Despite delta variant, fall travel expected to take off, says local analyst

Aug 19, 2021, 3:26 PM | Updated: 3:41 pm
coronavirus, travel, airport...
A person picks up their baggage at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Despite the delta variant surge, it looks as though fall travel will be taking off.

Memorial Day and the Fourth of July both saw some of the biggest crowds at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and it looks to be headed that way for Labor Day, too — as well as throughout the fall and the upcoming holiday season.

Local travel analyst Steve Danishek said American Airlines is having its biggest leisure travel rebound in company history.

“The airlines are hiring like mad. … On the airline side, what they’re seeing is that they’re ramping up,” he said.

With more Americans fully vaccinated, expect boost in summer travel

This is due, he said, to the eagerness of healthy, vaccinated Americans to get out and travel again after quarantine. He is not seeing much in the way of fall travel cancellations when looking ahead at Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

“Certainly anyone who’s vaccinated has different views about traveling than those who are not. … The folks who are vaccinated, they’re going to be leading the charge,” he said.

Danishek said airfares are generally good, provided you book far enough out. The problem with fall travel is that nothing is certain right now, and with any type of travel, you will want to be prepared for curveballs to be thrown your way.

“You should anticipate that even if you book a particular flight today, you may well get schedule changes, sometimes multiple schedule changes, before you depart,” he said.

There is a very real possibility that an airline may alter your flight at the last minute in an effort to recoup some of the losses from the last year-and-a-half. Danishek noticed this when he looked up at the departures board on a recent visit to Sea-Tac Airport.

“I was seeing canceled flights to Salt Lake, to Ontario, to Burbank,” he said.

For example, instead of sending two half-empty flights to LAX at 1 p.m. and at 3 p.m. on the same afternoon, an airline might cancel the 1 p.m. and move the passengers over to the 3 p.m. so there is only one full plane departing. It’s a way for the airline to cut its losses, but it won’t help the passengers who had firm dinner plans in Los Angeles — or a connecting flight.

The airline may be able to work with you on a more convenient solution, Danishek said, but that all depends on you being reachable electronically.

“Make sure that when you book your airline tickets, the airline or the company you book through has your email information or text number so they can contact you with these changes,” Danishek advised.

With the delta uncertainty, some airlines are getting more flexible with change fees if you decide to postpone a trip due to feeling uncomfortable about the variant situation. It’s always best to read the fine print for your particular airline so you will know what you will and will not be allowed to do for free.

Trip insurance is a good idea if you think the pandemic situation may cause you to change your mind before takeoff, but that insurance industry has also taken a hit during COVID — so you will likely find yourself paying a higher fee, and may not get all of your money back in the event of a cancelation. If the airline cancels the flight, it’s on them to make things right, but each airline has its own policy.

The main idea, Danishek said, is to keep your plans flexible and prepare for any roadblocks. This is not the year to plan a complex sightseeing trip with a rigid schedule.

“We haven’t settled things,” Danishek said. “There’s still a lot of commotion going on, and that’s just going to be part of life in the travel business for another six months.”

The advice about being flexible and prepared is multiplied by 100 if you are thinking about going overseas. While the European Union and many other countries have opened to Americans, that doesn’t mean that a vaccine card alone will get you in — and things could change between the date you book and the date you fly.

“We can’t see a clear trend through the dust overseas, and that’s the problem when a lot of countries have varying requirements,” Danishek said.

Different nations have different rules, depending not just on where you live, but also what countries you are passing through. Some countries rate other nations based on their case rates on a regular basis — every two weeks, for example. That means that even if the United States is considered a safe zone at the time you travel, if you go to a second country that is considered more dangerous, the third country on your itinerary may give you a harder time than if you had come straight from the U.S. It’s possible that in addition to the vaccine, you may need to take a test within 72 hours of entering a new country — or you may even have to quarantine.

“Pay a lot of attention to the country’s requirements for entry, what they are requiring, which may be different than just getting a vaccination and getting on a plane here,” Danishek said. “That’s very, very important, and that is the passenger’s responsibility to look at the entry requirements for any countries they’re considering. And keep in mind that those could change at any time.”

If the requirement for entry goes from a simple vaccine card to three days of quarantine between the time you book and the time you go, you may decide it’s not worth it — and that’s where trip insurance comes in.

The important thing is to do your homework and have a contingency plan, Danishek said. Be aware that you may need to spend many hours of your trip standing in line for tests — and potentially hundreds of dollars, since tests are not free for everyone abroad. If you do test positive, you may find yourself stuck in quarantine in another country for longer than you anticipated.

The complexity of different places with different rules, Danishek said, is why most of the international travel happening right now is people going overseas to visit loved ones, rather than doing a three-week tour of six different countries.

“They’re going to get off in Rome and see their friends and family, and then come back,” he said. “So, not a lot of multiple stops.”

The one thing you can be sure of on your travels — especially if you are going for Labor Day — is that you will run into long lines at the airports. It’s best to book layovers that are not rushed, and to always arrive early.

Through Aug. 31, SEA is running a special pilot program to save passengers time. If you are departing in the morning, you can reserve your TSA screening time for free, similar to making a reservation at a restaurant. Visit the Port of Seattle’s SEA Spot Saver page for more information.

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Despite delta variant, fall travel expected to take off, says local analyst