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Leisure — not business — travel will help the battered industry recover

Illustration
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Finally, some good news for leisure travelers: You’re the ones the industry wants.

Yes, you. The ones who thrill to see the world, love hopping on a plane to visit the kids or grandkids, find a great airfare and follow that bliss wherever it leads you.

After years of being treated like the little-noticed second cousin from Poughkeepsie, you’re having your moment in the spotlight. If the travel industry is going to recover, you’re the ones who will lead the way.

That’s not just wishful thinking on my part nor is it my admitted bias for leisure travel, which I have written about for two decades. It’s other people and entities, including travel associations and airlines, that are making — dare I use the word “unprecedented” — overtures toward us acknowledging that we, not business travelers, are the engine that will drive this recovery.

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In other words, they like us! They really like us! Here are the indicators and the good news they portend for leisure travelers.

Why the spotlight?

The U.S. Travel Assn., which advocates for the travel industry, has launched an initiative designed to coax leisure travelers to start thinking about traveling again.

We know all the reasons we like to travel, despite the annoyances, but here’s a reason our country likes us to travel: Since March, when the coronavirus was declared a national emergency, the U.S. travel economy has been hit with $367 billion in losses, the association said.

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Much of that reflects the collapse of business travel, a spending loss the Wall Street Journal reported would top $2 trillion worldwide in 2020. Although the number of business travelers by percentage lags leisure travelers, those business folks generally spend significantly more on their travel because, unlike us, they are not as price sensitive.

They are the golden children. At least, they used to be. But business travel isn’t likely to come back full throttle any time soon, Zoom and other tools being what they are.

Now we’re getting the baton and the industry is cheering us on.

What’s in it for us?

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The day after Labor Day — the unofficial end of the summer travel season — the U.S. Travel Assn. launched a campaign called “Let’s Go There,” aimed at the domestic leisure traveler.

But its message is more demure than “Get on an airplane! Jump in the car! Take a train! Whatever you do, just get out there.” Instead, said Greg Staley, a spokesman for the travel association, “The campaign is not saying ‘Go now.’ What the campaign is saying is just begin thinking about where your next travels may take you.”

The far-reaching effort, which includes Disney, American and Delta airlines, and Marriott hotels among the 75 or so organizations behind it, recognizes that the time now isn’t right for everyone, Staley said. But he emphasized the mental health benefits of planning and dreaming, which don’t cost a dime.

And who couldn’t stand to be a little mentally healthier after this kick in the athleisure pants we’ve all taken to wearing at home?

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Beyond that, however, the leisure traveler will benefit from airlines’ new relaxed attitudes toward change fees on domestic flights. Those hit business travelers too, of course, but they don’t feel the pain in the pocket the way the self-funded leisure traveler does.

That loosening of penalties on United, American, Delta and Alaska, among others (Southwest has never charged a change fee), makes booking a bit less worrisome, especially in times of re-inflating curves that had flattened.

United and American also are offering day-of standby flights, although you’ll incur a $75 fee if you lack elite airline status. (Read the rules carefully.) And if you’re a super-low-fare customer, a.k.a. basic economy, you may be able to get a break on change fees but, again, determine the details when you book.

We all love a cheap airfare, and if that’s the case, you may drool at some that have landed in my inbox. I subscribe to the free service at Scott’s Cheap Flights and the new Moonfish; others I found by using an airfare search engine as I dreamed of being … not here, including a $170 round-trip fare to Washington, D.C.

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Another benefit for the leisure traveler , said Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research, which focuses on the travel industry, is the number of routes being introduced that aren’t necessarily business destinations. That makes sense, he said, because “leisure travel accounts for 90% of the people flying right now. Normally they would account for 55% or so.”

Some fares I just spotted (but that might no longer be available) for Oct. 21-28 from LAX: $143 nonstop to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on JetBlue; $232 to Grand Junction Colo., on United and American; $258 to Kalamazoo, Mich., on United and Delta; and this eye-popper on Alaska: $137 round trip to Spokane, Wash.

As for hotels, stay five nights or more at the Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and get a king room that averages $147 a night; or take advantage of rates of $127 a night at the Hotel Indigo in Del Mar or $251 a night at La Quinta Resort & Club for a midweek October stay. None of these rates includes taxes or fees and might no longer be available.

And then there’s group travel

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As you look ahead but find travel restrictions too complex and details too overwhelming, the group trip may be for you.

Unlike business travel, you can’t replace leisure travel with Zoom, said Terry Dale, president and chief executive of U.S. Tour Operators Assn., a consortium of 140 companies. “You at some point have to touch it, feel it, breathe it,” he said of any leisure destination.

Group travel may conjure images of giant buses disgorging fanny-packed, Bermuda-shorts-clad travelers, but the move toward smaller groups was a trend even before COVID-19 made it a safer way to go, given social distancing.

“Every year we do a trend survey,” Dale said. “For the last two years, the smaller group movement has been in the top three trends from our members, so that was [a trend] even pre-pandemic.”

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But won’t smaller groups make trips more expensive? “We don’t necessarily assume because [the group] is smaller you’re going to see a higher price point,” Dale said. The desire to get back to work may mean your tour company is holding down costs to help restart the industry.

Group travel also addresses what has become a critical issue for some: loneliness. It’s a chance to meet people, said Phyllis Stoller, who owns and operates the small-group Women’s Travel Group. Its demographic, she said, is usually women “from 40 to anything, married and single” traveling solo.

“Once you’ve traveled in a group of 10 or 12, you don’t want to go back to 40,” she said.

Further, the leisure traveler is a value proposition for airlines and hotels: “We’re the ones who are going to check a bag,” she said, because “we’re going to stay a week.” And, she said, women are more apt to order room service and rent a movie at night.

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What’s not to love? One thing, perhaps, and something leisure travelers can learn from their business traveler counterparts, said Stoller, who spent part of her career in banking. If you have a problem with the hotel or the travel provider, approach it as a business traveler would. Ask to speak with the person in charge, don’t lose your cool and ask for the person’s card. Explain the situation and try to work out a solution. Things do go wrong, but usually they are not the end of the world, especially these days.

The pandemic’s one gift may be perspective. If we do get to travel, perhaps starting by putting our toe in, we once again will remember that feeling of seeing the world anew with the knowledge that we, as leisure travelers, are a big part of the return to normal.

For now, let’s enjoy our moment — however long it lasts.

Have a travel question, problem or dilemma? Write to catharine@catharinehamm.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.


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