How to Think Tactically
About Travel In 2021
THURSDAY, JANUARY 7, 2021 -- So you thought 2021 would be better, eh? How are those record Coronavirus deaths and Capitol riots working out for you?

But I promise: At least travel will get better this year. Kinda. Sorta. Here's what I've been thinking about travel--and buying travel--for the year.

THE FIRST QUARTER WILL BE A KILLING FIELD
Airlines want you to believe flying is safe because most of their aircraft are equipped with HEPA filters and they have employees ostentatiously spraying antiseptic and cleaning solutions around. But they don't like talking about pilots who fly with Coronavirus or passengers who lie about having the virus or fools who try to board planes with the disease. So YMMV on the overall issue of getting on an aircraft.

But what I guarantee is that the first quarter is going to be a Coronavirus killing field. More than 15,000 have died during the first six days of the year--and Tuesday and Wednesday each set new one-day death records for fatalities. I have no doubt today will be another brutal record. There's no place in the nation where Coronavirus isn't raging.

How will flying now improve anything? I get that we're all desperate to get back on the road, desperate to get a vaccine, desperate to travel again. But just wait a little longer if you possibly can. Why fly into the metaphoric teeth of this awful plague?

SCHEDULES WON'T BE WHAT YOUR REMEMBER
I won't waste your time running the numbers of what size the airlines are now compared to this time last year. Who cares? You only care if a carrier can get you where you want to go. And the answer to that literally will change from day to day. Domestically, carriers are flailing, launching and dropping routes with eye-watering speed. Even international service--once something airlines planned a year in advance and wouldn't drop without months of advance notice--is a sometimes thing. They are literally planning a month in advance and dropping flights at will.

INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS WILL BE MORE COSTLY, LESS DIRECT
Assuming we'll be allowed to fly anywhere internationally this year--and I'm thinking the second half of the year is when doors may reopen--expect to pay more and have fewer nonstop opportunities. I could go on for paragraphs explaining why, but consider: At the beginning of last year, British Airways flew nonstop to nearly three dozen North American destinations. Now? About a dozen. You'll find the same contraction worldwide. This won't just affect you if you're buying flights for business travel, it will also seriously crimp your options later this year when you're looking for premium-class award travel.

DON'T RALLY ROUND THE (HOTEL) FLAG
The pandemic has obviously depressed hotel occupancy and that has put immense pressure on the owners of the buildings. The chain operators who control the brand flags get all the attention, but it is the actual property owners who pay all the bills. Many won't pay--or now don't have the cash to pay--to upgrade their properties to keep up with brand standards. They'll switch brands to save money. Others will switch because they aren't being paid their promotional monies by the chains. That's why Sonesta, which had fewer than a hundred properties this time last year, is at 300 or so now. A big property boss (that also happens to own a chunk of Sonesta) moved hundreds to Sonesta last year when Marriott and InterContinental closed the corporate cash register. So don't hit the road assuming your favorite hotel is still operating with the same name as your last visit. Many will have changed flags. More than a few may have even closed permanently.

YOUR FAVORITE RESTAURANT MAY HAVE CLOSED
Restaurateurs have been brutalized by the pandemic as cities, states and countries close indoor dining for weeks and months at a time. If the restaurant trade group is to be believed, hundreds of thousands of dining rooms have closed forever. That includes humble local joints and the four- and five-star dining palaces that were our expense-account staples. Check out the dining scene before you take your next flight. It may not resemble what you last visited.

AIRPORTS WILL FEEL BARREN AND EMPTY
Even with the two strong pre-pandemic months of 2020, last year's passenger volume was only about 40% of 2019. That means airports lost six out of every ten potential customers. And it's not just that you didn't buy coffee or have meals or shop. You also didn't park at airports or Uber there, further choking revenue streams. When you get back on the road, you'll find lots of missing perks at the airport. There'll be fewer coffee bars, fewer breweries, fewer burger joints, bakeries or salad bars and many fewer retail options. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

RULES WITH BE DIFFERENT--AND CHANGE ALL THE TIME
Airlines have made a big deal about dropping change fees, dumping cancellation charges and offering more flexible ticket-change rules. What choice did they have? But the moment traffic turns up reliably, expect rules to tighten and fees to reappear. Yet they may change only on some routes or in a few select regions. Pay careful attention to the prevailing regulations when you book. Ditto hotels. The chains last year basically dropped their heinous 48- and 72-hour advance booking rules and retreated to 24-hour requirements standard for most of the last decade. If occupancy turns up sharply, they'll move quickly to impose more draconian booking rules again. "Resort" and "destination" add-ons, many of which have disappeared during the pandemic, will return as soon as the chains think they can get away with them. And about your breakfast: If you book a chain that promises one free, throttle your expectations. Grab-and-go bags of mediocre energy bars, yogurt and old fruit are the standard now. I do not expect buffets to return until the fourth quarter at the earliest.

WANT TO BE ELITE NEXT YEAR? GUESS
Airline and hotel frequency programs have logically been forced to roll over everything: miles, points, status, awards, whatever. And some hotels and airlines have slashed requirements to qualify for elite status in 2022. But others have told us nothing. Looking at you, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Marriott. They have been mum about how much flying and how many hotel nights will be needed this year to qualify for 2022 status. Maybe it does not matter since this will be such a spotty travel year. But it would be polite.