Air Travel

Airports Welcome Back International Travelers

The United States began welcoming back vaccinated international travelers on November 8. Here’s how some airports around the country celebrated. (If I missed yours, please send a link and I’ll add it.)

Airlines, tourist hot spots ready for return of International Travelers

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News)

Starting Nov. 8, the United States will begin welcming welcoming fully vaccinated international air travelers, under a new less restrictive set of Covid-19 regulations.

The new rules require that, with very limited exceptions, non-U.S. citizens flying to the U.S. from more than 30 countries must be fully vaccinated and test negative for the coronavirus three days before they board their flight.

“For passengers who are not fully vaccinated, the rules will tighten to require a test taken no more than one day before departing to the United States,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

The CDC is also requiring airlines to collect contract tracing information from passengers boarding flights to the United States.

The relaxed restrictions are good news for a U.S. travel industry that has been hammered by the pandemic — and (mostly) good news for international travelers hoping to visit the U.S. for business or leisure. 

Already, airline searches — and sales — for flights to the U.S. have spiked.

“We have seen an increase in ticket sales for international travel over the past weeks, and are eager to begin safely reuniting the countless families, friends and colleagues who have not seen each other in nearly two years, if not longer,” Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of airline trade association Airlines for America, said in a statement.

Along with increased tickets sales, though, come increased prices. The cost of an international flight is up by an average of 12 percent from last month, Adit Damodaran, economist for travel booking app Hopper.

“We expect international prices to rise another 15 percent from now until the holidays,” he said. 

Travelers heading to the U.S. are likely to find crowded airports and long check-in lines.

Many airlines are still struggling with staffing and retraining issues, said Daniel Burnham, senior member operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights. And because airline personnel will now be tasked with verifying vaccine records and Covid-19 test results at the check-in counter and collecting contact tracing information, “this will likely cause crowding in the early days of implementing these new rules at many European airports.”

What will happen to airfares and hotel rates?

“Travel searches on Expedia and Hotels.com have been simmering in anticipation of the borders reopening and came to a full boil the moment the U.S. pinpointed November 8,” said Melanie Fish of Expedia Brands. “Increased demand in 2022 is likely going to mean fewer travel bargains are out there.”

The bargains are likely to fade first at hotels in popular U.S. cities. “It’s expected that city hotels in the U.S. will be in high demand — a reverse in trend over the past 18 months,” says Misty Belles, vice president for global public relations at Virtuoso travel network. “So, say goodbye to low rates and flexible cancellation policies.”Cities such as Orlando, New York, and Seattle are excited to welcome back international visitors, who contributed significantly to local economies in typical, pre-pandemic years.

Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, notes that the new requirements for vaccinated international travelers visiting the U.S are “especially valuable for families traveling with children under age 18, who will be exempt from the vaccination requirement and allowed entry as long as they meet the negative testing requirements.” That’s a plus for the theme-park-rich Orlando area.

Kauilani Robinson, director of public relations for Visit Seattle, said “we hope to see our international visitations climb back to pre-pandemic levels, but know it will take some time to get there since travel booked right now is largely cautionary travel and booked at the last minute. But we’re expecting to see that increase as we get into November.”

In New York City, international travel typically generates 50 percent of tourism spending and 50 percent of hotel room nights. “International visitors stay longer and spend more,” said Fred Dixon, president and CEO at NYC & Company, the city’s visitors bureau. “The decision to open international borders safely is the news we have been waiting for and the shot in the arm for our industry.”

There is not yet a universally recognized mobile travel pass or travel passport for vaccine and COVID-19 test results. But there are tools, to help travelers figure out what will be required of them at the check-in counter. These include Delta FlyReady, United Airlines’ Travel-Ready Center, and Verifly, which is used by American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and others. IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has developed a Travel Pass currently recognized by more than 50 international airlines. 

Bonus: Here’s a short spot we did for NBC News Now based on this story.

Airport Tidbits from Here and There

Facebook and Instagram may have been down on Monday, but Twitter was there for airports to share news and fun tidbits. Here are some items that caught our attention.

Not vaccinated yet?

Please get with the program so you can travel safely. Many airports around the country make it easy to get the jab.

Airports are celebrating National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month

We love airport freebies. Don’t you?

Delta variant derailing travel plans

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

Summer travel was the big bounce-back story for 2021, with Covid-weary American travelers spending $6 billion on domestic flights in June alone.

The delta variant of the coronavirus rapidly changed all that.

Domestic online flight bookings in July fell to $5.26 billion, a 13 percent decline from the previous month and 16 percent below 2019 levels, according to data from Adobe’s Digital Economy Index.

August numbers are falling even faster: In just the first three weeks of the month, August 1-21, $2.9 billion was spent online for domestic flights. That’s 33 percent below the same period in 2019.

The numbers show that “U.S. consumers are taking the Delta variant seriously and once again shifting their travel plans,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. “At the current rate, we expect spend in the month of August to be significantly under July.”

Reports from other parts of the travel industry tell the same story.

