trouble.
And yet, experts say staying at home isn’t necessarily the best option.
“Many people rely on travel and vacation to decompress and take care of their mental health,” says Lisa Lee, a public health expert specializing in infectious disease epidemiology and public health ethics at Virginia Tech. “That’s extremely important — especially now.”
Will there be a second COVID-19 wave?
Coronavirus remains front-and-center for most American travelers. People like Mary Vogel, who would ordinarily be vacationing this summer, are staying closer to home to avoid an infection. She’d like to know what it will be like to travel this summer. But for her, even a road trip is a risk.
“We are concerned about bathroom stops, food and hotels on a long driving trip,” she says. “Sure, we can take our own cleaning products and scrub everything down and pack a big cooler for meals — but to us, that’s not a vacation.”
Instead, she’s betting COVID-19 will be gone by 2021, when she and her husband are planning a cruise.
No one knows if coronavirus will spread further this summer or fade away. But Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, says you can take precautions. By avoiding what Richards calls the “three Cs” — confined spaces, crowds, and close contact. “You can dramatically reduce the likelihood of contracting the virus,” he says.
“Physical distancing while camping is still recommended, especially if you – or anyone you come in contact with – have potentially been exposed in the preceding 14 days,” adds Richards.
What should you do about civil unrest?
The recent nationwide protests have injected even more uncertainty, making it harder to predict what it will be like to travel this summer.
“The death of George Floyd while in police custody has led to protests, riots and in some cases looting and destruction of property in the U.S. and abroad,” says Christine Buggy, vice president of marketing at Travelex Insurance Services. “When selecting a destination for a summer trip, travelers should consider if their prospective destination is currently being impacted. It ultimately lies with the traveler to decide if they feel safe traveling to a destination where civil disorder is occurring.”
How do you avoid hotspots? Follow local news carefully. You can also find reliable information about domestic civil unrest on foreign government websites, such as Canada’s Official Global Travel Advisories. Also, consult an app like TripIt, which rates areas based on COVID-19 infections and travel safety conditions. TripIt also offers ratings in other categories, including theft, women’s safety, LGBTQ safety, and physical harm.
But say you’re driving through town and find yourself in a riot? Jason Hanson, a former CIA officer who now edits the Spy & Survival Briefing, says that’s a difficult scenario. If you stop, the protesters could smash your windshield and pull you out of the vehicle. But you don’t want to plow into the crowd, either. Hanson recommends slowing down to less than 5 mph and not colliding with any pedestrians.
“Keep moving, no matter what,” he says. “People will get out of your way.”
How about the economy?
Unless there’s a “V” shaped recovery, the travel industry will continue to struggle with low occupancy rates and load factors. Travelers may have less money to spend. Experts say that when it comes to what it will be like to travel this summer, one thing is certain: There will be deals.
“We expect a variety of travel promotions and unique offerings from hotels, cruise lines and more to help stimulate both the economy and a continued love for travel,” says April Miller, a travel consultant from Newport News, Va. “There may not be a better time to get out there and see the world in an economic sense. The savings and promotions could be incredible.”
But don’t ignore the risks. Bruce McIndoe, the founder of WorldAware, says one challenge will be the financial stability of companies and the likely number of failures across the travel industry in the months ahead.
“This includes airlines, hotels, auto rental companies, and just about any other supplier to the industry,” says. “As such, travelers should take extra precautions when preparing and booking trips.”
McIndoe recommends buying travel insurance, and using a credit, which can offer some protection against default, and buying travel insurance.
Expert advice on summer travel
Between the civil unrest, COVID-19 and collapsing economies, no one really knows what it will be like to travel this summer. So what’s the best way to minimize your risk of exposure to a riot or infection? Apart from the expert advice on staying safe, the most important precaution you can take may be travel insurance.
And not just any policy, since a lot of travel insurance excludes pandemics and may have exclusions for civil unrest. Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners, says a “cancel for any reason” policy would protect your entire vacation.
“You would be buying a plan with much wider coverage for trip cancellation, including situations like financial hardship, personal reasons such as divorce or family issues, change of mind, work issues, canceled wedding or event, or even feeling unsafe due to political unrest or the state of the economy,” he says.
I covered “cancel for any reason” policies in a recent FORBES story.
Get out of town (but not too far out of town)
Becky Powell, president of Protravel International, says it’s a safe bet to get out of town — but not too far out of town. Her clients are opting for driving vacations to some out-of-the-way places.
“Right now, we are seeing a great deal of interest in outdoor-oriented activities, national parks, private homes and villas and domestic destinations and resorts,” she says. Among them is the remote luxury resort at Amangiri in Utah or the country manor experience of Blantyre Castle in Massachusetts.
Also, take a little time to read the fine print on the terms of your purchase. That’s what Melissa Downham, a Virtuoso-affiliated travel advisor for Departure Lounge, is telling her clients this summer.
“I’m encouraging clients to be very careful and cognizant about their cancellation policies and terms and conditions,” she says. “In particular, I am asking my clients to familiarize themselves with force majeure and what it could mean for their vacation. Many people book trips without even glancing at what the cancellation policies are.”
That’s sound advice. This summer may be the most unpredictable for travel in a generation, but attention to the fine print, insurance and a little common sense will get you through it.
Oh, and don’t forget to have fun.