This has been a crappy year in almost every way, but especially for those who like to leave home frequently. Will it be better next year? How are we going to travel in 2021?
In a normal year, I visit a dozen places in multiple countries and rack up a fair number of frequent flyer miles. Since this pandemic really hit the USA in March, I’ve only traveled by plane twice. I flew to the USA to handle some family affairs, then later I flew back to Mexico. I’m not leaving Mexico until January it looks like, though I will do a few local trips in a rental car.
Since this blog launched in 2003, I’ve been preaching about the joys of contrarian travel. I write regularly about being able to travel better for less by jumping on great opportunities. Now I’m seeing fantastic deals that I can’t in good conscious tell people to grab.
As a person who mostly writes about international travel, it pains me to say that staying close to home makes a lot more sense for the time being. There are some positives that come out of that, from a sustainability standpoint and a rise in tourism for lesser-known places. On the other hand, it’s bad news for ecotourism operations that used tourism dollars to keep poachers and loggers at bay. By some counts, tourism was the biggest industry in the world before February. Those lost jobs aren’t easily replaced in many areas.
I’m starting to do some dreaming about 2021 though and researching options for the year. It’s hard to find much joy in it yet, unfortunately. Whether we get a vaccine or not, travel is certainly not going to be the same as it has been in the past, not that soon. Some would be glad to go back to that normal and ditch all these layers of protection, but as the USA has shown, you can’t just wish this threat away.
Everyone has their own level of comfort, which makes this problematic this time around. Normally nobody can hurt anyone but themselves with risky behavior, but with a threat this contagious, the selfish anti-maskers are a threat to everyone around them as well. They are even infecting those two and three degrees of separation away, whether that’s a wedding in Maine or a motorcycle rally for the idiot class.
I’m not super-paranoid, but I’d also like to keep myself and my family on this planet a few decades longer. Here are a few thoughts of mine about how we can travel in 2021 without being foolish. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments—but no tinfoil hat theories unless you’ve got peer-reviewed scientific articles to link to!
There Are Two Classes of Airlines Now: Safe and Unsafe
I haven’t seen a survey yet that says more than half the population is in any hurry to get on a plane. No matter how much the air is circulated, it just doesn’t feel very safe to spend hours in a small tube in seats a few inches apart. The travelers who think that’s fine right now often seem to be the crazies that believe every conspiracy theory they encounter on Facebook. They think 200,000 dead in the USA alone is all some elaborate hoax. Those are the people you see packing Allegiant and Spirit Air flights with no middle seats blocked out and a half-hearted mask mandate. (And it’s what you’ll probably experience on Volaris or RyanAir unless you’re lucky enough to get a half-empty flight.)
At the other end you have the airlines looking out for the people taking all scientifically backed precautions. Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest have emerged as the corporate good guys wearing white in this scenario. On the international front, it’s a mixed bag because much of the world is still shut down, but so far the Middle Eastern airlines seem to be in the good guys camp as well.
In between you have the airlines like United and American that were dragged kicking and screaming into a mask mandate and still haven’t blocked out middle seats. At least United is boarding back to front. American doesn’t even do that. Because these big corporations squandered all of their profits on executive bonuses and stock buybacks during the boom, they are trying to squeeze out every dollar from their passengers to add to the bailout money they got from us via government bailout money. Some of these airlines thinking only about capacity will just be gone by 2021 and we’re probably going to have fewer choices.
On the upside, there are some terrific bargains out there if you’re willing to commit. Since most have waived change fees on all but basic economy fares (which you should avoid at all costs anyway), there’s less risk than usual. I’m seeing sub-$300 international flights pop up in my Twitter feed daily. Even for trips in the summer of 2021.
Lodging Choices Require More Thought
As we gain more experience with the new normal, it seems that hotels are not as big a risk factor as many thought in the beginning. Enhanced cleaning procedures help, but they’re also a place where you’ve got walls and doors between you and others most of the time anyway. Plus we’ve seen adjustments at points where there was the most risk, like breakfast buffets and crowded indoor swimming pools. Most of the hotels that deserve your business are making sure guests and staffers are masked up except when eating.
Still, it makes sense that you’ll be exposed to less risk if you have your own place. There’s a good reason Airbnb and Vrbo are still doing quite well in many areas and you’ll have a hard time renting a cabin at a national park anytime soon. The RV rental business has gone through the roof this year because people can control their environment while still getting a change of scenery.
Thousands of People in Once Place Will Remain a Bad Idea
This pandemic has been raging long enough that scientists have figured out what really brings down the cases: distancing, hand washing, and masks. So who are these people who say they can’t wait to go back onto a huge cruise ship that holds 4,000 passengers? Oh I’ll anslwer that; the same ones you see on viral videos cursing at an underpaid store clerk trying to enforce safety measures.
