4 things about Travel that I hope COVID changed forever

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the travel industry. With travel being a major contributor to how the coronavirus spread quickly around the world, governments clamped down on traveling. Travel restrictions as well as COVID measures seriously impacted hotels, attractions and restaurants around the world. From cancelled flights to closures and reduced capacity, the tourism industry has been hit hard but has also shown great flexibility as it had to constantly adapt to the quickly changing situation.

While COVID-19 has mostly impacted our lives negatively, there is a silver lining. In other words there’s something good to be found during this very bad situation. In between the two European lockdowns we have travelled throughout Europe and noticed some key changes within the travel industry. Some of those changes were bad. We already wrote about horrible plastic hotel breakfasts in which we wrote about in a our blog ‘The COVID-19 Hotel Breakfast Challenge’. Other things changed for the better and we will focus on the positive effects of the pandemic on the travel experience.

While we focus on the good things coming out of the crisis, we need to reiterate the message that traveling during the pandemic is only possible if you strictly follow all rules and advice. Wear a facemask as much as possible and most definitely wear the mask where it is recommended or mandatory. If a negative travel advisory is in place, do not travel. By following the rules and government advisories you can make sure that your travels don’t worsen the already bad situation. When we travel we strictly follow all rules and only take our face masks off when and where there are no people around us.

COVID is leading to better hygiene

Back in March Forbes wrote that airplanes are cleaner than ever before. They said it was despite of the pandemic but we seriously believe it is because of the pandemic. Airline executives explained to Forbes how new HEPA filters, “sweeping changes on board” and a higher focus on cleanliness have made jets not just meet recommendations from health authorities around the world but even exceed those guidelines. 

Out of my own experience I can confirm that there is a seemingly increased focus on hygiene on board of airplanes. Seats seem to be cleaner and passengers themselves, including me, have gone the extra mile by swiping seats with alcohol wipes. It is not just airlines. Hotels, airlines, public transport companies, restaurants and bars all had to improve their hygiene policies during this crisis. I have seen cleaning staff scrubbing things I had never seen them clean before. At Munich Airport I witnessed cleaning staff cleaning a train platform twice as I waited for my train to depart. In each train there was cleaning staff cleansing all seats and handles.

Authorities around the world scrutinized cleaning measures more than ever before. As a result, hotel rooms are cleaner and restaurant tables are now spotless. Trains, buses and airplanes now get scrubbed regularly and are cleaner than ever before. Even the air quality in airplanes has improved during the pandemic due to those HEPA filters that have been installed to make sure we don’t inhale each other’s particles. We can clearly see that we have all woken up to the importance of hygiene.

While hotels and taxis are now cleaner than ever before, it is more than likely that this will stay for at least some time after the pandemic. Or, I am hoping that at least some of it will stay after the pandemic. We are now more focused on it and authorities are likely to be sharper on this topic than before the coronavirus hit. There is also something we can do to keep authorities and businesses focused on hygiene.  You can also help hotels and restaurants by adding a few words on hygiene when you leave a recommendation or review. I do expected that this improved focus on hygiene will eventually fade away. Let’s do whatever we can to hold the tourism industry accountable to all the improvements they made over the half year.

It is not just the tourism industry itself. We are also a lot less dirty. We are now washing our hands more often which obviously reduces the risk of contamination of COVID and other diseases. My hope is that this will also stay or that we at least adhere to higher standards than before the pandemic. This is especially important when we travel as we visit tourist attractions and places where lots of people touch the same surfaces.

Flexible cancellation terms

Before the pandemic, hotels had a lot of different rates with the lowest rates coming with strict cancellation policies or no opportunity to change or cancel at all. If you somehow couldn’t use your booked tickets and hotel rooms, all the money you had paid was lost going into the pockets of airlines and hotel owners.

Before the crisis, hotels and airlines asked large sums of money for flexibility. You had to pay serious premium to have the right to cancel for any reason. Meanwhile, lots of tour operators selling packages offered little to no flexibility. COVID-19 has forced the industry to change thee policies and I hope that this change, or at least some of it will stay. Let me explain what happened.  

Airport cancellations covid

As flights were cancelled, airlines were slow with refunds leading to falling trust in the tourism industry. Now we demand more flexibility.

Back in March, hundreds of thousands of flights were cancelled and hotels were forced to close their doors. While the circumstances were extraordinary, consumers like us could no longer use the service that we paid for. Hotels and airlines were forced to offer refunds as the cancellation was out of our control. Although some airlines tried to get around this by offering vouchers or refusing refunds, European authorities have made it completely clear that we have the right to get our money back. Unfortunately, that seemingly took forever. In other parts of the world, similar refunds had to be made after there was some reluctancy to return our money. Media around the world, including BBC, VOX.com and LA Times, extensively covered all our struggles with the airline industry.

