In spring 2020, to help flatten the COVID-19 curve, the United States went into a “lockdown” and business and leisure travel almost completely evaporated overnight. The toll on airlines, hotels, restaurants, trains, car rental, and car service companies was profound. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as improvements in therapies, have made it possible for these enterprises to begin recovering. Yet they are all still a far cry in terms of volume, activity, revenue, profit, etc., from where they were in December 2019. Many companies and institutions have frozen non-essential business travel until the later part of 2021.
For U.S.-based companies, the bifurcation between domestic and international travel has become more profound than ever.
Within the U.S., there were very few examples of mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing if you wanted to travel between locations. Hawaii was the only state that instituted a negative COVID-19 PCR nasal swab test requirement before you could get on a plane to go there. Between February and March 2021, Chicago required a negative PCR test to be able to board a plane going to the Windy City, with the test waived if you were only connecting. Otherwise, domestic travel within other U.S. states was generally open without restrictions. Only a few states (e.g., Illinois, New York, New Jersey, California) instituted an honor system if people were traveling to those states from certain areas of the country that had high COVID-19 infection rates. When arriving by air, passengers were given index cards advising they should “isolate for fourteen days upon arrival.”
By contrast, some countries, such as Israel, went into complete lockdown mode. In addition to instituting mandatory stay-at-home quarantines for entire populations, they also completely shut down their airports for specific periods of time. In contrast, while the U.S. limited international travelers into the country, it only required documented COVID-19-free testing seventy-two hours before flight time for both U.S. and non-resident citizens to enter. Additionally, while some countries through early 2020 required returning citizens to stay in “quarantine hotels” (e.g., China, Hong Kong, Israel), the U.S. did not. However, through the first half of 2020, it was possible, albeit unlikely, that an international traveler could find themselves “stuck” in their destination until a negative test result could be produced.
It appears that, at least for most of 2021, the vaccine may not mitigate the requirement to be tested to verify you are still COVID-19-free. There is pressure to have an international COVID-19 vaccine “passport” of sorts to allow people who have been vaccinated a fast track around testing requirements. We will all be spectators and participants as this continues to unfurl. Suffice to say, we will continue to see ongoing changes and updates to requirements of what a person needs to do in order to travel.
To try to get people to come back, airlines and sports stadiums have introduced ultraviolet light scanning to disinfect surfaces. The travel and hospitality fields have also focused on reducing surface contact occasions, and using branded sanitizing methods (e.g., Delta’s partnership with Lysol, MGM Resorts using Clorox Clean).
At the height of the pandemic, airlines kept middle seats empty and waived airline change fees; that began to fade away in spring 2021. During 2020, airlines made significant cuts to their flight schedules and they are now slowly reintroducing additional flights—so even though the number of people flying may be below pre-COVID-19 levels, you will probably run into more sold-out flights until supply and demand normalize. The canceled flights will be added back, but only after airlines feel there is proven revenue and profit in reinstating them.
Companies and organizations still worry about being the first to reinstate travel when legal and other issues involving COVID-19 need to be sorted out.
Here are some steps employers and travelers can take to mitigate the risk of getting infected.
First, if possible, upgrade to business or first class where there is more personal space. Depending on when you book, the cost of upgrading may not be that much more than coach.
Second, if the cabin configuration is one plus two seating, favor being on the “one” side because it allows for better isolation from the other passengers. Additionally, according to Alexandra Drane, a health and wellness expert, it is safer to stay toward the aisle and the front of the plane.
Third, always be sure to review reservations online through the airline’s website. Airlines continue to make last-minute schedule changes and flight cancellations. Be sure that the airline has your correct email and cell phone contact information. If you are traveling in the U.S., make sure your TSA number or global entry card number is also included in your reservation.
Fourth, open the air vent as much as comfortably tolerated. This is HEPA filtered air, and it is the cleanest air to breathe.
For train travel, it is important to understand that many cross-border train routes throughout the world were canceled due to COVID-19. As those routes are restored, it is still essential to be aware of restrictions for entry by country and to comply with host country requirements. In the U.S., Amtrak (through early summer) is still maintaining empty seats in rows and requiring masks for travel. A knowledgeable and thorough resource for train travel worldwide is www.seat61.com. You can find information on train networks by country to help you determine what is open per the rail authority in each country.
Historically, hotel selection was based on brand, location, price, and availability. With post-COVID-19 travel, most hotels provide an indication of their preparation for guests, making sure their guests have a clean, comfortable, and unremarkable stay. Newer or recently refurbished hotels are more likely to have a “built-in” ability to be cleaner.
Following normal precautions to avoid high-contact areas and keeping sanitizer on hand will help ensure that you have an uneventful stay. Upon entering your room, be sure to inspect areas that would indicate overall cleanliness: shower drain, bathroom sink, and toilet. If there is a refrigerator, look at its condition and cleanliness. Having personally stayed in hotels that would by no means meet today’s cleanliness standards or expectations, I know that most decent hoteliers will first offer an alternative room and, if that is not satisfactory, they will allow you to leave without penalty.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has a program ascribed to by most major hotel chains and state hospitality departments called StaySafe (http://bit.ly/VIEWS-AHLA-StaySafe). This initiative describes the cleaning and disinfecting that hotels are committed to in light of COVID-19. Furthermore, it focuses on enhancing social interactions and workplace protocols with hotel employees. This helps guests know the hotel meets health and safety expectations and instills confidence during their stay and future visits.
Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Four Seasons, and RIU are just a few of the major chains that are offering COVID-19 testing services. The advantage of having the property participate in testing guests is that they essentially serve as a one-stop hospitality center for guests (a role they relish). They can help travelers to get tested and move on their way, as well as assist in guests’ re-accommodation in the event they test positive for the virus. In the event of a positive test result, the local health department takes over in a virtual hand-off from the host property to situate the individual temporarily until they are cleared to travel again.
It is important to note that many rental car companies sold off cars during the first year of the pandemic, so the number of cars available at airports or other locations may be much lower than in the past. Also, be prepared for sticker shock. Renting a car is generally more expensive than it was pre-COVID-19. Therefore, book ahead as far as possible.
Most major car rental companies have also implemented thorough vehicle cleaning policies to ensure proper sanitation, especially for major touch points in vehicles.
Uber and Lyft
Similarly, Uber and Lyft are conscientious about having their drivers keep vehicles clean and request that riders sanitize their hands prior to entering the car, wear a mask throughout the ride, and keep windows open to allow for air circulation.
Travel preparation is imperative, particularly for international trips. The International Air Travel Association (IATA) is a great resource to bookmark. In particular, their indispensable world map spells out each country’s specific policies regarding entry relative to COVID-19: www.iatatravelcentre.com/world.php. There are a number of other detailed sections at the IATA website which help in preparation for travel, while on a trip, in airports, and when leaving the aircraft.
Because travel requirements keep changing, be sure you check the destination’s requirements to determine what type of COVID-19 test may be needed. Some destinations require a specific type of COVID-19 test that must be done only at “approved” locations.
While areas like Mexico may not require a negative COVID-19 test result, you should consider having results from a test performed within seventy-two hours, especially if the destination has rising infection rates and/or just recently dropped the testing requirement.
Depending on the complexity and/or what cities and countries you may be visiting, consider using a knowledgeable, experienced travel agent to help you. Many of us have become so used to booking our travel ourselves online but, as Abraham Lincoln said, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” In this COVID-19 world, when you encounter any difficulties while traveling, you may want a travel agent who can help you address the problem.