There are a lot of other travel staples that seemed normal before that won’t now though. Bus travel, crowded trains, entrance lines that snake back and forth in a small area. Which leads us to amusement parks, concerts, and sporting events. Then there are the popular tourist sites where you get big crowds because of popularity, with lots of people crowded around to get a view and a a selfie.
I can’t imagine taking part in any of these next year, including jaunts with other writers in a van, as was the press trip standard for decades. The future of group press trips is shaky, as is the near-term future of conventions and conferences. I usually go to several a year and have some penciled in on the calendar next year. But I’m not sure I’d place much of a bet on them all happening. If nothing else, how can you have a cocktail party for hundreds of attendees now?
Who knew that packed concerts were the good ole days?
Rental Cars Are Looking More Attractive
I’ve written before on here about RV travel, road trips, state parks, and seeing more of your own region. Wherever you live, it’s going to continue to make more sense to see places you can drive to than places far away for 2021 travel.
There’s been a major trend over the past decade though for whole classes of people to give up their own car. If anything, the work-at-home movement is going to accelerate that. Normally I’d say, “Who cares, take public transportation!” Now that bus network I’ve used so much in Mexico and that train network that’s so wonderful in Europe seems riskier than before.
Plus when you fly somewhere for a vacation, you’re probably not going to want to get on buses and trains there. So you’ll want to pony up more money to have your own wheels. Thankfully, with few business travelers renting all those cars on the lots at airports, there are some terrific rental car deals to be found right now. I’m doing well these days finding rental cars for $20 per day by searching on Kayak.
I’m not happy about renting a car out of necessity instead of just renting one for far-flung places. Public transportation is far better for the environment, especially trains. If it means staying healthy though, I’m going for the self-fueled bubble.
Slow Travel and Longer Trips
While it may make sense to take a 3-day weekend jaunt a couple hours from where you live, I think we’re going to see longer vacations and more people doing a hybrid work/vacation trip next year. If we are going to go to all the extra trouble of planning a safe getaway and confront the risk of flying, we are not going to want to do a trip where we spend more time in transit than we do on the ground.
The two of us are thinking a lot about going abroad for three months at a time next year, doing long-term apartment rentals and maybe a home exchange or two. While I didn’t think anything before about flying to Europe for a week, now I can’t imagine going all that way and staying less than a month.
Plus when you take zipping around on public transportation out of the mix, ticking off 20 places in 7 days seems even more foolish than it did before. “Italy in a week” tours are probably off the table for 2021 still and for both the travelers and Italy, that’s a good thing.
Back to Nature
We always knew deep down that nature heals us and is good for our brain. Now we’ve got an additional reason to get out of the cities and into the forests and mountains. This will be a good time for solitude, for hikes, for bike rides on country roads.
I love cities and the energy they exude, but I probably won’t spend much time in them this coming year. What normally makes them so special—lots of interesting people cascading off each other in interesting spaces—is a liability for the time being rather than positive. I don’t buy the argument that “New York City is dying” or “London is finished” or everyone will suddenly move out of San Francisco. But these places were already expensive to visit as a traveler as well, so it’s easier to give them a pass for now.
Travel in 2021 is going to favor the natural, the secluded, the places with fewer humanoids like us I’m afraid. It’s going to be another anti-social year where we stay apart more than we gather.
It’s Going to Be Tough to Be a Round-the-World Backpacker
I spent three years circling the globe in my younger days. I’ve set off with a backpack and no real plan a few times since. That kind of travel is fun and liberating and the biggest group of customers for The World’s Cheapest Destinations has been long-term travelers.
I’ve never seen such a wrench thrown into this lifestyle though as we’ve seen the past six months. Many of the most popular backpacker countries are still closed to visitors. Many nomadic bloggers I know got stuck abroad in places like Hungary, Portugal, and Malaysia and then found their options for moving on quite limited. Just being a couple from two different countries now makes your entry to any nation twice as complicated.
Many traditional elements of the backpacker lifestyle are on hold for safety reasons. Bus travel, hostels, cheap guesthouses, and bars are all more risky now. Eating in restaurants every day, which is one of the joys of traveling in cheap countries, used to be done without a thought or care. Now every indoor dining spot looks dangerous. Those local adventure excursions by van probably won’t be running for a while.
Someday we’ll hopefully look back on this time the people born in the 1930s looked back at war rations and bombing raids. It seems like a strange blip in history. (The fascists, unfortunately, are back.) For now though, the simply joy of travel is accompanied by a lot more anguish. Let’s hope the scientists can bring about a change, without government interference, and we can beat back this worldwide threat. Meanwhile, be safe out there!