Beyond coronavirus: What the future of travel will look like for all of us

Apr 9, 2020

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It’s been 38 days since my last flight, and I have no idea when my next one will be.

The last time I was in a similar travel situation was my freshman year of college at the University of Pittsburgh. September 11th happened during my second week of classes and the aviation industry was immediately on hold.

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Would we ever be able to travel again? Was the world over as we knew it? These were very real questions in the immediate aftermath. But over time, our aviation industry rebuilt and strengthened. We learned to live in a new era with the TSA, long security procedures and a state of higher alert.

Changes in air travel

As we did after 9/11, we will once again need to change how we travel following the coronavirus outbreak. Packing humans into small spaces like sardines and not checking people for even the most rudimentary symptoms like fever will become things of the past. In China, for example, we are seeing planes land at intermediary airports for health checks before flying on to its biggest cities.

A health official checks the temperature of an incoming passenger during a health assessment at an airport checkpoint. (Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/Getty Images)
A health official checks the temperature of an incoming passenger during a health assessment at an airport checkpoint. (Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/Getty Images)

We created entire machines to seek out weapons and liquids on travellers (albeit with limited success), and we’ll need to similarly protect ourselves against viruses like COVID-19.  Wiping down seats with disinfectant will become commonplace for everyone, not just for over-the-top germaphobes. Face masks may become a regular inflight amenity — and hopefully not just in first class. We’ll also need to change how we sit on planes; as demand picks up, I anticipate airlines blocking off middle seats until they absolutely need to sell them, and then offering the ability to purchase them as a buffer as a reasonable upsell to window- and aisle-seat passengers.

Related: Everything you need to know about the deadly coronavirus

Passengers might no longer crowd the gate, hoping to be first on board. The desire to use the aeroplane bathroom will be even lower than it is now. And inflight magazines may never return to the seatback pocket.

Investments in technology

We will need to wage war against long lines. Whether at check-in, security or immigration, having hundreds of people slowly creeping along in small spaces will no longer be acceptable.

Luckily, we have technology that can dramatically improve those processing speeds, including biometrics. Why, in 2020, are we still paying TSA agents to run a physical ID under a black light and say, “Hmm, does this person look like their license picture?” Why are passports still physical pieces of paper with stamps – items that are just begging to be stolen?

While privacy is a concern, we need to look at the bigger picture. Millions of lives are on the line and viruses know no borders.

(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

We’ll need to screen passengers for sickness and build better quarantine facilities so we can treat infected travellers with dignity and respect. Right now, you need to have your temperature taken in order to eat at a restaurant in Hong Kong, but you can fly into the U.S. from anywhere and travel into and throughout the country without any kind of screening. We need to leverage technology to ensure everyone’s safety, even outside of our airports.

There are some early signs of this new reality. Middle East carrier Etihad Airways is testing new self-service kiosks that can monitor the temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate of passengers checking in or passing through immigration. Just as travellers to some parts of the globe today need proof of yellow fever vaccines, we might all need to carry special cards showing our immunization to other diseases.

Cruise industry

While it’s all doom and gloom now, I’m confident the cruise industry will rebound.

The Princess Cruises ship Grand Princess. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)
The Princess Cruises ship Grand Princess. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Cruisers are among the most loyal customers in the travel world. Cruise companies have constantly evolved and will need to offer better onboard medical facilities and testing for all kinds of illnesses. Better ventilation and sanitation systems will be needed to ensure that outbreaks can be contained.

Related: Here’s how to cancel or postpone a cruise due to coronavirus

I also think cruisers will need to verify they’re COVID-free before boarding and even at various points during a cruise. Just like the lifeboat drill is a standard part of cruising, taking an instant test before boarding and after any excursions could become commonplace.

Sprawling buffets are a staple of cruises (and Las Vegas casinos) that won’t disappear. But the free-flow approach to grabbing heaps of food will be rethought. Expect the same bounty of choices but with smaller amounts on display at any given moment. More servers will dish out the food as, let’s face it, none of us trust the existing sneeze guards.

Other Changes

Hotels are going to have to work harder to show guests that rooms have really been deep cleaned between guests. We’ve all found that nasty, random hair in the shower. In our new awareness about cleanliness, that won’t pass.

Travellers burned by trying to cancel trips are going to think twice about using online travel agencies. Expect to see more direct bookings with hotels and airlines. Travellers are going to pay a little more for refundable hotel rooms and seek out flexible flight options, like booking on miles. Travel insurance sales will be brisk.

Retired couples — those with the time and money to see the world — have been some of the most at-risk to COVID-19. Their days of visiting every UNESCO world heritage site around the globe might be over. Younger travellers might push themselves overseas earlier, wanting to see society’s great treasures now.

My personal future travel perspective

In terms of my personal travels, I vow to be more intentional when I do start travelling again. I no longer want to take the privilege of travel for granted. I want to make each trip count and visit the places that will push my boundaries while nurturing my soul. Hiking Macchu Pichu, exploring the Galapagos, diving in Indonesia and immersing myself in all that Oman has to offer are at the top of my list.

Related: A letter to our readers about coronavirus from The Points Guy founder and CEO Brian Kelly

Machu Picchu In Peru (Photo by jimfeng/Getty Images)
Machu Picchu In Peru (Photo by jimfeng/Getty Images)

These are all naturally beautiful places that are not overcrowded (with the exception of Macchu Picchu, which will be the first place I go before the crowds arrive). I know I’ve personally enjoyed the solitude of quarantine and reconnecting with the beauty of Mother Nature.

In a recent interview, I was embarrassed to admit I had no favourite national park because I’ve hardly been to any. I’ve been to Ghana nine times and the Maldives five, but never to Yellowstone. I’m already thinking of a cross-country road trip with my new pup, Marshall, before taking to the skies later this year.

We are living in unprecedented times, and while it pains me to see the travel industry in such an uncertain place, I’m confident we will all emerge from this crisis with a better outlook on travel and humanity as a whole.

When people travel, they expand their minds and become better people. Travel is an antidote to racism and it shatters the stereotypes that somehow continue to exist in our world. While travel can’t kill the virus, it will be a key part in reconnecting a healing world and reuniting the human race.

Featured image by Ashim D’Silva via Unsplash.

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