Unfortunately for the travel industry, the initial reluctance to return our money, has done serious damage in our trust of the industry. A UK survey showed that trust in the industry has plunged to record lows due to the handling of refunds. The distrust goes beyond airlines as we now distrust hotels, airlines, cruise and tour operators. Those traveling after the first wave, know the industry made some positive changes and flexibility is now something offered as a standard. The tourism industry is trying to win our trust back but we seem to have become more demanding as well.  

More than ever before we are aware of the financial risk that comes with a pre-paid non-refundable booking. The selling party could go bankrupt in these uncertain times. A pandemic might prevent us from traveling leading to lost money. We are more aware of this now and actually read the cancellation policies of hotels and airlines. While most parties in the tourism industry give us more flexibility there is one large player that specifically makes COVID-19 an exception to its flexibility clauses.

AirBnB initially sided with guests forcing flexible cancellation policies that led to a class action lawsuit against the platform by hosts. Since half March that cancellation policy has been adjusted. COVID-19, including travel restrictions, is no longer a valid reason to cancel. Although this was done to safeguard the income of hosts, the lack of flexibility is making us to opt for hotels over short-term rental. At least for now.

Airbnb COVID Cancellation policy

AirBnB’s policy changed during the crisis. While initially offering refunds, COVID-19, including border closures, is no longer a valid reason for cancellations.

But while AirBnB and most likely others have opted to no longer offer flexible terms and conditions, most others in the travel industry are. Hotel chains like Marriott or Accor Hotels offer lenient rebooking options and refunds even without reason. Those tariffs that were sold against a premium in the past are now available to everyone.

We are seeing a similar trend with most airlines. While last minute changes to tickets were either impossible or very expensive in the past, airlines are now actively marketing their seats by promoting all the flexibility that comes with tickets. Package vacation sellers like TUI in Europe also have increased flexibility as a key selling point. Companies like Austrian Airlines and TUI also guarantee your return in case border restrictions make it impossible to take you back on a regular flight.

We witnessed improved flexibility with our own eyes when we had to cancel tickets to the Women’s Final of the Grand Slam tennis tournament Roland Garros in Paris. We bought the tickets with Accor points that you earn when you stay frequently at one of the hotel’s premises. We booked a hotel as well. In the weeks running up to the event, the second COVID wave slowly started in Europe. Paris became a hotspot for the virus and we no longer felt comfortable going there. Fortunately, Accor was extremely flexible and refunded our tickets after one simple phone call.

Hotel room

Accor Hotels showed us what flexibility looks like by allowing us to cancel last minute at no extra costs. (image just illustrative – not an Accor property)

Overall flexibility around cancellation and rebooking has become the new standard. With lower demand this has also not resulted in massively increased hotel prices or more costly airplane seats. The pandemic has proven to us that more flexibility is possible if we demand it. We of course hope that this will stay but fear it will disappear once mass tourism starts opting for the cheapest travel opportunities again. As consumers we can of course demand flexibility. The more we demand this, the less incentives we give the industry to take back the flexibility COVID brought to us.

Improved crowd control

COVID has brought more than better hygiene or flexible rebooking options. The entire travel experience is under construction with things improving quickly. Back in June, we visited The Leaning Tower of Pisa. At this world famous attraction, lots of COVID-19 measures were in place. Those measures went well beyond the mandatory face mask and enforced social distance. At the 850 year old tower, a lot of digital and modern day technical solutions were in place to control the crowds.

First of all, you could only get into the tower if you had purchased an entry ticket online. During that booking process you had to book a timeslot. There were four 15 minute timeslots per hour as the Tower continued to operate its normal business hours. Each of those timeslots had a limited capacity to ensure that visitors had enough space to manoeuvre around each other.

As we arrived at the tower, about ten minutes before our timeslot, there was only a small line of fellow tourists that were waiting for their turn to enter the building. Tickets were either printed out or made available to security by showing it on your phone. Entrance was incredibly smooth as long as you had purchased before arriving in Pisa. A family in front of us was denied access since they didn’t buy tickets in advance. Prepurchased tickets have become the new standard.

After entering the tower’s grounds, all visiting tourists were handed a gadget that would help us keep distance form each other. This gadget was a lanyard with a light that either turns green or red. If it was green you kept enough distance from other groups. If another group came to close to you, or you were accidentally approaching another tourist in the narrow steps of the tower, the light turned red and started vibrating. This handy gadget helped us all in preventing the virus to spread.

