CHICAGO — Last year, Leyla Royale visited Mexico City and London and went paragliding in the Austrian Alps. This year she’s occasionally left her Andersonville neighborhood to drive around downtown Chicago for a change of scenery.
Travel-starved consumers like Royale want to get back to their jet-setting ways in 2021, and the COVID-19 vaccine has some feeling more optimistic. Airlines and tour operators are trying to reassure customers with more flexibility and outdoor, crowd-free destinations, but many travelers are still hesitant to make plans.
“I’m hoping by fall of 2021 it’s going to be reasonably safe to get on a plane and go to Europe or Asia, but I’m just trying to take it as it comes. 2020 has had all these surprises, so you just don’t know,” said Royale, 31, a data engineer.
Online searches for flights, which had been about 25% below last year’s levels, began growing quickly in November amid positive news about the COVID-19 vaccine, according to travel data firm and booking app Hopper.
But there’s a difference between browsing and booking.
Even Rick Steves — guidebook author, tour group operator and host of public television travel series "Rick Steves’ Europe" — is playing it safe. Rather than launch modified tours in areas that open to U.S. tourists early, he does not expect to take bookings until all of Europe is accessible.
“I don’t want to be the first one out of the gate,” he said. “It’s just irresponsible to think you can travel before we’ve really got a grip on this thing. My travelers have already gone through the emotional wringer of having to cancel their trips one time.”
In 2019, 30,000 people went on his tours. About 20,000 have joined wait lists for 2021 trips, though there is no cost to join and some may have registered for multiple trips.
He hopes to do a few “test-the-waters” tours in August 2021 and build on that as the fall progresses.
“The big question for me is how many of our favorite little entrepreneurial mom and pops that make travel rewarding are going to be standing at the end of this,” he said.
While people are searching for flights to far-flung destinations, they’re mostly just browsing. International flights accounted for about 40% of searches for 2021 travel between October and early December, but only 20% of flights booked, according to Hopper.
Travelers also are booking trips close to the departure date, Hopper said. About 91% of tickets purchased in November for 2021 travel were for flights during the first three months of the year, up from 78% last year.
At United Airlines, December and January bookings are down about 70% from a year ago, but bookings for the third quarter of 2021 are down just 40%, the airline said in a regulatory filing earlier this month.
Sam Castellano, 24, of Westchester, is among those browsing but not booking. He’s usually on the road most of the summer as a singer in boy band cover group Boy Band Review. He misses travel but isn’t ready to make any commitments.
“I would feel 100% more comfortable having been vaccinated and having that be the first step,” he said.
Travel companies said they expect leisure travel to bounce back before business, particularly in outdoor, social-distancing-friendly destinations.
With more people than usual booking trips in North America, adventure travel company Backroads created getaways with higher-end lodging or adventures such as heli-skiing. The new trips can be two or three times the cost of Backroads’ typical domestic trips.
The company expects about 25,000 to 30,000 people to sign up next year, or a little more than half the number it expected in 2020 prior to the pandemic.
“There’s no question there’s a lot of pent-up demand that will be unleashed, once it’s unleashable,” said Tom Hale, Backroads president.
At Downers Grove-based luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, Stefanie Schmudde, vice president of development, predicts early 2021 international travelers will likely head to outdoor destinations such as safaris or Egypt, “a great open-air museum.” She has also seen groups of friends charter private barge tours in Europe starting in early summer.
The company is announcing plans for 2022 travel earlier than usual for people who want to plan a trip but prefer to wait a little longer.
Travel companies also are trying to reassure travelers with more flexibility around cancellations.
United, American and Delta permanently eliminated change fees for travelers departing from the U.S., matching Southwest Airlines’ policy, except for basic economy travelers. American won’t charge change fees on basic economy tickets purchased before Dec. 31, while Delta and United give basic economy passengers until March 31 to change with no fees.
The ability to cancel without a fee is what made Jonathon Schuster, 40, of Highland Park, comfortable booking flights for four triathlons and a family vacation in Amsterdam next year.
“At some point, life will return to some kind of new normal, and we’re going to be able to travel again. When that happens, we have things we want to do,” he said. “We’re OK if those things get canceled, because health and safety is more important, but let’s make the plans.”
Abercrombie & Kent lets people who book trips by Feb. 28 cancel up to 15 days before departure for COVID-19-reasons, as long as the trip departs by the end of November, and get a credit for a future trip. The policy applies if the U.S. State Department issues a Level 4 travel warning due to COVID-19 for the destination or restrictions such as border closures or lengthy quarantine requirements prevent travel, but wouldn’t help someone who was simply no longer comfortable traveling.
At Backroads, travelers can get a full refund on 2021 trips if they cancel before April 1, unless their final payment is due earlier. Customers can transfer a deposit to a different trip, and get more time before having to pay in full.
Airbnb and VRBO let property owners set cancellation policies. Airbnb will grant refunds, but only if the host or traveler gets COVID-19.
Even with some added flexibility, sales of travel insurance policies that let people cancel a trip for any reason have grown 524% since before the pandemic, according to travel insurance website Squaremouth.
The upgraded “cancel for any reason” policy is more expensive and only reimburses travelers for 75% of lost funds, but will help travelers who cancel due to border closures or who simply get cold feet, said Squaremouth Chief Marketing Officer Megan Moncrief. Standard cancellation policies typically only cover losses if the buyer gets COVID-19 or is quarantined.
Amid the uncertainty, vacation rental companies in southwest Michigan said they expect plenty of visitors next year.
At Bluefish Vacation Rentals in Union Pier, Michigan, business was up 25% this year as Chicagoans sought driving-distance getaways where social distancing was easy, said Jason Milovich, who owns Bluefish with his wife, Erika. Homes with pools or beach access were the first to fill.
About 90% of Milovich’s regular customers have committed to visiting in 2021, he said.
At Waya Rentals, in New Buffalo, Michigan, some larger properties are booking earlier than usual. Not everyone will rush to get a vaccine and hop on a plane, said owner Ron Morales.
“You have half the world that’s going to get the vaccine, and the other half is waiting to see if the ones that get the vaccine grow tails,” he said.