When can we travel again? Experts share their predictions

A jetliner making an approach to LAX is silhouetted in front of the moon.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When can we travel again?

Maybe a summer road trip. Maybe Europe in fall. Maybe 2021.

Ask an expert when Americans are going to start hitting the road and flying freely again, and you’ll get a spectrum of answers. The optimists lean toward summer. Others think it will be longer.

You also hear a lot of theories about how the recovery will happen — road trips first, flights later — and how this pandemic may change the world of travel in the long term — lost little shops, high-priority hygiene.

But nobody really knows, because the virus is in charge.

Here, as the U.S. and Europe face some of the pandemic’s darkest days so far, is what some industry leaders — and one doctor — say you can expect.


What’s in the cards for summer?

L.A.’s stay at home order has been extended until May 15, and other states have extended theirs through mid-June.

Air Canada said Tuesday it would stop flying to the U.S. on April 27, with flights to resume no earlier than May 22.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said that “it’s difficult to imagine us getting together in the thousands any time soon” and said it was unlikely the city would allow any large events in 2020.

Organizers of the annual Burning Man festival in northern Nevada have canceled the gathering, which was set for Aug. 30-Sept. 7, in favor of a virtual event.

Meanwhile in Germany, organizers of Munich’s Oktoberfest (Sept. 19-Oct. 4) have canceled the event.

Your next flight probably won’t be much like your last one. It may cost more, it may be emptier, it may include a ‘sky janitor.’ And forget snacks.

April 29, 2020

Still, a more or less normal summer of travel “can be in the cards, and I say that with some caution,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said April 9 on “CBS This Morning.”


Fauci said summer activities depended on continued success in flattening the virus’ rate of transmission — and could change rapidly in the event of a spike in infections.

A recent Harris Poll asked Americans how long after the curve flattens they would go to a hotel: “One fifth of Americans (21%) say they will stay in a hotel within a month,” with the figure rising to 41% within three months and 60% within six months.

For airlines, the tipping point for most Americans to return to flying comes after four to six months. And more than half said they’d wait a year or more before going on a cruise, according to the poll.

Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Assn., thinks travel will rebound, just not as quickly and not all at once.

One thing for sure, Dow said, “Americans generally are going to stay home until next year. … Europe is done for American travelers.”

“The most important thing as an industry is that we have to be ready for when that moment comes.”

Whenever that may be, there is the matter of gearing up, hotels reopening and flights being added back to a schedule that saw a drop of nearly 60% from Jan. 6 to April 6, according to OAG, which analyzes airline data.


The U.S. was slightly better than average; flights declined 45.2% in that time period, but Germany, Spain, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were down 90% or more.

The rebound will not occur as quickly as the collapse, but as it does, OAG analysts said, domestic will come back first. But don’t get that bag packed just yet; OAG analysts think the beginning of the recovery will occur in two to three months.

Wait until ‘21? Rick Steves doesn’t want to, but ...

Rick Steves, who publishes travel guides, makes PBS travelogues and operates Rick Steves’ Europe tours from an office in Edmonds, Wash., has canceled all tours with start dates through June 14. When we spoke, he was on the brink of canceling more, including one with special meaning for him.

To celebrate his daughter’s marriage, Steves arranged a 20-day grand tour of Europe that included about two dozen family members taking up a tour bus. They were going to start June 16 in Amsterdam.

“I’ve yet to cancel that, but I’m on the verge,” Steves said.

In fact, “I’m psychologically prepared to have no tours this year,” said Steves. “That’s the thing about this crisis: We just don’t know. … I’ll be grateful for anything we can salvage out of 2020.”

When restrictions do ease, he said, “I think the first thing that will come back is regional travel: going to the city that’s three hours away by car. What you don’t want to do is fly somewhere and find yourself in a situation where you’re going to be quarantined.”

Yosemite National Park is a classic regional travel destination for Californians. This is the Swinging Bridge area near Yosemite Falls in Yosemite Valley.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

When international travel does pick up again, “I know we’re going to find an eager and welcoming Europe,” said Steves, whose business withstood Sept. 11, 2001, and the recession of 2008. “When something stops travel and people start coming back, it’s a beautiful moment for all involved. ... But I’m not going to jump the gun.… I just don’t have the heart for that after what we’ve gone through this spring. I’m going to be patient.”

Steves fears that many small businesses, especially restaurants and little museums that operate on a shoestring, will never reopen. Those mom-and-pop enterprises, he said, are one of the most rewarding things about travel, whether you’re an American abroad or a foreigner in the U.S.

Ross Castle, Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

A driving trip to a small hotel in July?

Alan X. Reay, president of the Irvine hotel brokerage firm Atlas Hospitality, expects the recovery to start with short summer trips to small hotels.

If progress against the pandemic continues as some have forecast, Reay said, he’s guessing that leisure travelers will begin venturing out “sometime in July. The [hotel] properties that will recover the fastest are those that are located in drive-to markets. ... You’re going to have people reluctant to travel by plane.”

In Southern California, Reay said, that will mean trips to Laguna Beach, Santa Barbara, Cambria, Morro Bay, “anything up and down State Route 1 on the coast.”

The hotels that recover the fastest, Reay said, “are going to be the smaller hotels. Especially in the beach and coastal areas. The ones that are going to take the longest are the large meeting and resort hotels. ... I think people will initially avoid these larger 200-300-room hotels.”

If there’s no recurrence of the coronavirus in fall or winter, Reay said he would expect a steady increase of leisure travel through 2021, as more vacationers and business people take to the air.

