As COVID-19 travel restrictions begin to lift, the number of international and domestic trips that people have taken have skyrocketed correspondingly.
Vacations that had once been postponed are now being reconsidered. Trips that had once been on bucket lists are now being realized. And booming demand has strained airlines and airports around the world, causing delays, cancellations, and uncertainty.
Jolene Stevens, 44, a Sammamish-based Disney Cruise Line travel agent for Travel Leaders, has seen travelers venture out more, particularly in the past year. Roughly 90% of her regular clients recently took the vacations that they once withheld.
“In 2022, we saw a huge uptick in travel,” Stevens said. “We are definitely back to seeing numbers that we would’ve typically experienced prior to the pandemic.”
In fact, in some cases, favored vacation spots have become even more popular than before the pandemic. Stevens coined this phenomenon as the byproduct of clients’ “pent-up demand.”
“We used to be able to tell clients that January is a slower time in Walt Disney World, but these days, it’s really hard to find those slower times. Disney World is popular all year round,” Stevens said.
Mandy Storer, 39, founder of the Sammamish-based Travel with Mandy Loo, said she has witnessed an uptick in travel to exotic destinations, such as Antarctica and Vietnam, which have replaced some traditionally popular spots, including Florida or California.
“I still sell the Caribbeans up to my eyeballs, but I have never before been asked about Cambodia. Now, I can’t believe how much there is to do there,” Storer said.
With all this sudden newfound interest in traveling again, airlines have not been able to keep up with the influx of passengers. Stories of delays and cancellations have piled up.
In late June, local resident Beth Delescavage, 45, tried to travel to Pennsylvania for her godfather’s funeral. But on the day of her departure, Delescavage received a text explaining that a shortage of staff had caused her first flight on United Airlines to be cancelled. A thunderstorm in Maryland caused an additional one-hour delay, which led to another staffing issue. Eventually, she was forced to spend the night at the airport.
“United had no more hotel vouchers…[but] I couldn’t get back into the terminal until I got my new ticket, [so] I found a chair, locked my arms into the straps of my purse, and closed my eyes, jumping awake every time the automatic doors opened,” Delescavage said.
Estella Lu, 46, was traveling to California for her daughter’s soccer tournament. She planned to arrive the night before the first match. Yet, due to delays, the flight ended up landing at 4:00 a.m. the next morning.
“Before the pandemic, it was pretty rare to have a delayed flight, [and] if a delay did happen, the airline would give you [an] accommodation. Now, you expect to experience delays and have to plan for them,” Lu said.
Pilot shortages, overbooked flights, and sudden COVID-19 protocols have challenged travel agents at every turn.
Storer recalls an instance where her client, from Redmond, had flown all the way to Greece, only to find out that her flight back home had been cancelled because the pilot contracted COVID-19. Storer ended up pricing several flight options, and found her client a way home through a connection in Frankfurt, Germany.
Travel agents have seen many of their clients adapt to higher uncertainty. For instance, people are now booking much later than before.
“My clients [used to] schedule trips five to six months out. But what I saw starting in the last year was that people were booking two to three months out,” Stevens said.
She believes people are unsure of the pandemic situation six months into the future. Two months is easier to work with.
Travelers are also purchasing more travel insurance or paying closer attention to cancellation policies, according to Storer.
With COVID-19 still impacting the way we travel, these trends may continue for years.
“The number of clients may not permanently be altered, but one thing’s for certain: the pandemic has quite drastically changed the way that people travel,” Storer said.