By Christopher Elliott (Original Link from the Washington Post)

It’s the biggest travel question of the summer, and maybe of the year: When will travel go back to normal?

We’re not there yet. Travel restrictions remain in place. Prices are unpredictable. And people are nervous.

“I would not call this normal,” says Sertan Kabadayi, a marketing professor at Fordham University. “I think somewhat normal would be a better descriptor. Even though we can travel more than last year and feel better about it in general, there is still a lot of uncertainty, confusion and even anxiety created by ever-changing travel requirements and restrictions regarding testing, vaccination and quarantine.”

Will we ever get there? That all depends on who you are — and how you define normal. But popular sentiment might overlook some opportunities.

“Ultimately, we will get back to a pre-pandemic normal,” predicts John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group. “We’re not there yet.”

Things are starting to feel a little more normal. According to TripActions, a travel management company, a plurality of leisure travelers (23 percent) are making their bookings more than 50 days in advance of the travel date. “That suggests a high degree of confidence in the long-term outlook for travel,” says Kelly Soderlund, a spokeswoman for TripActions. Last year, roughly the same number of people were making their reservations on the same day as travel. Just 13 percent made their bookings more than 50 days in advance.

Traveler confidence is at an all-time high, according to Allianz Partners. Its Vacation Confidence Index, which has tracked traveler sentiment for the last decade, suggests 60 percent of Americans will take a summer vacation this year. That’s more than twice as many as in 2020. 

“Right now, we’re seeing demand outpace supply with many Americans snapping up flights, hotels and vacation rentals,” says Allianz spokesman Daniel Durazo.

But what is normal? Boston Consulting Group has a simple definition: When covid-19 is no longer a factor, we’ve arrived. “That will drive a return to pre-covid travel volume,” says Lara Koslow, the travel and tourism leader at Boston Consulting Group. 

Some industries can put a number on it. For example, as measured by the number of people screened by the Transportation Security Administration, airline traffic is climbing this summer, according to data compiled by analytics firm Flight Business Intelligence. “We expect the airport throughput traffic back to normal by the beginning of September in the U.S.,” says Clement Zhang, the company’s managing director. “It will be driven by stronger domestic travel, although international traffic will still lag.”

TSA Throughput

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, says travelers’ perceptions of normal are linked to the vaccination rate. “As vaccines have increased consumer confidence as it relates to travel, we’re starting to see a return to normalcy,” he says.

Sharon Nachman, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, says from a medical point of view, normal is more difficult to define. It’s a complicated mix of vaccination rates among adults and children, plus hospitalization rates and the rates of new infections.

“Herd immunity equations are a mix of so many variables that there is no one easy number to pick,” she says.

From a non-medical point of view, normal is a state of mind. Byron Marlowe, a professor of hospitality business management at Washington State University who is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Austria, says travel will be normal when people stop being afraid. That’s hard to measure. 

“The definition of normal is when customers’ travel decision-making is not influenced by concerns around the safety of themselves or those they are traveling with,” he says.

Travelers see things a little differently. 

“My definition of normal is nothing short of pre-pandemic normal,” says Lee Walsh, a retired college administrator from Williamsburg, Va. “Totally maskless from beginning to end. Hotel amenities, the same as before, including a breakfast buffet.”

What are the opportunities for travelers at a time when the industry struggles to find its bearings? Warren Jaferian, the dean of Endicott College’s office of international education, says travelers should prepare for new rules, including vaccination requirements and mandatory quarantines. 

“Travelers should expect to face some inconveniences associated with changes, regulations, and requirements in the interest of public health,” he says.

But when a country or cruise line adds new restrictions, it creates opportunities. A mandatory covid-19 vaccination means some travelers can’t visit, which may increase availability or lower prices, or both. Smart travelers will tune in to those rules and make their plans accordingly.

Still, it’s an uncertain world out there, says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of travel insurance marketplace “The pandemic has increased travel anxiety. And that’s not likely to change, even as we move into post-pandemic travel,” he says.

Virginia Tech travel and tourism professor Mahmood Khan says getting back to normal — if that’s possible — will take time. He likens the process to recovering from a natural disaster. And we’ve just started the assessment phase. 

Travelers have been disappointed with their recent vacations, finding many attractions closed, which leaves vacationers unable to do the things they normally do. Even with places dropping their mask rules, there’s still a worker shortage keeping restaurants and hotels operating at limited capacity.

“The normalcy will depend on the extent of dents left by the pandemic,” he says. “And how much time is needed to heal.” 

How long will all that take? It’s hard to say.

“Everything is in a state of flux,” says Michael McCall, a professor of hospitality business at Michigan State University. “I think the takeaway for travelers is to understand their own risk levels — and comfort levels.”

“There will be some adjustments,” predicts Taylor Adams, the deputy city manager of Virginia Beach. “But things will eventually get back to normal.”

When will travel return to normal?