American Airlines said last week that August revenue was coming in lower than expected because Covid cases were driving down bookings. Other airlines, including Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit, have issued similar warnings.

Travelers changing plans, canceling trips

A recent survey of 1,000 American travelers by Longwoods International market research company showed that almost two-thirds of travelers surveyed said they are changing their trip plans because of the coronavirus, up from 43 percent two months ago.

In addition to travelers changing plans, Longwoods found that 36 percent of American travelers surveyed said they have postponed travel to either later this year or early next year, because of the delta variant. That is up 24 percent from just one month ago.

“The summer travel boom is at risk of stalling out as we move into fall,” said Amir Eylon, President and CEO of Longwoods International.

Fueling the drop-off is news that Hawaii’s governor is asking visitors not to travel the state right now and more cities are bringing back their mask mandates and requiring proof of Covid vaccinations to enter dining and entertainment venues.

“The late-summer drop-off in new flight bookings is happening sooner and sharper right now than it had pre-pandemic,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

But Keyes says there is a silver lining. “This softening in new travel purchases is driving airlines to put their thumb on the scale and spur new bookings by slashing airfares to entice travel bargain hunters,” he said. “Airlines are also offering free flexibility to basic economy ticket holders for the rest of 2021, as United and Delta recently announced.”

What about Labor Day travel?

Looking ahead to Labor Day holiday weekend, domestic flight bookings are down 16 percent compared to Labor Day weekend 2019, according to Adobe.

Many travelers may choose to drive this holiday weekend, feeling safer in a private vehicle than on a plane or other form of public transportation. And while last year’s Labor Day weekend gas prices were the lowest since 2004, this year’s prices at the pump are expected to average $3.11 per gallon. That’s the highest since the summer of 2014, according to fuel savings platform GasBuddy.

“For the most part, people who were planning to travel are still taking their trips, while being mindful to take important safety precautions to protect themselves and others,” said Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA. “But with a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, it’s important that travelers remain informed and be flexible.

Ready for International travel? Check the “where” and “when.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris c. 1870, courtesy Ace Architects

[This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News]

International travel is back on the agenda this summer for millions of Americans who have completed their COVID-19 vaccination regime.

But with some countries fully open to U.S. travelers – and many still not – the challenge now is figuring out when and where it is possible to go. And what restrictions may be in place when you arrive and when you head back home.

“For the summer, the countries that have already posted their border openings are the most likely bets.” says Misty Belles, Managing Director at luxury travel network Virtuoso. “Many vacationers are already able to visit Mexico and many parts of the Caribbean,” as well as Greece, Iceland, Croatia, Turkey, and some other countries.

On May 16, Italy began welcoming passengers arriving on government-approved “COVID-tested” flights from several countries, including the United States. Travel requirements for these flights include a negative COVID-19 test before departure, at boarding, and on arrival in Italy.

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and United Airlines are already offering some COVID-tested flights to Rome and Milan from several U.S. cities. More flights and cities will be added to the schedule later this summer.

Other countries have announced various ‘opening dates’ for when travelers from the United States will be welcome as well.

Spain was going to open its borders to all vaccinated tourists – including Americans – on June 7. But that date has been pushed back to at least June 30th.

More countries will be joining that list. “But it’s going to be a hodgepodge this summer,” says Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights, “For most countries, you’ll need to either bring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.”

Lending encouragement is the fact that this week seven of the 27 countries in the European Union –Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Croatia, and Poland – began using the EU Digital COVID certificate, known as the Digital Green Certificate, a month ahead of schedule. Other countries will adopt the program that securely verifies the COVID-19 status of EU citizens in the next few weeks and “these countries will be able to decide if they will allow U.S. travelers to participate,” says Keyes.

What about travel to Canada, Japan, the UK, and other countries?

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says it is safe for vaccinated Americans to travel internationally, keeping in mind the COVID-19 travel destination advisories on this regularly updated list. 

Non-essential travel, which includes tourism, is still restricted between the United States and Canada. Ahead of the summer Olympics, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning against travel to Japan.

In mid-May, the United Kingdom rolled out a “traffic light system” for international travel. This puts countries on red, amber, and green lists. The lists are set to be reviewed next at the end of June, but for now, the United States is categorized as “amber.” That means anyone arriving from the United States must fill out a passenger locator form, provide notification of a negative test result prior to travel, quarantine for 10 days on arrival, and take a COVID test on day 2 and day 8 after arrival.  

Keeping track, making plans

While countries may be constantly changing their entry requirements in response to COVID-19 cases and conditions, “generally speaking, the one-way ratchet is towards more reopening,” says Keyes. He recommends checking the US State Department website for updates, as well as individual government and embassy websites before making any bookings. 

Flexibility and generous cancellation polities are still the mantras when booking hotel stays, airline tickets and cruises, or buying passes to theme parks, museums, and attractions.

But don’t worry if you are not ready to hit the ‘buy’ button right now.

“Demand is strong, causing availability to be limited in some places while also driving up rates,” says Virtuoso’s Belles. “While Europe is slowly opening this summer, fall is when people will likely feel more confident about setting their travel plans,” and when rates may settle down.