Look out! Here comes the travel boom

Pent-up demand is about to trigger a tourism explosion, but here's how to survive

Take cover! The travel boom is almost here.

Experts have been predicting it for months, warning that pent-up demand for travel would lead to a record-breaking summer for travel. Did it sound like they were all reading from the same talking points?

And now, finally, it's here. An almost unbelievable three-quarters of Americans plan to take a summer vacation, according to a new Harris Poll. That's a shocking 48 percentage point rise from a year ago. A related survey from PredictHQ says 75 percent of respondents have already booked, or plan to book, a post-vaccine trip soon.

This week's news from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will only stoke travel demand. Although the agency released a nuanced advisory that said people could resume most pre-pandemic activities if they were vaccinated, most Americans heard that the pandemic was over. 

The Department of Transportation quickly issued a statement reminding travelers that it still required masks on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation. Was anyone listening? Probably not.

So what to do about this travel boom? I think this requires a careful and measured discussion that puts science ahead of politics. The pandemic isn't over, and it may never really be over for travelers. The next three months will be crazy, and I think you might hate my advice on how to survive the summer travel boom.

But here goes, anyway ...

🎧 EXTRA: This is what the summer travel boom means for you.

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You can leave your mask on

Let's start with last week's raucous discussion about vaccination passports. I received lots of emails from unhappy readers after that newsletter went out and comments began to appear online. Some thought I was censoring them (I wasn't, but Substack, the platform on which I create this newsletter, makes older comments challenging to find.) Some thought I should be censoring them (I didn't, but on second thought, maybe I should have).

I always preface the comments section by asking everyone to be civil. But there are other common-sense rules. You can't spread false information, and I won't tolerate personal attacks. I should have done a better job moderating last week's discussion, and I will monitor the discussion more closely.

That said, my opinion on the benefits of vaccination and mask-wearing is unchanged. I believe the science. I've received both Moderna shots. Last week, my 14-year-old and 16-year-old got their first Pfizer shots. For the record, I'm also a proud member of the "MSM" — the mainstream media — and I've openly disclosed my political leanings.

And I'll repeat the advice I've offered many times in the past: When in doubt, wear a mask. 

We visited The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., yesterday, which has an outdoor mask requirement, despite the CDC guidance. Everyone wore a face-covering without giving it a second thought.

So if you're traveling, assume you'll have to wear a mask. Wear a mask by default. Only remove it if you have explicit, and preferably written, permission.  

Is the pandemic over for travelers?

Everyone around you may be acting as if the pandemic is over. But it isn't.

Look at that seven-day moving average for daily new cases! It sure looks like it's over.

But for travelers, it's a different story. The DOT still requires masks on mass transportation, and if you travel abroad, the requirements may be even stricter — if you're allowed into the country at all.

The truth is, the pandemic may never be over for travelers. You may have to wear a face mask on a plane for months or years to come. Quarantining might become standard in some destinations. This is no time for a victory lap. This is a time to be extra cautious. 

Don't believe me? Read up on the B1617 variant, which is tearing through India right now. 

Go on. I'll wait here.

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What to expect when you travel

That puts us in a difficult spot. Many of us haven't been anywhere in a year. We're vaccinated and ready to go. Everyone around us is acting as if the curtain has fallen on COVID-19. Late last week, Trader Joe's, Costco and Walmart lifted some of their in-store mask requirements. And now we have to deal with a crush of visitors this summer who are doing make-up vacations.

What to do?

Some of you may not have a choice in the matter. Maybe your kids have already rented a vacation home somewhere, and your attendance is mandatory. Others may have found a deal too good to pass up. I get it.

Here's what you should expect:

Sky-high prices. I'm not just talking about rental cars. Airfares, hotel rooms, vacation rentals — it's all gonna be through the roof. It's not just high demand fueling the spike in rates. Travel companies want to make up for a lost year. And they will.

Booked to capacity. Some destinations won't have any room for you. Period. That means your favorite attraction, hotel, or restaurant. Don't even try. Between COVID-19 capacity controls and soaring demand, you may have trouble getting tickets to even a second-rate theme park. I'm serious.

A lot of unhappy tourists. That's what you get when you ask people to pay more for less, of course. At the most popular destinations, you're likely to meet a lot of angry visitors. They have every right to feel ripped off. I'm looking forward to helping them on my nonprofit consumer advocacy site this summer. 

I'm on an extended road trip across the United States. And I've already started to see evidence of our summer of discontent. I fear it will only get worse.

How to survive the summer travel boom

I could pretend that this situation is manageable. Visit an alternate destination, take a staycation, or burn through your frequent flier miles. But who am I kidding? There's no escaping the busiest summer for travel in a generation. If you jump in, you'll have to contend with the crowds and high prices.

I've been researching stories like this for my other news outlets, and I have to say I feel a little nervous about it. My sources, all of whom work in the travel industry, have a vested interest in getting you back on the road. So, of course, they're going to tell you that the summer of 2021 is survivable.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that there's only one strategy that will work.

Wait.

I've been studying the booking patterns. In places where it's close to high season, everything will is already almost booked to capacity. Even in some destinations easing into the off-season, some hotels are more than 80 percent booked. You'd have to be crazy to go there.

But if you wait until after Labor Day — that's just 113 days from now — the entire travel industry will flip to a buyer's market. You'll be able to travel inexpensively and without the heat and the crowds.

Reporting from the front lines of the travel boom

I don't have that luxury. I'm heading directly into the eye of the storm. On Memorial Day, the unofficial start of the summer travel season, I'll be in an overbooked hotel in Virginia Beach. Then it's on to Charlottesville and Washington, D.C.

If you're a person of faith, you can say a prayer for me. If you're not, maybe just wish me luck. I will be reporting from the front lines of the travel boom. I've never been a war correspondent, but something tells me this summer will make me feel like one. 

I'm interested in your thoughts on the summer travel boom. Are you going somewhere, or have you decided to postpone your vacation until after Labor Day? As always, please be civil to each other in the comments.

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