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One of the questions that seem to come up a lot lately is, “When is it safe to travel again?” It’s an interesting question and one that many of us have also been wondering. And while a lot remains unknown, there are likely signs that should signal when travel will be restored.

Our thoughts go out to those infected and affected by the coronavirus

I want to start by expressing my solidarity with those directly infected or affected by the novel coronavirus. I can only imagine how scary and frustrating it must be, and I empathize with those who are dealing with both the health and economic impacts of this pandemic.

Travel discounts look tempting

While many of us are sheltering at home, we’ve noticed that the prices for flights and hotels have gone down significantly. But then again, with the number of infections continuing to grow, very few of us are willing to risk traveling right now. And even if you were to travel, you would likely face quarantines. There’s also the possibility of being an asymptomatic carrier, which means that you would be carrying and spreading the virus unknowingly.

Credit card rewards and points implications

Knowing when it’s safe to travel also affects those of you in the points and miles hobby. I know many of you are wondering whether you still want to keep certain credit cards or even shift your strategy toward a more cashback oriented set-up. Understanding when we will be able to travel gets to the heart of why many of us take the time and effort to collect credit card points.

What changes need to occur before travel returns to normal?

Recently, I’ve read articles of people predicting that travel may return as early as summer. Though I think we will need to see major changes in several areas before travel is even a possibility. This includes government and organizational policies, structural and societal restrictions, economic activity, and medical advancements. 

Government and organizational policies

Here in the US, we would need to see the State Department and Centers for Disease Control or CDC change their guidelines and policies. For example, as of this video, the US State Department is still issuing a level 4 travel advisory advising against all international travel. The CDC, which usually doesn’t weigh in on travel advisories, has also advised against any travel at the moment. Lastly, the World Health Organization also warns against any unnecessary or non-essential travel at the moment.

Before travel is even considered, these organizations would need to change their policies. And since there isn’t a vaccine or proven treatment as of this video, it’s likely that the policies will not change anytime soon. It’s also important to remember that even though some countries have experienced their peaks with the virus, many places have yet to see massive numbers of infections. So even if the State Department were to give the green light to travel, it’s still very possible that other countries would restrict incoming travelers to protect their own populations.

Structural and societal restrictions

The second group of changes that would need to occur is structural and societal. This includes the reopening of schools and businesses. These things would have to occur, not just to make the logistics of travel more feasible, but also to give us a sense of safety and security. You can’t even buy travel insurance right now since most providers are unable to take on the risks. Again, until these societal and structural shifts are in place, I can’t see us traveling, even if the organizational policies are relaxed.

Economic recovery and stability

We will need to see recovery in our economic situation. With unemployment at a record high, it’s going to take a while for people to feel comfortable spending their disposable income on travel expenses. Even those who remain employed may feel uncomfortable or uneasy about spending significant money when the economic outlook is so bleak. This was the case during the Great Recession of 2008, and I imagine the impact will be even more severe this time around.

Medical advancement toward a treatment and vaccine

From a medical standpoint, there are so many factors that could affect the course of this pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, an effective and widely available treatment or vaccine would definitely reduce the risks and boost the confidence of travelers. But with the testing that needs to occur from our scientific community, it could be another 12-18 months before these are available. There is also a lot of research being done on antibodies and how we may be able to boost the immunity of those infected by using proteins from the blood of people who have recovered from the virus. This is an unchartered territory that will require a lot of additional research and testing to better understand the feasibility of its use in treatment.

We also don’t know if COVID-19 will be seasonal. The virus may decline soon, then reappear again in the fall and winter season. This would once again disrupt our lives and shake our confidence to travel. Of course, this all remains to be seen, but it’s likely that COVID-19 will be around for a while and may linger and reappear around the world. This will likely impact our willingness to travel and explore.

COVID-19 may be affected by seasons. Though even so, it will likely linger until a vaccine is widely used.

When can we travel again?

I don’t think that travel will shift back to normal until all of these factors are addressed, especially the availability of an effective treatment or vaccine. And that probably won’t occur until the late summer or fall at the earliest. And even when treatments are available, I have a feeling that we’ll likely slowly return to travel.

More local travel

I think we’ll see short-distance road trips and potentially visits to places where there aren’t large crowds. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a surge in national park visits and a decline in theme parks and urban travel. I remember after 9/11, there was a huge surge in the number of RVs and mobile homes that were purchased. While I don’t know if that same trend will occur, I think it’s going to take a while for us to be comfortable going through crowded places like airports. Going on a road trip will allow us to still maintain some level of physical distancing from others while we slowly build our confidence and comfort with travel.

Cruises will continue to struggle as an industry

I think it will be a long time before we see people return to it. I think the nature and structure of cruises will be hard for people to accept, especially having so many people in such a dense and confined space. In fact, I think this industry will continue to struggle for a while given all the nightmare stories of travelers getting infected and being stuck on ships.

How will travel be different after the pandemic is contained?

I think we’re going to see some significant changes once travel begins in a post-pandemic world. Sanitation is going to be a bigger priority, which may not be a bad thing. I can imagine that we’ll see more places where it will be customary to disinfect your hands or wipe down surfaces. Crowd control will also be enforced in more places and more awareness of physical distancing is likely. Even the airlines are starting to offer flights with more distancing between passengers. I think that might be a good trend, although I wonder how places like theme parks are going to fare. Americans may also adopt the use of face masks and temperature checks at certain locations, which will be a big cultural shift.

Should you still book a trip in 2020?

So putting that all aside, I know a lot of people have asked me whether it’s safe to book a trip for later this year. To be honest, I wouldn’t book anything that isn’t refundable or at least has some flexibility. Again, even if things seem to be contained in your home country, your destination may be experiencing a different cycle and timeline with the virus. That being said, it’s probably safer to plan for domestic travel toward the end of 2020 until the entire world can contain the virus.

Final thoughts

I don’t want to paint a grim picture of our future. I do not doubt that we will adapt and evolve. But I also don’t think we should ignore the fact that this is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. We’ve had to all adjust our lives to fight this pandemic, and many have been affected both medically and economically by it. It will take some time for us to recover, but I’m confident that we will one day be discussing how we overcame this global pandemic and came out stronger than before.

When do you think we’ll be traveling again? Have you all booked any trips? What will it take for you to feel comfortable with traveling?

Trip Astute has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trip Astute and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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