The travel dance: One step forward, two steps back

Plus: Our favorite new DIY travel app | Where's my club lounge? | Don't ditch those masks just yet

Good news, bad news.

That seems to be the pandemic-era theme that travel just can’t shake.

The good news ...  

On Friday, travelers and travel companies alike cheered the Biden Administration’s announcement that it was finally ending the requirement that all travelers visiting or returning to the United States present a negative Covid test. The rule, which came down Sunday night, had been in place since January of 2021.

“The return test is likely the last domino to fall in terms of releasing the enormous pent-up demand for international travel,” D.J. Jones of the golf travel company Haversham & Baker Expeditions told Travel Essential.

And Steve Born, chief marketing officer for Globus, one of the world’s largest tour operators, told us Monday morning that his team was already seeing a spike in new reservations.

“That volume is up over 50% from the same time last week — a very positive sign,” he said, adding that Globus expects its remaining 2022 tour inventory to start moving quickly.  

Europe, of course, was the top trending destination, Born told us.

The bad news …

By the end of the day Monday, the stock market crashed, raising concerns that people who are watching their investments and retirement accounts shrink might rethink summer vacations, especially if air fares, food, lodging, gas prices and inflation continue to rise.

Last week,at the New York University hotel investment conference, several big-brand executives bragged about how consumers had some $2.5 trillion savings, predicting experiences could benefit. But bank accounts were diminishing even before we entered the bear market. As CNBC reported last month, the average amount of personal savings Americans have dropped 15% from $73,100 in 2021 to $62,086 in 2022, citing a Northwestern Mutual study. 60% of U.S. adults said the pandemic has been “highly disruptive” to their finances, the study said. Fast forward to Tuesday, and a lot of 401(k)s and other investments were down 20% since January.

Covid, the virus that keeps on giving

Even though Covid-prevention rules are falling, the virus continues to rear its ugly head. In a totally unscientific study, about half the fully vaccinated people we know who have traveled on a ship or attended business conferences in the last two months have come down with the latest highly contagious strain. 

And while mask mandates and testing requirements are now mostly gone for air travel, cruisers continue to face ever-changing rules — a situation that could continue to hamper the cruise industry's recovery. Vaccine mandates and pre-boarding tests are still the norm for cruising. And according to letters and onboard accounts posted by travelers and travel advisors on Facebook, mask mandates are being reinstated sporadically when ships start to see rising infection rates among passengers and crew. Princess Cruises, for instance, has reinstated indoor mask mandates on all Alaska cruises, citing rising cases there.

TE Takeaway: Pack your masks and proctored Covid tests. The rules can change at any time, without warning. Be prepared.

This New Yorker cartoon may best sum up the travel season ahead:

The New Yorker

And THE big question remains

So will 2022 prove to be the summer of travel hell, with labor-strapped airlines and airports struggling to meet booming demand, or another disappointment for the travel industry? That is THE question. 

Most travel companies we reached out to said they were optimistic, but declined to give an official prediction until they can get a better assessment about what lies ahead until later this week or early next week.

And regardless of the impact that economic woes might have on Americans’ plans to travel overseas this summer, Steve Van Beek, head of North American Aviation for management consulting firm Steer, said elimination of the testing requirement “will undoubtedly bring growth in tourist and business travel to the U.S.A."  And that could mean more bottlenecks. Van Beek cautions that “airport directors in our gateway airports are already concerned about Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) service levels and long lines. Let’s hope the agency is ready for the increase in summer travel and dedicates sufficient staffing to keep lines moving.” A request for comment to the CBP was not immediately returned.

If you remain dead set on traveling to Europe this summer, prices and potential airport lines and flight cancellation be damned, then you might want to book while you can. As we’ve continuously reported, major carriers including Delta Air Lines and JetBlue have been cutting back flight schedules due to pilot and other labor shortages. But if you're hoping to use miles for a transatlantic trip, you're probably too late. One Mile at a Time founder Ben Schlappig says mileage seat availability is the lowest he has ever seen.

DIY-ers, check out this cool, new app called Peanut

Travel Essential has learned that travel insurance disruptor Insured Nomads is set to announce the acquisition today of what it calls a “first-of-its-kind tool” for delivering essential travel information to do-it-yourself travel planners.

