What travel lessons can we learn from Covid-19?

July 10, 2020
Photo of a Polar Bear by Hans Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

In a pre-pandemic world, this week we would have embarked on an eight-week adventure exploring the Arctic and Scandinavia.

We planned to sail around Svalbard to spot polar bears, cruise the Norwegian fjords, bike the Lofoten Islands and hike the glaciers of Southern Greenland.

But like millions of people around the world an out of control deadly coronavirus has totally upended our travel plans. Instead of exploring the world, we’re now counting the cost of cancellations. Anxiety about losing money has replaced our excitement for the adventure of a lifetime.

Getting a refund vs keeping travel companies afloat

It’s a weird dilemma. We’re trying to recoup the cost of deposits, pre-paid flights and tours, yet travel companies are desperately trying to hang onto these monies to avoid going out of business.

Travel insurance companies aren’t coming to the rescue. They don’t cover pandemics, even if you bought your policy long before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. So it’s up to individual travel companies to strike a balance between staying afloat and keeping customers happy.

Some of the larger airlines like JAL and SAS have provided us with refunds. That’s because they’d cancelled our flights or we’d booked refundable airfares. We had expected to wait up to four months to get our money back but fortunately the turnaround has been much faster. We felt like we’d won the lottery when the money landed back in our account!

For other sectors with smaller airlines like Air Greenland and Wideroe we’re playing a wait and see game, hoping the airlines cancel our flights. At this stage they’re not offering vouchers or credits to rebook at a later time, and unfortunately for us, they’re non-refundable fares.

It’s extremely frustrating. Australia’s borders are closed. It’s not our fault we can’t travel. Is it reasonable that travel providers half a world away take a hard-line approach? Thanks for your money. So sad. Too bad.

We have plenty of friends with similar stories. Wrangling with travel companies, waiting patiently for refunds, sacrificing deposits, negotiating credits, hoping they can rebook sometime in the future.

One friend has taken a big hit on her Virgin flights, fearful that if she doesn’t take what she can now, she’ll get nothing at all back from the bankrupt airline. Another is waiting on $18,000 for pre-booked travel from a major travel agency. And yet another is anxiously awaiting a refund on the business class airfares she splashed out on for a special ‘0’ birthday.

Can you really take the same trip next year?

We still want to take a similar Arctic-Scandi trip when it’s safe to travel again so we’ve agreed to let some travel companies hold thousands of dollars in deposits for 2021, even up to 2023. We want to support them, and we want them to survive.

But a lot of travellers have lost their income too. My work contract terminated prematurely. My partner hasn’t worked for months. While we hope the travel companies holding our money for the future will be around to deliver their service, we’re also hoping we’re in a position to travel one, two, maybe three years down the track.

Thankfully we’d booked most, though not all, of our accommodation through and enjoyed free cancellation up to 24 hours before our stay. I still wake up at night every now and then worried I’ve forgotten to cancel a hotel here, a day trip there. Our holiday had so many different moving parts it’s taken a lot of work to undo the months and months of planning.

Travel lessons learned from Covid-19

So, what about the future of travel? There’s been so much speculation and discussion about what travel might look like post the pandemic. From Australia the outlook seems rather grim with predictions that travel won’t get back to what we consider ‘normal’ until 2023. We can only hope a vaccine arrives sooner rather than later.

And what about lessons for how we book travel in the future? What will change?

  • Hotels: It’s hard not to be tempted by the non-refundable pay upfront cheaper hotel rates. You can save yourself a lot of money. But the experience of Covid-19 has shown this option isn’t so cheap after all. Travellers will likely be more cautious in future, sacrificing price for the security of being able to cancel accommodation up to 24 hours before a stay.
  • Hygiene: When looking for places to stay travellers will want to know all about the hygiene practices and cleanliness of hotels and accommodation to make sure they’re safe and following the highest standards.
  • Flights: When booking flights, make sure you’re really clear on the cancellation terms. It’s easy to be seduced by the super cheap airfares. The difference in price between a sale fare and a regular flexible fare is enormous so for most people opting for the flexi fare isn’t an affordable alternative. There’s often another fare class between the non-refundable and flexible fares, where you can pay a cancellation fee. We booked some really cheap fares for our Scandinavian holiday but they also had really steep cancellation fees.
  • Advance bookings: Some travellers are extremely organised and book their trips well in advance. It can be cheaper to do this but generally it’s about securing a spot on a very popular trip. In future you may need to book tours well in advance; while attractions like Zoos and museums are reopening after Covid you must book online ahead of time as there are strict limits on how many visitors they can safely manage. Again, be really clear on your re-booking and cancellation options and any associated fees.
  • Domestic vs International travel: In the short term people will be travelling at home, taking road trips and exploring their own backyard, an unexpected bonus for regional tourism which in some areas in Australia has suffered a double whammy of devastating bushfires and the Covid-19 shutdown.
  • Travel insurance: While it hasn’t helped in a pandemic, you should buy travel insurance as soon as you’ve booked a trip and outlaid money. It’s usually the last thing people think of before a holiday and it’s a bit of a grudge purchase, but it’s absolutely essential.

Are there any other lessons we can learn about how to book travel in the future? How do you think travellers will change their behaviour? Share in the comments below.

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