Pisa COVID gadget

Now we will probably see the fancy gadgets disappear again after the crisis but there is an improved focus on crowd control everywhere that is likely to stay. In the past, advanced crowd control was only limited to tourist attractions absolutely overrun by overtourism. One of those destinations is Macchu Picchu in Peru. At the citadel, tickets were limited and timed for a longer time already. Now we are seeing measures like this pop up everywhere.

Although it limits our ability to just casually walk into a museum or attraction, crowd control has many perks. First of all, you will spend much less time waiting. There is no need to stand in line to buy a ticket and you will not need to wait in line anymore since you have a time that you know you can enter. It also improves the experience because it never gets extremely busy anymore. Crowds are spread over the day to enable everybody to enjoy the experience. You can read more about smartly buying tickets in our book How to Avoid Crowds’.

We don’t expect crowd control to stay everywhere. For some attractions it is too attractive to just let in as many people as possible. More people means more money. For others, where preservation is also key, we expect and hope that these crowd control measures will stay. We don’t need the fancy gadget from the Leaning Tower of Pisa but timed entry is most definitely a major improvement.

An end to overtourism

While traveling by itself is different, the experience in itself has changed. This change was noticed by all Europeans that were able to travel in between the two lockdowns over the summer. With no cruise ships, travel bans and an insecurity about border closures, a lot less people were traveling. In many destinations, especially those usually overrun by tourists, the contrast with the situation before the crisis couldn’t be more obvious. It is much quieter.

Overtourism seems to have completely disappeared. We experienced this ourselves as well as we travelled to some of Europe’s busiest tourism destinations such as Vienna, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Nuremberg and Amsterdam. In Vienna, we took the opportunity of smaller crowds by visiting the famous Schönbrunn Palace. Normally this would be your typical mass tourism experience where you spend hours in line, have a limited view of all the palace has to offer and in general it isn’t the greatest experience under normal circumstances. Back in May, when we visited the museum, this had completely changed. We were visiting the museum almost alone. We took our time and saw everything.

At the Leaning Tower of Pisa we had a similar experience. We were able to drive our car into the city and conveniently park on a parking lot that was in walking distance from the park. Like the palace halls in Vienna, we were almost alone on this Italian parking lot that was normally home to hundreds of cars and dozens of tour buses. To make the experience a bit dramatic, the absence of mass tourism was dramatized by two tourist trains parked out of service in the middle of the abandoned parking lot. The electric trains that take bus tourists from the parking lot to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, were gathering dust.

We were able to walk to the grounds of the tower without bumping into thousands of fellow tourists. On the grounds of the Leaning Tower there were other tourists but nothing too crazy. It was comparable to the visit my mother had back in 1965. Only a few fellow tourists were there and the entire experience felt special, was truly enjoyable and reminded us of what tourism must have been like before things turned crazy in the last 10 to 20 years.

One city that experienced overtourism on a daily basis before COVID hit was Florence in Italy. Before 2020, I had visited the capital of Tuscany on two other occasions. On both these visits, the city was incredibly busy and the experience was hardly enjoyable. One year before, on the famous Ponte Vecchio, you would rub shoulders with fellow tourists as large streams of tourists would bring your gentle stroll to a stop with your way blocked by a tour group.

Almost no crowds in Venice

Almost no crowds in Venice – early October 2020

Abandoned Tourist trains in Pisa

Abandoned Tourist trains in Pisa. June 2020

Florence' Ponte di Vecchio June 2020

Florence’ Ponte Vecchio June 2020

The experience couldn’t be more different in the summer of 2020. There was just one other couple on the bridge. All other tourists were gone. We had similar experiences everywhere we went. In Venice, crowds were manageable for the first time in a long time. In Nuremberg you could easily find a spot in a beergarten and in Amsterdam mass tourism was limited to the area around the Red Light District.

A more sustainable future?

Although traveling has been much more enjoyable for those that were able to do it, the tourism industry is hurting. While I hope businesses and families who have their livelihoods depend on tourism will recover and flourish, I do hope COVID-19 will change the tourism industry for the better. I hope the crisis helps us rethink everything. While I hope there will be improvements in hygiene and ticket flexibility I know and fear overtourism will make a very swift comeback. COVID-19 is a unique window of opportunity where change can be made. Here are some of my post COVID wishes:

  • I hope we see more genuine local business flourish because of a healthy flow of tourists.
  • I hope governments will rethink tourism policies and fight overtourism more than ever before.
  • Although I am not against cruises, I do hope (port) authorities and cruise lines will take measures to curb the immense effect a cruise ship can have on the liveability of a destination. Smart planning and spreading cruise arrivals over time and locations works, so lets do it. Now is the time.

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