What to Expect From Travel in 2021

By: Scott McCartney.

We can’t know the one thing we all want to know about travel in 2021: When can we confidently start traveling again safely? As we’ve seen lately, uncertainty continues with developments like the new variant of Covid-19 and slower vaccine distribution. But there’s a lot we can know about travel in the new year. Here are some predictions:


1. Get Ready for Prices to Zigzag

Airlines will respond to increases in demand for seats with higher prices much faster than they can get more flights into schedules. There’s tons of pent-up demand, and when it spills out into bookings, prices in some markets will surge.


Hotels in prime destinations will seem maddeningly expensive. Downtown luxury business hotels will stay especially cheap, since their core business travelers won’t be coming back in droves yet.


Airline pricing right now often follows our own hopes and expectations. I tracked tickets for the same dates each month in 2021 in five markets and found that tickets are really cheap early in the year—when there likely will be little travel—and more expensive for summer bookings, when airlines anticipate healthy demand.


Between New York and Los Angeles, for example, JetBlue had round trips for $211 in on the dates I checked (departing the 23rd of each month and returning on the 28th) in February, March and April. May jumped to $386—a more normal fare for advance bookings.


Fares for Thanksgiving travel are already high. That may be airlines just testing markets—they can always cut prices later. But this past holiday season has shown that lots of people will travel despite health risks. Airlines expect travel to be safer by the end of 2021. So American offers round trips from Chicago to Cancún, Mexico, as cheap as $207 in April, but its cheapest nonstop for Nov. 23-28 is $1,405.


Summer Surge

Airlines are anticipating stronger demand for summer travel, but so far prices are pretty cheap.


2. Health Records Become a Standard Part of Flying

Expect health records to become mandatory for international air travel, just like passports. That means vaccination records or recent test results. There are already several competing standards for technology—you’ll have your paperwork on your phone or loaded into your airline reservation.


Canada, for example, will require a negative PCR test within 72 hours of boarding for air travelers coming from another country beginning on Thursday. A negative test doesn’t exempt you from mandatory 14-day quarantine, however, and proof of vaccination doesn’t cancel the test requirement. So getting into Canada and other countries will require lots of paperwork, which airlines are expected to enforce before boarding. And remember, a negative test requirement doesn’t eliminate risk, it only reduces it.


Once the technology is in place, expect many countries to continue some health requirements post-pandemic. Air travel has been viewed as a prominent spreader of disease, and the first move governments make to reassure the public now is to restrict air travel. Covid-19 vaccination might be required for many years to come.


3. The Frequent-Flier Free-For-All

There will be a mad scramble for top-level frequent-flier status in the second half of 2021. Expect airlines to offer expensive ways to purchase your status if you don’t requalify.


With so much travel grounded in 2020, airlines and hotels generally extended the status level customers qualified for in 2019 an extra year. So you didn’t have to requalify in 2020 to maintain the same status through 2021.


The catch is now you do have to requalify this year for status in 2022. And that may be tough with business travel still grounded and leisure travel likely pushed to the second half of the year, if then.


American and United have reduced their qualification requirements for elite tiers for 2022 status, but they’re still significant. Delta approached it a bit differently, keeping qualification levels the same but saying that elite qualification miles you earned in 2020 will roll over and count toward 2022 qualification. Alaska says it will count any elite-qualifying miles you earned in the first four months of 2020 toward your 2021 earning requirements.


Even with those changes, depressed travel in 2021 may leave many people looking at a dreaded status downgrade for 2022, which may be the year they really plan to travel a lot more. Expect airlines to offer customers the chance to buy back their status. It won’t come cheaply.


4. The Mask Mandate Arrives

Bet on the Biden administration imposing a federal air-travel mask mandate. This isn’t just a symbolic move—some fliers are still trying to cheat airline mask requirements, challenging flight attendants to enforce rules.


Another change likely coming that’s substantive, not symbolic: Requiring negative Covid-19 tests for anyone, even U.S. citizens, entering the country by air, as others have done. This is a CDC recommendation endorsed by the airline industry. If it replaces the current Trump administration restrictions on non-U.S. citizens and permanent residents, it could boost air travel while limiting—but not eliminating—the number of people who enter carrying the virus.


On masks, federal fines and penalties likely would force more compliance. At least it gives crews a bigger club to use with noncompliant passengers.


The reality for mask rules is that there are limited places under federal jurisdiction, such as federal buildings and national parks. But airplanes are among the most prominent.


5. Recovery Starts Closer to Home

Domestic travel will be where airlines see some recovery this year. International travel will remain deeply depressed.


The good news is that we’ll continue to see wide-body airplanes, generally considered more comfortable with better upgrade opportunities, flying more domestic routes.


American has 1,078 domestic flights scheduled this month on Boeing 777s, compared with 401 last January, according to Cirium, an aviation data company. American didn’t schedule any domestic 777 flights out of Chicago O’Hare last January but this month is flying the big birds to Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas.


Delta has more than 2,100 wide-body domestic flights scheduled this month, over 700 more than a year ago. Delta 767s are flying routes like Atlanta-Tampa and Minneapolis-Phoenix, addressing higher demand for people seeking sun.


It seems likely that many people will vacation in the U.S. rather than venturing abroad until they gain more confidence that flare-ups and new strains won’t trap them far from home.


That doesn’t necessarily mean crowds at the Grand Canyon will be huge—lots of potential foreign visitors will stay away. We’ve seen this pattern after the 2001 terrorist attacks and other major events—travel rebounds first closer to home.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

Appeared in the January 7, 2021, print edition as 'Five Predictions for Travel This Year.'

https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-to-expect-from-travel-in-2021-if-anything-11609941849