Where and how to travel while socially distancing: Predictions and suggestions

Now that we are fully in the COVID-19 era and nearly all global travel has shut down at the moment, it's given us time to consider what might be next for the travel industry. As horrible as the lost lives are, there will be a point when people will not only be able to travel again, but also extremely anxious to do so.

This break in conventional travel has given me a chance to think a lot about what might be next, and some of it seems like it might actually be an enjoyable break from visiting big cities or spending time on cruise ships, which seem unlikely to be accepting passengers at all for the foreseeable future.

Predictions and guesses on the near-term future of traveling

Clearly everything has changed almost in an instant, but that won't stop people from wanting to get out of their own area when it's safe and possible again. No one knows when it will be, but there WILL be a point when new COVID-19 cases are way down, and also many hospitals will no longer be overwhelmed. In many small towns it seems possible that they might avoid being overwhelmed at all, but it's too soon to know.

“Social distancing” appears to be with us for many months, or years

Like so many others, I'm sort of amazed at how quickly social-distancing became normal to the point that it can make me uncomfortable watching groups of people on TV on shows that were filmed months or years ago. My hunch is that nearly all of us will get used to this as the new normal and will be able to go about our lives this way for an indefinite period.

Fortunately, at least some of us will be able to travel while social distancing as long as we plan well and stay vigilant. Already it feels like we are policing each other, or at least trying to be careful and courteous by moving away from others who might be coming too close to us.

Traveling while social distancing should be the first acceptable wave

One thing seems certain and that is that we won't get sudden word that everything is “back to normal” as of the following morning and that we can ignore the virus. It seems clear that there will be a point in the future where “stay at home” orders can be gradually lifted as long as nearly all of us keep apart nearly all of the time.

That will eventually allow for at least some of us to explore our world a bit, or more likely explore areas within road-trip distance of us under certain conditions. One obvious fear is that too many people might hit the road right away, and that could put the kibosh on the whole thing if safe social distancing isn't really possible away from home.

The travel market will return slowly in specific waves

Another obvious thing is that some destinations and methods of travel will be off limits for much longer than others. Once we are able to actually leave home, there will already be a few very enjoyable places to go and things to do, at least as long as we all don't crowd into them at once.

Cruises

Probably done for 2020 and maybe longer. Perhaps cruises can resume once we have a vaccination or enough people that can prove that they aren't likely carriers, such as those who have already recovered from COVID-19?

Flights

Some people are continuing to fly, and fortunately most of the planes seem to be mostly empty so it probably isn't very dangerous as long as they are careful. But what happens when we are over the hump and many people start thinking about vacationing all at the same time? It's hard to imagine it being safe or wise to have passengers packed into planes as they were as of February, 2020.

Could airlines book planes so there is always an empty seat between each party? If a couple books seats A and B, and the aisle seats C and D are left empty so another couple can book seats E and F, it seems possible that this could qualify as social distancing. And solo flyers could be sat in seats A and C as long as seat D across the aisle remains empty?

The next obvious question would be who would be paying for all of those empty seats? Would airlines have to raise prices for the booked passengers in order to pay for all of those empty seats? Or would the airlines just be happy enough to have their planes flying again and be willing to break even until things got closer to normal?

My hunch is that dynamic pricing would answer this question and airlines would charge as much as enough passengers would be willing to pay. So if demand for “socially distanced flights” is high, the fares would be as well.

If airlines are required to also keep empty rows between each group of passengers, it's hard to imagine it being worth their while if they can only sell 30% of seats on any given flight.

Perhaps all passengers will be forced to wear face masks, once there is an ample supply of safe ones?

Trains and buses

My guess is that the near-term situation would be exactly as with the airlines in that they'd have to block empty seats. Trains at least tend to be a little more spacious than airplanes so this might not be as difficult, but buses seem just as crowded as planes.

Road trips (cheap gas!) to smaller towns should be possible before anything else

It's possible that you haven't noticed if you have been trapped at home for weeks, but gas prices have fallen sharply and are lower than they have been in well over a decade. Saudi Arabia's feud with Russia has contributed to the collapse of the market, but most of it seems to be about the unprecedented lack of demand. Suddenly, almost no one is driving or filling up their cars with fuel, so the oil companies and gas stations have to keep lowering prices in order to sell anything at all.

For better or worse, it seems fairly certain that this glut of fuel will be with us for at least as long as this pandemic is a major story, and perhaps even longer. So at least one saving grace of this is that road trips will be much cheaper than they have been since any of us can remember.

RV trips and camping for families should boom

The much-cheaper gas will also be a boon to the RV industry once social-distanced travel becomes possible. Since recreational vehicles tend to get between about 6 and 10 miles to the gallon, the cost of fuel was always a huge consideration in where and how far you'd want to travel in one. When it would cost, say, US$200 to drive to a national park or campground only 4 or 5 hours from home, they weren't a particularly efficient mode of travel. But now that that same trip might be closer to US$100 and you can pack 4 to 6 people in many of them, it's a much better deal as long as that lasts.