Meanwhile, “I bet these companies that rent out RVs and sleeper vans will do a fantastic business this summer,” Reay said.


Two lasting changes Reay expects: Hotels will look to “more robotic kinds of cleaning,” and travelers “are going to be very, very mindful of how close they get to other people.”

If your trip is about family, you might go sooner

Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, advisor to Airbnb and founder of the Modern Elder Academy, thinks “there will be a rolling process for when travel starts again based upon the intent and profile of the traveler. “

“Some kinds of experiences — weddings, family reunions, transformational travel — may snap back faster because it’s the promise of happiness and connection with people you know or will get to know deeply.”

Cruise lines are tightening health protocols that determine who can and can’t sail.

April 30, 2020

Sometimes, “it takes a crisis for people to recognize that they want to change their path,” he said.

As the recovery advances, Conley said, many travelers will head first to extended-stay hotels with kitchenettes (because of extended visits to family or pandemic-related recovery projects). He’s expecting a gradual resurgence of close-to-home visits on the periphery of major metro areas, followed by “summer leisure travel in nature, road-warrior business travelers, small conferences/meetings, international travel, major conventions, cruise vacations,” in that order.


Before Americans hit the road, the Chinese probably will

William Heinecke, chairman of Minor Corp., which has more than 500 hotels in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and beyond, hopes to reopen some hotels in June. Like others here, he expects domestic travel to pick up before international travel does.

And he expects the Chinese to begin traveling first. “Remember,” he said, “they haven’t been traveling since before Chinese New Year.”

Heinecke, a Thai citizen, is quarantining in Phuket, which he says looks better than ever — fewer people, less trash, more wildlife.

“You’ve never seen beaches and water rejuvenate like this. There’s no junk, there’s no yachts around.” He called it a “period of reset for all of our natural beauties here.”

One old travel practice that may return, Heinecke suggested, is the health card, a record of a traveler’s past immunizations. Once upon a time, Heinecke said, “you could not travel without a shot record.” If a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and used worldwide, Heinecke said, we might see a return to that travel practice.

Is this the year of the car?

Still, travel is in our DNA, Clayton Reid, chief executive of travel industry analyst MMGY Global, wrote in a March 27 report about the future of travel after the crisis.


Reid predicted Americans would return to travel by taking shorter, closer-to-home trips. “Road trips have been on the rise for five straight years, and 2020 could well become the year of the car.” Those early travelers probably will head to outdoor destinations, such as campgrounds and mountain resort towns.

Sunset Cliffs, Point Loma, in San Diego, a common California road trip destination.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Rafting in July?

Karen Johnson, sales manager for Utah-based Holiday River Expeditions, feels the same way. Early season trips have been canceled. She looks to late June and early July for her company’s rafting trips to resume, especially on the Colorado and Green rivers in Utah, which are good rivers for late season runs.

“In particular folks within driveable distances are still looking for ways to get out on an adventure,” she said in an email. “A common theme I am hearing from people is that their other plans, be it a cruise or trip overseas, have been canceled, and they are looking domestically for something to do.”

Given the domestic outlook, airlines will try to woo travelers out of their cars with low-fare strategies, MMGY’s report said.

When will cruises return? Not anytime soon

Cruising took a big hit after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 14 issued a no-go order for cruise ships sailing from in U.S. ports after several reported COVID-19 outbreaks on board. On April 9, the CDC extended its no-sail ban, and did not cite a firm date for a return to sailing.

Cruise lines had been offering refunds and credits for future trips, but now those future dates are up in the air. The CDC announcement said it was working with cruise lines to adopt new public health protocols related to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Also, it appears cruise lines won’t be sailing until after the pandemic lifts or the CDC revises the ban, according to the order.


Also, Canadian ports, whose cities are key West Coast stops for U.S. cruises to Alaska, are closed through June 30.

Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have canceled all sailings through June 30.

Cunard has canceled all cruises on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria through July 31. Also, the Queen Elizabeth’s “entire Alaska season and all departures up to and including Sept. 8” have been canceled, a statement said.

Disney Cruise Line has temporarily halted sailing through May 17 and trips on the Disney Magic Sailings through June 7. Also sailings to and from Vancouver, Canada, are halted through the end of June, according to its website.

Royal Caribbean hopes to resume operations June 12 “for the majority of our fleet,” the company’s website says. Celebrity Cruises also plans to be back in the water in mid-June.

Calle Aldama, in the historic center of Mexico's San Miguel de Allende.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

What about luxury and Europe?

Becky Powell, president of Protravel International, which has more than 1,000 travel agents in the U.S. and Britain, acknowledges the allure of close-to-home destinations.

“I think people are going to need their luxury resort fix before they are ready to board a plane,” she said in an email. “On the West Coast, we think properties like Montage Laguna Beach, Pelican Hill Resort, Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, and the Biltmore in Santa Barbara will be some of the first properties to see a strong and early comeback.”

She also is seeing some people making reservations for luxury stays in Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Tahiti, and some Caribbean sites.

Mark Anderson of Adventure Vacations in La Jolla specializes in trips to Paris. He thinks European travel may rebound before the end of 2020.

National parks are opening the way they closed, each in its own way.

May 4, 2020

“Fall would be my best bet,” he said in an email. “Could be as early as August, as the entire continent of Europe has the month [off], and nothing will stop them from heading to the beach.”


After the Sept. 11, 2001, crisis, Anderson offered trips to Paris for a bargain price of $399, including air, hotel and breakfast. They sold well for months.

“That taught me a number of lessons, among them that in the hierarchy of human needs, along with food, shelter, etc., that people need to travel,” Anderson said.