The summer travel season, which traditionally kicks off with Memorial Day weekend, is only a few weeks away. And it will be the first time since coronavirus lockdowns that many Americans will consider taking a vacation. But many are wondering what they should expect.
"People will think things are back to normal," predicts Elizabeth Squillante, a travel adviser from New Canaan, Connecticut. "I don't believe they will be."
The summer of 2021 will be unlike any other. On the one hand, you have travelers waiting for more security before they book their vacations. On the other hand, you have short supplies of vacation rentals, rental cars and maybe other travel products.
And though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can resume travel at low risk to themselves, the agency is still not recommending travel given rising COVID case counts.
There's still so much uncertainty, and it's creating new obstacles – and opportunities – for travelers.
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What's going to happen this summer?
Problem one: It's impossible to predict the future. "That's going to be a major challenge for travelers," predicts Daniel Guttentag, director of the College of Charleston's office of tourism analysis. "Given the continued uncertainty for many people about when they will be able to get vaccinated and what the infection rates will look like when summer rolls around, many tourists will undoubtedly remain drawn toward flexible cancellation policies."
Where should I take a vacation?
No one knows for sure which countries will be open for international travel, says Robert Goldstein, a travel adviser with Ovation Travel Group. "I think the biggest issue is going to be where to go." At the same time, Goldstein has been hearing from travelers who have received their second dose of vaccine and are ready to plan. Travel advisers are keeping a running list of countries that are allowing visitors. But Goldstein cautions that they could change at a moment's notice.
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Higher resort hotel prices
American travelers have enjoyed discounted hotel prices for the better part of a year. They're also used to stretching their dollar by taking a vacation in Mexico or the Caribbean. But with foreign travel restrictions, those same travelers will look to domestic destinations, hoping to make their vacation budgets last, according to Heather Keller, a travel advisor with Perfect Landing Travel. "Availability is already limited, and pricing is at a premium, especially for any resort or hotel that naturally lends itself to easy social distancing," she says. The fix? Reserve early and set realistic expectations. U.S. hotels will be pricey this summer.
Car rental shortages
As more travelers rent cars this year, prices will rise. That's the prediction of Jonathan Weinberg, founder of the car rental site AutoSlash.com. "Because demand patterns are less predictable than in the past, rental car companies are going to be more conservative about acquiring new vehicles," he says. "That's likely to lead to higher prices for consumers when demand meets or exceeds their projections." How do you avoid getting stuck with an overpriced car – or none at all? Don't wait until the last minute to reserve a rental. If you're flying somewhere, book your car at the same time you pay for your airline ticket.
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Finding COVID-19 tests
If the testing requirement for air travelers flying to the United States remains in effect, then the summer's biggest challenge will be finding a pre-departure test. "As summer travel starts to rise, so will appointments for COVID tests," predicts Cynika Drake, president of Lavish Lifestyles Concierge, a travel and event planning company. Some of the more popular destinations for American travelers have a limited number of testing facilities, particularly in the Caribbean, she says. "I recommend scheduling your COVID test the day you check into the resort," she says. "Many resorts offer on-site testing."
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Vacation rentals in high demand, short supply
This summer, the beaches of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, plus the North Carolina Outer Banks, will be in high demand. That's what Laird Sager predicts. He's the president of Red Sky Travel Insurance. "We’ve had a sharp increase in insurance sales through the vacation rental management industry," he says. "Many vacationers are looking for properties that are within driving distance of their homes." Indeed, the number of vacation rental reservations for June through August is up 110% compared with this time last year, according to Amiad Soto, CEO of short-term rental property management platform Guesty. Experts recommend booking vacation rentals early to get the best selection.
The new normal for travel looks a little familiar
To get an idea of how irregular your 2021 summer vacation will be, talk to Shelley Hunter. She's the innkeeper at the Quincy Feather Bed Inn in Quincy, California. She says her guests expected everything to switch back to "normal" this year. But it hasn't.
"We had thought the vaccine would change the way we operate this year," she says. "Not so."
The Feather Bed Inn still requires guests to wear a mask and socially distance. It also leaves extra days between reservations to allow for thorough cleaning of rooms.
Her advice? Call the hotel before your trip to find out what's required.
"You should expect to bring a mask," she adds. "You should expect that the town you are visiting is just as affected by this pandemic as the rest of the world. Indoor seating may not be an option or very limited; some businesses may be shuttered or have limited hours."
But you can't solve any of these summer travel problems unless you address the uncertainty. And people remain reluctant to travel.
"They're taking a wait-and-see approach," says Glynnis Ritter, head of experiences at Jubel, a planning site for digital nomads. "Meaning there's going to be a lot more last-minute traveling."
Travelers used to plan at least three months ahead of time, Ritter says. But with travel restrictions still in place and vaccines still being distributed, all that careful planning has gone out the porthole.
"Instead, people are making more spontaneous trips, sometimes beginning to plan just a month in advance or even a few weeks," she says.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID travel: Summer vacation season is here with gobs of uncertainty