If you download the Peanut app as a Google Chrome extension, it adds a pop-up box to your searches across the web’s most-popular travel booking sites that alerts you to things like health risks, travel insurance requirements and even details like whether that hotel you're eyeing is overdue for a renovation. It also offers weather guidance and assesses the risk that a flight may be delayed.

While testing it out, we found a few bugs. For instance, while searching for flights to Amsterdam, it said the Netherlands was closed, even though the rest of the information made it very clear it was not. 

But technology and new apps always have bugs. What’s invaluable is the reminder it offers of the things you need to check in the age of fast-changing Covid rules. And it always provides users with a link to government websites so you can make sure you have the very latest information.

Peanut was co-founded by Brady Simpson of LinkedIn and developed with a team of alumni from Meta, LinkedIn and Google who were looking to minimize their own confusion as they traveled internationally during the pandemic. They created the Chrome extension to gather all the most pressing information in one place while they shopped for hotels and flights.

“We named it Peanut because of the bite-sized packs of peanuts travelers receive on planes -- they are free and synonymous with global travel,” said co-founder and design lead Alex Lakas.

It’s a perfect fit for Insured Nomads, a fairly new entrant in the travel insurance marketplace that offers global healthcare, emergency response and evacuation coverage for leisure and business travelers, remote workers, globally distributed teams and expats.

“At Insured Nomads, we help travelers move around the world as safely and smartly as possible, and that starts with booking,” Insured Nomads CEO Andrew Jernigan said. “We acquired Peanut because it’s game-changing travel tech. Delivering this type of essential travel information has simply never been done before.”

And of course, Peanut will link you directly to Insured Nomads for all your travel insurance needs – which is convenient if you arrive at an airport in one of the 20 or so countries that require you to have insurance before entering.

The Ritz-Carlton South Beach's club lounge in 2019. -- Barbara DeLollis

Where's my hotel club lounge?

For many loyal hotel guests, getting access to the club floor is their top travel perk – and one that those who still traveled during the pandemic sorely missed.

After all, concierge lounges can make even the most jaded traveler feel like a kid in a candy jar. Think fresh berries in the morning, charcuterie in the evening. Afternoon tea. Espresso drinks. Buckets of bottles Champagne on ice. Wine by the glass. A variety of beer in bottles to take back to your room if you wish. Desserts. Giant glass jars of cookies. Newspapers. Service.

But, like daily housekeeping and other amenities, lounges went away or operated with bare-bones hours, food and services as hotels cut costs and made due with fewer employees during the pandemic.

So, are concierge lounges gone for good?  Not according to the influential owners we spoke to about emerging trends at the hotel industry conference in New York last week.

No, in our opinion,” said Michael Heaton, president of Waterford Hotel Group, which owns more than 90 hotels across the U.S.A. that bear familiar names like Hilton and Marriott in states such as Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. The big hotel brands are pressuring owners to step up their game, he said during a panel.

“The hotels have low staffing levels and are challenged," Heaton said, citing restaurants, bars and hotel room operations. "Concierge lounges are another whole discussion point,. Those aren’t fully opened at our properties -- but that’s coming to a head as well.”

Indeed, it’s a key perk of hotel loyalty programs. And one that hotels are going to be hearing a lot more about as business travelers -- who are used to 2019-era forms of recognition and service -- return.

“We’ve seen it in the last 45-60 days,” Heaton said. “They’re not happy that the lounges aren’t open. It’s tough. The corporate customer hasn’t spoken yet. When the corporate customers hit a critical mass, they’re going to want what they had.  … It’s a question of bandwidth and labor. We’re rushing to meet that need.”   

Wall Street lodging analyst Patrick Scholes agrees with Heaton, to some extent.

“I think we’ll eventually see ‘amenity creep’ as the loyal diamond customers start wanting their amenities back,” Scholes told Travel Essential.

But he said doesn’t expect all the perks to return -- including daily housekeeping at non-luxury hotels.

TE Takeaway: If you’re a business traveler who’s just getting back on the road, lower your expectations or call the hotel in advance to see what's up with the club lounge and other prior perks.

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All the insider news, insight and tips you need to navigate the new world of travel. Honest, sometimes irreverent, intelligence from veteran travel journalists Barbara DeLollis and Jeri Clausing.

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