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What we'll miss about pandemic travel: Cheap tickets, empty middle seats, short TSA lines

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Strange as it may sound, you’re probably going to miss pandemic travel. 

No, not the strict face mask rules, the seemingly endless quarantines and the testing requirements that didn’t always make sense. But admit it: There were things about the pandemic travel that were great.

“While the pandemic created many challenges, it definitely provided benefits for some travelers as well,” says Sertan Kabadayi, a frequent traveler and a marketing professor at New York’s Fordham University.

He says air travelers benefited the most from pandemic-related changes.

“Having fewer passengers on each flight meant much quicker and better-organized boarding and deboarding for the flights, and much faster luggage delivery upon arrival,” he says.

A passenger walks past empty American Airlines check-in terminals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12, 2020.

A passenger walks past empty American Airlines check-in terminals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12, 2020.
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS, AFP via Getty Images

Sertan Kabadayi, marketing professor at New York’s Fordham University
Having fewer passengers on each flight meant much quicker and better-organized boarding and deboarding for the flights, and much faster luggage delivery upon arrival.

COVID-19 turned travel inside out. Prices plummeted. Travel policies became shockingly consumer-friendly. People were nicer, and they respected your personal space. Some – but not all – of those things will revert to pre-2020 travel norms once the pandemic fades.

“Pandemic travelers have enjoyed the simplicity of travel,” says Alan Fyall, a tourism marketing professor at the University of Central Florida. “Vacationing outdoors, in state and national parks, and going to uncrowded beaches. The hassles of much domestic and certainly international travel became a distant memory.”

An aerial view of Hermosa Beach, California, shows a sparsely populated beach on July 12, 2020.

An aerial view of Hermosa Beach, California, shows a sparsely populated beach on July 12, 2020.
DAVID MCNEW, AFP via Getty Images

Alan Fyall, a tourism marketing professor at the University of Central Florida
Pandemic travelers have enjoyed the simplicity of travel. Vacationing outdoors, in state and national parks, and going to uncrowded beaches. The hassles of much domestic and certainly international travel became a distant memory.

Visitors take pictures of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California on June 11, 2020, the day the park reopened after shutting down in March 2020.

Visitors take pictures of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California on June 11, 2020, the day the park reopened after shutting down in March 2020.
Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

Robert Herbst will miss the solitary experience of getting screened at LaGuardia Airport on a recent Friday morning. “I was the only person,” says Herbst, an attorney from Larchmont, New York. 

“I will miss that,” he adds.

I will, too. I remember flying from Paris to Los Angeles last April. My three kids and I were the only passengers in the customs processing hall at Los Angeles International Airport, a cavernous hall generally packed with thousands of people before the pandemic.

I stopped to take a picture. 

“Check it out, boys,” I said to my two sons, who were standing next to me. “You’ll never see it like this again.”

To which my 15-year-old replied, “Unless there’s a zombie apocalypse.”

For people like Eva Lerma, travel was so easy – at least in some respects. She’s a photographer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“The thing I would miss the most after the pandemic is over is getting tickets easily, without advance bookings,” she says. “I never enjoyed getting a ticket as much as I did during the pandemic. There were almost no seat reservations and bookings in advance, which made it easy for me to get a last-minute booking for any airline.”

Walt Bonora, retired federal government editor, will also have fond memories of the pandemic. He liked the lack of crowds in places that were always crowded, including his hometown of Washington, D.C.

Walt Bonora, retired federal government editor
Many of us saw the photos of the clear waters in Venice, of people in India seeing the Himalayas for the first time in generations, thanks to the dramatic dip in air pollution.

“Many of us saw the photos of the clear waters in Venice, of people in India seeing the Himalayas for the first time in generations, thanks to the dramatic dip in air pollution,” he says.

Alas, he didn’t get to visit Italy or India during the pandemic. His favorite memory of pandemic travel is a little more pedestrian: “No traffic,” he says.

Generally speaking, every travel policy from airline tickets to vacation rentals became more favorable for travelers during the pandemic. The companies had no choice: Hitting customers with high fees and prices during the pandemic would have sent them into bankruptcy.

Airlines eliminated their ticket change fees, which had often added hundreds of dollars to the cost of each fare. Cruise lines offered generous refund policies. Hotels allowed guests to cancel their rooms without penalty, even when their reservations were nonrefundable. Vacation rental platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo also loosened their refund rules. 

A lot of those policies will end. But not all of them.

A traveler checks in for a flight at O'Hare International Airport on Nov. 24, 2020, in Chicago.

A traveler checks in for a flight at O’Hare International Airport on Nov. 24, 2020, in Chicago.
Scott Olson, Getty Images

Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer, Healix International
No-contact interactions are likely to prevail in the years to come. The move to a fully-automated travel experience with electronic boarding passes, automated check-in procedures and passport checks at the border will become the norm in a post-pandemic world.

If you’re a germaphobe, there’s good news. We’re unlikely to go back to our old ways anytime soon, according to Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer, for Healix International, a company that provides travel, health and security risk management services. “No-contact interactions are likely to prevail in the years to come,” he says. “The move to a fully-automated travel experience with electronic boarding passes, automated check-in procedures and passport checks at the border will become the norm in a post-pandemic world.”

But many of the pandemic policies are quietly starting to fade. The customer-friendly vacation rental refund policies are already history. If you book a nonrefundable hotel rate today, you’re stuck. And although airlines swear they won’t bring back change fees, I think we all know what will happen when the industry regains its altitude. Airlines sure do love their fees!

But some travel experts say we can’t know for sure what we’ll miss because of the erratic nature of the pandemic.

“We can’t predict the future,” says Sherry Sutton, vice president of marketing at Travel Insured International. “Both in terms of regulations and the way we’re going to feel about leaving home when the time comes.”

But not every departure will be unwelcome. Phillip Barbb, a TV producer from Los Angeles, recently flew to Mexico. He posted a photo of an almost deserted airport concourse on social media. A reader posted an expletive-filled rant excoriating him for traveling during the pandemic.

“I’m not going to miss that,” he says.

Empty middle seats. Some airlines blocked off the middle seats during the pandemic as a safety precaution. But as the pandemic wore on, they started filling them again. When the pandemic is over, we’ll revert to “sardine” class.

Many seats aboard an American Airlines flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 15, 2020, were empty. No more. Going into the summer travel season this year, many flights are full.

Many seats aboard an American Airlines flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 15, 2020, were empty. No more. Going into the summer travel season this year, many flights are full.
Chris Graythen, Getty Images

Social distancing. From hotels to restaurants, travel companies implemented social distancing rules that kept guests apart – and gave them lots of space. When the pandemic lifts, social distancing will probably fade away.

Simplicity. In some ways, travel became uncomplicated during the pandemic. Flight attendants didn’t ask you for n a snack preference – they just handed you a plastic bag with pretzels and water. Your vacation choices were limited to camping in your state park. But it’s about to get more complicated. 

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