Sanitizing stations, social distancing floor stickers and nasal swabs were not part of the travel experience before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, they are a regular part of the routine. But for how long?
NBC News asked some industry experts to weigh in on which travel trends, technologies and protocols might outlast the pandemic.
"Many business travelers will lower their number of trips, and leisure travelers will shift from ‘hyper-global’ to ‘hyper-local’ travel for the foreseeable future,” said Chekitan Dev, professor of management at Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business in the School of Hotel Administration. “Businesses are connecting with their customers virtually and leisure travelers are discovering the joys of staying local."
For well into 2021, travelers will continue to be expected or required to wear masks and observe physical distancing, airlines have said. Airports, hotels and cruise lines will also continue making health, safety and cleanliness a priority.
“Travelers will continue to hold travel brands’ feet to the fire to keep their facilities clean," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.
Once the country moves past the pandemic, “We’re going to have amnesia about some of this and likely go back doing many of the same things we used to do before,” Devin Liddell, a futurist with Teague global design consultancy, told NBC News.
Theme parks, museums and other attractions will reopen, and the best operators will retain systems put in place to orchestrate the flows of people, Liddell said. For example, “ski resorts that require reservations will likely create a better experience for everyone on the lift lines."
Hotels will likely maintain flexible cancellation policies and keep in place the intensive protocols for cleaning guest rooms and public spaces. But instead of housekeeping only upon request or not at all during a stay, “elective housekeeping will be more about providing guests with an easy ‘opt out’ of housekeeping services,” said Bjorn Hanson, adjunct professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality.
Most major cruise lines are maintaining — and extending — the voluntary suspensions of sailings until some time in 2021.
After thousands of passengers became infected with the coronavirus on cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic, the industry has adopted a variety of health and safety measures.
“The buffet will move away from the more traditional self-serve approach toward a more crew-served style — something that lines have already said will likely be a more permanent change,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic online review site. “Changes to muster drills could also stick around beyond the pandemic. Rather than mass events that put all passengers in small spaces at once, we’ll continue to see this more self-driven.”
"The pandemic dramatically accelerated the adoption of countless new technologies and protocols to keep people healthy and safe and streamline the entire air travel experience,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International–North America. “Many of these changes will outlast Covid-19,” he told NBC News.
Those technologies and protocols include sanitizing robots, restrooms that alert maintenance crews when cleaning is needed, contactless check-in, bag check and credential authentication, and the increased ability to order and pay for food or duty-free items from a mobile device and receive a contactless delivery anywhere inside the airport.
The current pandemic will change future airports as well.
“We plan to incorporate many public health procedures into the design of our new terminal building,” scheduled to open in 2023, said Christina Cassotis, CEO at Allegheny County Airport Authority, about Pittsburgh International Airport. “It will be the first post-pandemic terminal to open in the country that will be designed with these issues in mind.”
Materials in airports are going to change, too, said Luis Vidal, president and founding partner at Luis Vidal + Architects, who has worked on over 30 airport design projects worldwide. “The use of new photocatalytic devices based on antibacterial, antiviral and ‘autocleaning’ material, such as titanium dioxide, silver or copper, in high-use areas, will become the norm.”
Airlines plan to maintain their stringent cleaning and sanitizing protocols, and generous rebooking and cancellation policies are likely to stretch out for a while. However, most airlines will soon stop blocking middle seats.
Coming back soon: the full range of in-flight services, especially at the front of the plane.
“The traveling public is not happy with the bare bones on-board experience right now,” Harteveldt said. “They understand the need for limits, but people are saying they won’t accept paying for a premium experience and getting something that is subpar.”
As the Covid-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, it will become a ‘must-have’ for travelers.
“I think for international travel, it will become a requirement, whether it's the airline that does it or some international authorities do it," Delta CEO Ed Bastian told NBC’s "TODAY" show.
The travel tool kit will likely also include digital health passports displaying a traveler’s vaccine or negative test status and travel corridors between countries with low Covid-19 infection rates, said Fiona Ashley, vice president for travel marketing at SAP Concur travel and expense management service.
While there are some great fare deals being offered right now, as demand returns, so will higher prices. And going forward, travelers will likely also need to factor in the added costs of Covid-19 tests and travel insurance.
“Travel insurance may become a non-negotiable as destinations continue to require medical insurance, and travel suppliers tighten their refund policies,” said Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer at travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth.
“The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of the global travel industry. I think travelers will be more cautious about investing in expensive trips without insurance,” Moncrief said.