Everybody loves a good comeback story, and we might be on the precipice of yet another one in the travel industry.
Travelers, airlines, and the entire travel industry have been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, with twists and turn and an unpredictable future ahead. When will travel return to something close to normal? And what does normal even look like anymore?
We knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but even the most pessimistic travelers hoped travel would bounce back faster than it has. After months and months of pain, unfulfilled wanderlust, e-credits, vouchers, and fits and starts, travel remains suppressed as the fast-spreading Delta variant continues to keep “normal” out of reach.
But at Thrifty Traveler, our data is showing a renewed zest for travel among our readers and subscribers. So we wanted to see if other indicators across the travel landscape were showing something similar: A renewed hope for returning to travel.
And that’s just what we found.
COVID-19 Cases are Trending Down Again
We have to start with the single most important indicator – the numbers upon which this whole industry and our lives hinge: The COVID-19 pandemic.
This deadly respiratory illness has cost so many so much, the least of which was their travel plans. After a scary surge in both cases and deaths over the summer that rivaled the worst of the pandemic, things appeared to turn around in September. COVID-19 cases are declining across the U.S. – and in many other countries, too.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the positive rates of COVID-19 tests – a key indicator among public health experts – is decreasing in the United States among all variants.
After a serious spike this summer, the Delta variant (shown in purple), is finally receding once again across the United States. And it’s not just the U.S.
Across the globe, countries that dealt with massive surges in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant this spring and summer have stabilized. According to Johns Hopkins University data, newly confirmed COVID-19 cases are declining in a number of countries that are key to international travel, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico, Cuba, France, and Thailand, among others.
That has helped stabilize the unpredictable and constantly changing international travel restrictions – especially in Europe. After two months of upheaval and tightening entry restrictions for Americans heading for Spain, France, Italy, and beyond, Europe travel restrictions seem to have solidifed. Meanwhile, the U.S. is even preparing to welcome back fully vaccinated Europeans and other visitors for the first time in almost 20 months.
But not every country is out of the woods. Other nations like Turkey, Russia, Tanzania, and Canada are still seeing increases in COVID-19 cases. It’s a good reminder that while things seem to be trending in the right direction, it can call change fast.
Flight Booking Searches on the Rise
As go COVID-19 cases, so goes travel demand. It’s really that simple.
Time and time again, we’ve seen the same trend play out throughout the pandemic. As COVID-19 cases surge, travel demand starts to recede. As case counts sink, Americans get ready to travel again.
And that means COVID-19’s ongoing retreat could be enough to spur a 180-degree turn on travel sentiment. Data from the online travel agency Kayak shows that while flight searches on the site have not returned to pre-pandemic levels yet, they’ve seen an undeniable uptick in flight searches recently.
As of Oct. 3, flight searches were 23% lower than at the same time in 2019. But that’s a marked increase from just one month ago, when searches were down 47% compared to the same point in 2019 as concerns about the Delta variant dragged down travel demand.
TSA Numbers Nearing Normal
Of course, it’s one thing to start looking at flights. It’s another thing to actually get on the plane and start flying again.
The best publicly available numbers we have in the U.S. for how many people are flying each day come from the TSA. Those travel numbers across the U.S. have fluctuated throughout the pandemic, but there was a trend there, too: After collapsing last March, travel has been on a slow-yet-steady upswing – with a few dips and curves.
The rise of the Delta variant and the end of the traditional summer travel season brought yet another dip, as you can see in our interactive graphic comparing pandemic-era travel numbers to 2019. But you can also see travel numbers increasing starting in mid-September.
Let’s look at a specific day. Last Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, about 1.85 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints. On that same Monday in September 2019, about 2.37 million passengers went through security. That means we saw about 78% of the passenger volume as the same day in 2019.
Of course, 80% of 2019 numbers isn’t a full resurgence. But remember: There are still fewer flights being offered by the airlines this fall than back in 2019 – especially with so many international destinations still closed or limited for American travelers. And the U.S. still has its own strict rules in place for international travelers who would otherwise be crossing security checkpoints in the U.S. on to their next destinations or back to their home countries.
So despite the fall usually being a lighter leisure travel time period for Americans, we are inching back toward pre-pandemic security checkpoint screening numbers with increasing numbers. It may not be a straight line, but we’re getting there.
Even Business Travel is Coming Back
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of business travelers to the travel industry.
Airlines and hotel chains alike have built their business models around corporate travel. Those pricey first class seats and last-minute tickets may occupy a small piece of the plane, but they make up a majority of airlines’ revenue. As companies big and small shut off corporate travel when the pandemic struck, they all but disappeared, leaving industry watchers to wonder whether the rise of Zoom could leave business travel in the dust.
Data from the business travel management company TripActions shows that you shouldn’t bury business travel quite yet.
From August to September – a high demand period for business travelers despite being a shoulder season for leisure travelers – TripActions data shows it saw a 43% increase in business bookings – with a 55% increase in bookings over the past four weeks.
Interestingly, during the same period, the cancellation rate for flights originating in the U.S. dropped to less than 8%. In September, the cancellation rate was almost 9% – way below the nearly 18% rate for August.
To put it simply: More business travelers are booking flights – and they’re canceling fewer flights, too.
Earlier this year, Thrifty Traveler Premium subscribers were sent some low fares on business class seats across the Atlantic in the absence of business travelers, but that trend may too be turning around.
TripActions also says flight booking originating in Europe (including the U.K.) increased 130% month-over-month as the U.S. announced its plans to welcome back Europeans.
Reasons for Caution
Predictions during COVID-19 can be tricky. If we’ve learned one thing during this pandemic, it’s that COVID-19 is unpredictable and can always get ahead of us. This spring we thought we were emerging from the pandemic for good only to be sucked back in by the Delta variant.
While it is OK to read this data and be optimistic about your travel future, it’s still as important as ever to book travel smarter during uncertain times.
Make sure you book fares that can be changed or canceled for free. Book directly with the airlines and use a credit card. Be flexible, and expect changes to your travel plans so you can stay ahead of the curve.
It’s still far too early to declare the pandemic over, and a return to normal in travel remains months away or more. But after a grim summer, things seem to be trending in the right way once again.
After months of fits and starts, we think this data means you can be optimistic about your future travel again.