Travel tips

Free flights to Tennessee? That sounds good.

Travel is back in motion. And now cities, states, and countries are going to all out to get your attention – and your travel dollars.

Case in point: Tennessee.

Just 35% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But over the weekend Tennessee states officials and country superstar Brad Paisley kicked off “Tennesse on Me,” a campaign to promote tourism.

The campaign is alluring.

“On me” offers 10,000 free airline vouchers to four key Tennessee airports – Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. All travelers have to do is purchase a 2-night stay at TennesseeOnMe.com.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s budget puts aside $2.5 million to promote tourism through $250 digital gift cards from Delta Airlines, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines for travel to Tennessee. The promotion aims to give away 10,000 digital gift cards to visitors who book a 2-night hotel stay in NashvilleMemphisKnoxville, or Chattanooga. More than 60 hotels are participating in the promotion.

Here are the details:

  • Visitors must book a 2-night minimum stay at participating hotels, including at least one night of the stay between Sunday-Wednesday.
  • Visitors can choose their destination city (Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga or Knoxville), their hotel of choice in the city, and which airline voucher they prefer (Delta, American or Southwest Airlines).
  • Book between now and July 5 – September 15, 2021. Travel between July 11 – December 30, 2021.
  • All promotion reservations can be booked through www.TennesseeOnMe.com, which details FAQs, restrictions and additional information.
  • All hotel package reservations are pre-paid at time of booking and are non-refundable.
  • One airline voucher is available per hotel package (not per person). Other terms and conditions apply.

Have fun. Let’s hope more states roll out campaigns like this. And let’s hope more people in Tennessee get vaccinated.

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.  

Ready for the summer travel tsunami?

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

Summer travel may cause some headaches

Memorial Day weekend and a unusual travel season are just around the corner.

Experts expect a summer travel tsunami fueled by a dip in Covid-19 infection rates, rising vaccination rates, and the reopening of attractions, resorts, and other tourist destinations.

AA predicts that 34 million Americans will take road trips 50 miles or more from home during the Memorial Day holiday, May 27-31. That is a 52 percent increase compared to last summer — although still about 9 percent below the pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

More than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) plan to take trips this summer, according to the latest results of a Harris Poll survey.

But with everyone rushing to go somewhere – anywhere – travelers may find their dream destinations hard to book or sold out already.

“Travelers should be aware that there is still limited supply, as airlines haven’t brought back fleets in full, there are hotels that haven’t opened or are at limited capacity, and car rental fleets are still reduced,” said Kelly Soderlund of travel management company TripActions. She advises travelers determined to hit the road this summer to book as arly as possible to avoid being disappointed by a lack of inventory or by high prices.

Here are some of the summer travel “hiccups” travelers may encounter — and some tips for how to handle them.

High Gas Prices

AAA says motorists will be met with the highest gas prices since 2014.

Gas prices were expected to flirt with $3 per gallon leading up to Memorial Day weekend. But last week’s shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline caused prices to spike weeks ahead of the holiday.

“Americans will still take their road trips,” says AAA spokesperson Jeanette McGee, “They just may not travel as far as originally planned and may spend a little less.”

To save money on gas, make sure your car is tuned up and your tires are properly inflated, join gas station rewards programs, and download one or more gas price apps to your smartphone so you can compare prices on the road.

Crowded planes, high ticket prices

Right now, flights are 77 percent full on average, compared to 85 percent to 90 percent pre-pandemic, said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “But hidden under that topline average is the fact that popular leisure flights to places like Hawaii and Florida are regularly seeing completely full planes. With Memorial Day such a popular time to travel, expect airports to be crowded and planes filled to capacity.”

While the dirt-cheap fares airlines floated during the pandemic are long gone, there is some good news for air travelers.

“Two new budget airlines, Avelo and Breeze, will introduce more low-fare seats and increase competition,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. In addition, “United Airlines just announced it is adding more domestic flights, and Southwest is adding new flights between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii.”

Long lines at security checkpoints

Passenger volumes continue to rise at airports across the country. In many airports, that means the return of long lines at security checkpoints.

“We are encouraging people to arrive at their airports early, like they were asked to do prior to the pandemic,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Expect longer lines at airports where the TSA is short-staffed and unable to open all checkpoints during the busiest times. Elsewhere, lines may stretch out because passengers who have not flown in the past year have rusty packing skills. In addition to finding a lot of oversize liquid containers in travelers’ carry-on bags, TSA officers are finding that many passengers are still forgetting to leave their firearms at home.