With much-cheaper fuel an RV trip will be fairly cheap, especially considering the RV also provides your bedtime accommodations, but they are also perfect for staying a good distance away from literally every other person on the entire trip. You can stock the thing up with groceries before you leave and even in commercial campgrounds you'll generally be spread apart at a safe distance, and still able to chat to some other nearby campers.

Tent-camping provides and even easier way of having family fun at a very safe distance. Campgrounds are already spaced apart more than enough due to the nature of the camping itself. My prediction is that reservations for RVs and campsites will be sold out almost immediately once we are told that socially-distanced travel is safe again.

Restaurants will have to change in the short run

Since crowded dining rooms will have to stay closed at least until we reach a future stage of this global crisis, restaurants will have to continue to be creative to stay afloat. Before the strict lock-downs many restaurants had removed tables or kept many tables empty in order to spread the diners out to a safe level. This should probably work again when things start getting better, but even this is a little unsafe considering servers would have to circulate among tables.

Restaurants will likely get creative with this as well, where diners might order through smart tablets or apps and then pick up their own food from a counter so they never have to be right next to anyone else. Still, that doesn't sound all that enjoyable compared to the old standard, and diners would still be somewhat close together in all but the largest restaurants.

Picnics and take-out meals will dominate

Especially in the summer and in places where the weather is pleasant, it seems like take-out meals and picnics will be the standard for those away from home. I can imagine a boom in the old-fashioned idea of a family picnic, and creative people can help bring picnics to a near art form.

Most parks have bench-style picnic tables that tend to be far enough apart that groups can stay at least two meters away from each other, but there probably won't be nearly enough of these public picnic tables to meet the demand once people are able to leave their homes.

I can imagine a whole new industry similar to the “tailgate” culture that has become so popular at many American sporting events. There could be portable picnic-style tables that might fit into the back of an SUV and folded out into a comfortable four-seater. Needless to say, it will be just that much easier for groups of only two people, as they can bring a couple of folding chairs and a little folding table in almost any vehicle.

Take-out meals will become more creative as well

Before this pandemic, the standard take-out meal from a fancy restaurant did not look much different from a take-out meal from a hamburger chain. You'd get items in bags and boxes that were usually meant to only hold the food until you ate it in our car or transferred it to a plate or bowl at home.

However, if picnics become popular I think the take-out meal could get much more interesting. Restaurants could provide optional “picnic pack” service where the food comes with plastic plates and bowls (hopefully reusable) for not much more money. Or we could pack our own portable plates and utensils. A picnic meal for those away from home could be much more interesting and enjoyable once restaurants are able to package them in ways that make the meal more of an experience.

Smaller towns will be better choices, especially those that are near great scenery

It's obvious that the more densely-packed the destination, the more difficult it would be to socially distance there. New York City is struggling even with a lock-down in place because there just isn't enough room for citizens to spread out while going about their daily lives. Fortunately, at least for those of us in the United States, that situation isn't true everywhere.

Smaller towns are almost always more spread-out than their larger counterparts, so they should be the top choice for people who want to leave home and explore. Smaller towns tend to also have attractions where people are more naturally spread out, so it shouldn't create much extra effort to enjoy visiting while still staying safe.

Part of the wonder and appeal of Times Square is that it's always packed with people, just as a big part of the appeal of national parks and lakes and scenic areas is that visitors are often alone with nature.

Museums and other similar attractions could reopen with strict timed entry

Again, if we are stuck with social distancing for the time being, then that obviously means we want to avoid even socially-distanced ticket and entry queues because we now have seen how long those can get. And we also don't want crowds inside around the popular exhibits, so museums will have to find ways to prevent that.

It seems possible that museums and other places could insist on limiting numbers of guests and having all of them book an entry time and probably also pre-pay for tickets. This would allow for smaller numbers of visitors to stay apart for short periods of time until they are next to enter. Once inside, security guards could help control the flow of guests to make sure each area only has a certain number of people within it.

Operating this way would obviously be more expensive since they wouldn't be able to allow the normal number of guests each day, but for many places this would still be far better than having to stay closed indefinitely.

Theme parks could do the same thing as long as they were strict on the number of guests they allow at any given time. It remains to be seen if this would be better for them than just staying closed.

Cabins and motels with exterior entrances could be in high demand

Staying socially distanced at conventional hotels could be extremely challenging. Having to restrict elevator rides to one group at a time would be necessary, and in larger and taller hotels this could make it nearly impossible. Even at a standard roadside or airport hotel with 3 floors and indoor hallways it could be difficult for guests to stay apart, although it could be possible.

It seems likely that cabins and cottages (including most Airbnb properties) could be in high demand since huge number of them have automated locks and check-in systems that don't require an in-person meeting at all.

There has already been a renaissance underway where old-school motels have been updated into trendy and kitchy accommodations. Those with exterior room entrances should be the easiest to stay socially distanced in. As a bonus, many of those older motels already have a reception desk that is behind a security window. Even without that, it should be fairly easy for motels and some hotels to convert to a system where guests can pay and check in without having to stand directly across from someone who runs their credit card and then hands them the key.




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