Dear stumbling block,
My husband and I are currently planning a trip to Ireland, Portugal and Italy for August and September. We only reserve hotels with free cancellation policies and our flight tickets can be changed to a later date. When we know that much of Europe is currently closed to the citizens of the United States because of the virus, is there much hope that our plans will materialize, or are we wasting our time? What should I watch out for? Kathy
While there are some signs of life – Iceland is reopened to fully vaccinated travelers and Greece will reopen to vaccinated or virus tested visitors next month – Europe, where case numbers are rising in some parts and the vaccine adoption has been disappointingly slow, is this still largely closed to Americans. Ireland is open to US citizens with a combination of testing and quarantine, but Portugal and Italy, like most of the continent, remain closed for the time being. Italy in particular was hit hard by the virus in the first few months of the pandemic. and in March the spread of a contagious variant from Britain pushed the country back into another lockdown.
“This environment is so challenging because the countries that rely on tourism are under significant pressure to recover, which makes up for much slower vaccination rates in Europe,” said Fallon Lieberman, who heads Skylark’s vacation travel division. a travel agency associated with tourism Virtuoso travel network. “Unfortunately, these two forces are at odds with each other.”
Your question is how many related to the pandemic, associated with different levels of risk. Let’s first look at the specific risk: if you book for late summer now, how likely is it that you will lose money?
With some wise, informed decisions: not very.
As you suggest, some airlines are still showing flexibility with seating outside of the basic economy, and now it’s especially advisable to book tickets that can be easily changed. Delta Air Lines has eliminated change and cancellation fees for all flights originating in North America, and Delta eCredits that expire this year – including new tickets purchased this year – can be used to travel through 2022. United Airlines has also permanently eliminated change fees.
Unlike an airline ticket, which can be changed at any time (either free or for a fee), a non-refundable hotel reservation is generally just that: an investment that you use or lose.
The good news: “Hotels in Europe – and really around the world – are very flexible,” said Ms. Lieberman, who helped hundreds of Skylark customers cancel and rebook last year’s European trips, many of them until this summer and beyond. “While this is a very challenging time, many suppliers offer maximum flexibility.”
Cancellation policies vary by property, but many of the multinationals have made it easy and relatively risk-free to plan ahead. Companies like Hilton and Four Seasons allow cancellations up to 24 hours before check-in. Hyatt allows free cancellations up to 24 hours in advance for arrivals until July 31st (and the date may always be extended). For point nerds, most major hotel chains allow most award nights to be canceled unscathed, with points re-deposited within a day or two of expected check-in.
More complicated than physical refunds, however, is the greater metaphysical risk: How likely is it that this trip will actually take place? What forces can help predict whether the Europe trips we are booking today will actually take place in August and September?
Although France and Italy have just been banned again, interest in Europe is increasing, which is undoubtedly supported by signs that President Biden could lift the ban on European visitors to the United States as early as next month, news of the possibility of European health passports, rumors that Spain and the UK could resume international tourism in mid-May, and much more.
At Hopper, a travel booking app that analyzes and predicts flight and hotel prices, bookings for travel in the summer of 2021 in Europe increased by 68 percent from week to week between the last week of February and the first week of March. Searches for round-trip flights to Europe departing this summer rose a whopping 86 percent in the 30 days following February 22nd.
According to TripAdvisor data from US hotel searches this summer, five of the top ten most searched European travel destinations were in Greece, but Rome – and Paris – were also on the list.
To understand how travelers’ eagerness to align with the realities of the pandemic, travel industry analysts and experts are looking at various factors, including flight schedules.
According to PlaneStats, the aviation data portal operated by Oliver Wyman, an international consulting firm, the number of flights to Europe scheduled to depart from the US this month is around 26 percent of the number of flights to Europe from the US in April 2019 next month compared to May 2019, this number looks even higher: 35 percent. (By contrast, April and May 2020 were both at 5 percent.) That’s less than normal, but it’s still a sharp increase from any other point during the pandemic. Although many connecting flights (Americans can still travel across Europe) or culminate in destinations like London (Americans can visit England, although multiple testing and quarantines are required), flight schedules remain a key indicator.
“It’s a sign of optimism and I think some of that trend could continue,” said Khalid Usman, partner and aviation expert at Oliver Wyman. “What airlines don’t want is to make flight schedules that people won’t travel on.”
Other important predictors: infection and vaccination rates.
“We expect herd immunity to be achieved in the US by June or July,” said Usman of Oliver Wyman’s Pandemic Navigator, which simulates daily immunity growth. “This is good news for the domestic market, but when it comes to international travel, we need to realize that it’s not just about one country, it’s about a country on the other end.”
Given the spotty vaccine rollout across the pond, Mr Usman said it was reasonable to assume that Europe’s herd immunity will lag the US for a few months. Over the next few months, he added, European countries will follow in Iceland’s footsteps and open individually, including their own regulations on vaccinations, tests and quarantines. To boost travel across the continent this summer, the European Union is considering adopting a vaccine certificate for its own residents and families.
“It won’t be a binary open or close,” said Mr. Usman. “The countries will be more selective about who they want to accept.”
Italy’s numbers – plus new bans and growing Covid variants – seem to be stifling optimism; The search for hopper flights from the US to Italy has remained relatively flat.
At the moment, Skylark’s Ms. Lieberman has adopted an “beyond the boot” mindset: “Our theory is that there will be fabulous, desirable summer destinations if you are willing to go beyond the boot – that is, take advantage of Italy for you. “
Portugal rose sharply in January but recently eased lockdown measures as infection rates slowed. The country is now aiming for a vaccination rate of 70 percent this summer.
American interest in Portugal is growing in response. In the first week of March, searches for flights from the United States to Lisbon rose 63 percent after it was revealed that Portugal could be welcoming tourists from the UK as early as mid-May. (That’s not far behind Athens, for which travel searches increased 75 percent over the same period.)
As for the final question mark, Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, believes airlines will operate more flights to the reopened destination given the easing of restrictions. Delta, for example, will resume non-stop service between Boston and Reykjavik next month – and its Iceland service from New York City and Minneapolis.
“If demand does not grow fast enough to outpace the surge in supply, flash sales can be achieved as airlines attempt to entice travelers to return under gradual easing of travel restrictions,” said Damodaran. Icelandair, for example, is offering flights and packages until April 13th.
And since the prices for summer flights to Europe are generally still relatively low – according to Hopper by more than 10 percent compared to 2019 – experts see few disadvantages in drawing a trip in pencil.
“When you are ready to take a risk, plan ahead and secure your preferred accommodations and ideal itineraries,” said Ms. Lieberman. “But of course we warn you against having to postpone deposits and appointments when it comes to this.”