What’s missing from pandemic-era travel? Plenty.
Since the pandemic was declared in March, safety precautions and protocols have become the stuff of everyday life — at home and on the road. For some, vacationing within the strictures of a public health crisis will be worth it; for others it won’t. We all want to get away, but it’s important to have realistic expectations. Unless your travel plans include going back in time, you’re going to encounter significant differences.
Consider everything missing from Andrew Selepak’s recent family vacation in St. Augustine, Fla. When the Selepaks checked into their hotel, they weren’t greeted by an employee with a warm smile. Instead, a masked worker behind a thick plastic shield issued them a sanitized key card. The remote controls in their rooms were covered in plastic.
“The hotel was eerily quiet,” says Selepak, a professor at the University of Florida. “We found that many of the attractions were closed, and many of the restaurants were not open either. There was little to do other than stare at the ocean and drive back to the hotel.”
As Selepak’s experience illustrates, those who elect to travel during the pandemic will find the experience altered in ways large and small. If you expect to have the same vacation you would under normal circumstances, you are likely to be disappointed.
Corritta Lewis, a human resources specialist from Oceanside, Calif., recently visited a resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with her family.
“Because of the pandemic, many activities were closed,” she says. “You can’t help but feel a little slighted. You pay a high price to enjoy everything the hotel and parks have to offer, only to be told that they are temporarily closed.”
The lesson here? Expect a changed travel landscape.
Those changes often begin at your hotel. Like other travel businesses, hotels have adapted to the crisis in ways both welcome and unwelcome. For example, many have started cleaning rooms less often to minimize staff contact with guests.
“Some hotels have canceled daily housekeeping or turnover services,” says Juan Fernandez, a partner at Elli Travel Group, a boutique luxury travel agency. “The best hotels understand that clients’ preferences are different and are allowing them to dictate the number of cleanings and turnovers.” Others forgo housekeeping entirely and ask that guests place their trash outside their rooms for collection.
Turndowns and emptied wastebaskets are not the only things missing from the hotel experience. Alissa Musto, a musician from Boston, has noticed the disappearance of coffee in the lobby. “I didn’t realize how much I’d miss it,” she says.
And if hotel rooms seem to have less in them, it’s not your imagination. Items such as stationery, magazines, pens and pencils are gone. “Any items that can’t be efficiently disinfected,” says Chris Hague, chief operating officer of HotelAVE, a hotel asset management company based in Providence, R.I.
Also among the missing are some travel features that, frankly, needed to disappear. Airline change fees have vanished, at least temporarily. The all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast bar — often a showcase of low-quality, unhealthy food — is largely gone. But some travel companies have taken advantage of reduced customer expectations to cut amenities and services unnecessarily, customers say.
Ben Julius is unhappy with the service cutbacks. He understands why a hotel might close its buffet, but he believes that companies are using the pandemic as an excuse to reduce service and save money.
“I hope that travel brands don’t take too much advantage of this situation,” says Julius, who lives in Tel Aviv and founded a website about travel to Israel. “We need to keep the standards high and provide an even higher level of service to make people comfortable traveling again.”
Of course, some of the elements missing from the travel equation are less tangible than all-you-can-eat waffles.
“The freedom to go anywhere,” says Shaun Taylor, owner of Moriti Safaris, a specialty safari company based in South Africa. He is not talking about the obvious — the country-by-country restrictions that are keeping many of his visitors home. Even if you could get to Africa, you can’t just wing it once you are on the ground.
“People have to carefully choose which attractions to visit,” he says. “The more popular ones are crowded and will have strict attendance limits in place.”
Another thing that’s gone: spontaneity.
“It’s nonexistent,” says Chloe Gosiewski, a marketing executive from Camberley, England. “Everything has to be planned in advance.” She loves staying in hostels, where she can share a room and get to know the other guests. But the pandemic has removed opportunities to meet random travelers. What was once free-form is now structured and compartmentalized.
Perhaps the most important thing we have lost is the ability to connect.
“I miss people,” says Thomas Swick, the Fort Lauderdale-based author of “The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them.” “Now, after traveling thousands of miles, we’re still supposed to keep our distance. Gone is the handshake, the touch on the arm — the small gestures that make a traveler feel welcome. Not to mention the smiles lost behind face masks.”
Michael Brein, a Bainbridge Island, Wash., psychologist who specializes in travel issues, agrees. Brein says travelers are missing the nonverbal cues that allow them to connect. It is these small interactions, he says, that make travel memorable.
“Our biggest loss,” Brein says, “is the human connection.”
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