For a refresh on what can be put in carry-on bags, travelers can consult TSA’s “Can I Bring?” feature online and on the MyTSA app or tweet to @AskTSA.

High Hotel Rates

Have your heart set on a beach vacation? So does everyone else. So this summer is an especially good time to seek out hotels in secondary or alternative cities.

For example, Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, a price comparison site, found that while hotels in Southeastern beach destinations, such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Galveston, Texas; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are booking up quickly, hotels in Florida towns with similar vibes — like Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Myers and Daytona Beach — are showing increased availability.

Elusive rental cars

During the pandemic, many car rental companies sold off big chunks of their fleets. Now, many Americans who hope to rent cars for summer road trips are finding cars unavailable or renting at a premium.

To increase your chances of finding a rental car for this summer’s vacation, Priceline and others suggest booking your car at the same time as, or even before, you book your flights, booking a travel bundle that includes a car rental, checking for cars at off-airport locations and exploring services such as Zipcar and peer-to-peer car-sharing programs.

Shifting protocols

This summer, “travelers researching a destination will need to pay attention to how that location is handling Covid protocols and what might be expected of you as a visitor to the community,” said Tori Middelstadt of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Visitors Association.

That includes noting and adhering to the rules about masking. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can forgo wearing masks indoors and travel in the U.S. without getting tested before or after they travel.

But a federal rule not set to expire until Sept. 14 requires that masks be worn when traveling by air, rail, or bus. Cities, states, and individual businesses are still able to set their own rules.

The current unknowns of travel and the pressures around booking that first vacation in over a year understandably make many travelers anxious.

“There are just too many variables in play right now, from the basics, like availability, to the more complicated, like Covid-19 protocols. If you’re thinking about a summer trip, you need to move past the thinking part and swiftly get yourself to the booking process,” said Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Advisors.

Time to hit the road

Topiary Dinosaur in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood getting a spring refresh

Overnight car trips. Visits to roadside attractions. Airport hang-out time. It all seems possible now that the weather is getting nice and so many people are vaccinated and honoring all the stay-healthy rules.

When we go. We won’t be out there alone.

Our email is filled with studies, surveys, and proclamations about the travel rebound already underway.

AAA Travel expects more than 37 million people to travel 50 miles or more away from home over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. That is an increase of 60% over last year when a record low 23 million people traveled.

Are there deals to be had at hotels and attractions and on planes? Don’t count on it

“Travel inflation is real and deals are hard to come by for summer and out months,” says Clayton Reid, CEO of global travel, tourism, and marketing company MMGY Global. “While we do expect deals in city centers to some degree, where the recovery of urban hotels and attractions is lagging, demand is so high that prices are actually going up in many places. Even airfares are on the rise because demand is outweighing airlines’ reduced schedules.”

Deals may not matter

This colorful Tripit chart shows that vaccinated Americans are ready to get out on the road as soon as they can. What about you?

We’re ready. Our suitcase has been patiently waiting by the door.

Lessons from the pandemic: don’t wait

We’ve learned a lot of things during this pandemic.

Some of those things are way too personal to share here. Others we’re going to file under “do this going forward.”

For example, when spending days working and drinking coffee, we’re going to use the smaller mug and try to keep a lid on the caffeine.

And instead of putting away so many things for ‘the right time’ or ‘that special day,’ we’re going to use them.

Case in point: the one-way travel pass the folks at Seaport Airlines handed out at an event I attended more than five years ago. It may have been longer ago than that.

The small commuter airline was based in Portland, OR, and operated from 2008 through 2016 with service from Portland and Memphis to a handful of cities. One of those flights was between Portland International Airport (PDX) and Seattle, leaving from King County International Airport (BFI) – also known as Boeing Field. I was going to fly to Portland on Seaport Airlines, spend the weekend visiting friends and taking advantage of buying things with no sales tax, and take the train home. I put the pass away because I waiting for just the right time. And I let it slide.

The pass fell out of a folder today when I was looking for something else. And I felt sad about that lost opportunity.

But after I shared a snap of the pass on social media, Scott McMurren of the travel newsletter AlaskaTravelgram.com forwarded the post to Kent Craford, one of the founders of Seaport Airlines. He’s now with Alaska Seaplanes and he sent me an email saying he’d honor my pass up there. And he said, “I’ll even upgrade your pass to round-trip.”

Making plans now…