What they won't tell you about the return of travel

Something is a little off about this recovery — and no one's talking about it

Travel is back — but not like you remember it. 

Some parts have returned, others haven't. It's almost like a favorite character in a zombie movie who makes a surprise appearance at the end. 

Did he turn? In this case, the answer is probably yes.

This contrarian narrative (which also happens to be true) competes with the travel industry's sanctioned version of events. They want you to believe that the industry had a bad year in 2020, but now it's back, better than ever.

Wrong! This is undead travel.

Last week I offered my honest summer travel predictions, and you gave me yours in the comments. Thank you for that, by the way. Today, I'd like to hear how this wildly uneven and unpredictable recovery will affect your travel plans. Scroll to the bottom of the story to tell me or just push the big red button.

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So let's talk about the myths surrounding the travel industry's "recovery." Because believing them could affect your next trip.

🎧 EXTRAListen to my exclusive podcast on travel recovery myths!

Myth #1: The even travel recovery

You've probably seen the stories that say rising airfares and hotel rates are making vacations more expensive. These articles give the impression, supported by the travel industry, that travel prices are rising evenly across the board as the pandemic eases.

That's nonsense. 

On Friday, I met with the head of economic development in Virginia Beach. The city's hotel industry survived the pandemic with hotel occupancy in the 60s — meaning that roughly two out of three hotel rooms were booked. In Washington, D.C., the number is inverted. Only one in every three hotel rooms is occupied.

Some are doing better. Amadeus, a reservation system, just released a survey of its search data. The top five destinations based on hotel occupancy are tracking over 80 percent occupancy for the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. And those are (glad you asked) Moab, Utah; Key West, Florida; Sierra Vista, Arizona; and Destin, Florida.

How about airlines? You've probably heard about the "record" crowds at the airport this Memorial Day. Just yesterday, the TSA reported 1.9 million travelers on the Friday ahead of the holiday weekend, the most since March 2020.

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But take a step back. Air travel is a long way from returning.

In 2019, the TSA screened an average of 2 million passengers every day.

“This crisis is longer and deeper than anyone could have expected," Willie Walsh, director-general of the International Air Travel Association, said just last month. The trade group predicts net airline industry losses of $48 billion in 2021, which is a little better than the estimated net industry loss of $126 billion last year.

Myth #2: Prices are going up!

Not necessarily.

Airfares are still about 20 percent below their 2019 levels.

So where are we getting these breathless reports of rising travel prices? Some of them are anecdotal. Joe Blow wanted to take a trip but found an expensive fare or hotel rate. Others look at specific cities without taking the entire industry into account. So yes, maybe you'll have some trouble finding cheap flights and hotel rooms if you want to go to Orlando over Fourth of July weekend. But in other places, it's still a buyer's market.

On average, hotel occupancy rates are hovering at or below the 60 percent mark.

Smith Travel Research, the hotel research firm, also notes that average daily rates in the United States are $115, down almost 14 percent from 2019.

Almost no one is talking about this because it's a complicated and nuanced story. In some markets, prices are rising, but in others they're stable — and in some, they're falling. Journalists prefer to tell stories that are simple and sweeping. (I am no exception.) Prices are going up, so buy now! Or prices are falling, so wait to book! 

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Myth #3: The worst is over

Oh, I wish. 

Take a quick look at the daily new COVID cases. Do you remember the various times when all the pundits said, "The worst is over"?

I think the first time I wrote those words was in early March 2020. Then again in June and October. And again this March.

The truth is, no one knows. And that means all of the travel "experts" telling you to book now could be wrong. If you're thinking of visiting a place like Argentina, Malaysia, Nepal or Uruguay, they're definitely wrong — COVID cases there are out of control.

The worst may be over in your state, but the world has a long way to go.

What does all of this mean for you?

Look, we aren't dealing with a predictable or normal travel industry anymore. Travel died in 2020 and now it is, for lack of a better term, undead. It looks a lot like the travel we knew, but something is definitely off. 

I think the most important takeaway is this: Don't allow one single article or data point to determine your travel plans. 

Also, ignore the following people:

  • Anyone who tells you they know what will happen in the future, especially relating to prices and availability.

  • Anyone who issues a call to action like "BOOK NOW before it's too late!"

  • Anyone who tells you this is a perfect time to open a new credit card, join a loyalty program, or start collecting points. There's never been a worse time to play the loyalty game.

Hopefully, this long nightmare will end soon. Until then, think of it as a zombie movie — and watch your back.

It's your turn. What do you think of the travel industry's "official" narrative about the recovery? How does it line up against your experience? What advice would you give your fellow travelers as they plan their summer getaways? The comments are open.

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