In August, Jackie Nourse floated on her paddleboard in Grand Teton National Park and watched a parade of private jets crisscross overhead.
A tour operator and founder of the blog Traveling Jackie, she was embracing the “explore your backyard” ethos of travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, driving a few hours to the park from her Montana home. Nourse had not flown since March, but she quickly realized that not everyone had sworn off long-distance travel.
“It was a constant stream of jets coming in,” she said.
During the earlier stages of the pandemic, many travelers took a wait-and-see approach as information on the coronavirus trickled in. The pause button had been pressed on cruising and group and packaged tours — the type of mass tourism trips some consumers typically booked.
But those with means were still traveling, booking private jets and isolated villas, being served in high style by attendants who maintained proper social distancing. If you were selling travel, the luxury sector was the place to be.
But Nourse, on her paddleboard, was enjoying solitude that could fit any budget.
She discovered that, even though parks and the outdoors had become go-to destinations during the pandemic, it was relatively easy to get away from crowds. “When you arrive, it appears to be super crowded, but once you get past the first points of access and reach into the backcountry, there’s no one there.”
As the pandemic dragged into fall, both travelers and suppliers who had taken a slow, wait-and-see approach were growing restless. Hoteliers and tour operators were encouraged by surveys indicating the public was eager to travel again: MMGY surveys showed traveler sentiment about taking a domestic trip in the next six months rose from 31% in April to 42% in August.
Seeing that a growing portion of consumers were both eager and ready to travel again, suppliers made adjustments and resumed business with new protocols and packages in place.
“When everything started happening and travel companies were starting to accept this new reality, there was a general understanding that the ultraluxury sector would be the most resilient,” said Cory McGillivray, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands. “Since that Labor Day mark, we’ve gotten a sense that normal life, or a ‘new normal,’ has started to return. We’ve seen a resurgence in our North America product, and the more price-sensitive travelers have started showing up a bit more than previously.”
Although the early stages of Covid-19 closed much of the world to all but the wealthiest, more and more options are becoming available for cost-conscious travelers. As both destinations and companies resume competition for travelers, deals and incentives are proliferating. After a summer that felt stagnant and static, the budget-minded traveler has options again, and, as Nourse found during her Tetons vacation, travelers willing to go the extra mile can explore spectacular locales without crowds, on a budget.
Emerging from pandemic hibernation
Hostelling International (HI) USA was one organization that, early on, took the “wait-it-out” approach to the pandemic, as Covid-19 threw the hostel model of communal everything on its head.
“We certainly didn’t think it would last this long,” said Jim Ruedinger, the company’s vice president of hostel support. “We thought we might have to put some new measures in place but that they would be temporary. I think by May or June, we realized some things, going forward, would have to be modified for the long term, or even permanently.”
When HI USA reopened some locations at the beginning of September, it incorporated new procedures including reducing capacity in rooms by 50% and offering private rooms to individual guests and small parties; limiting services in kitchens; and reconfiguring public areas.
Demand followed. The downtown San Diego hostel quickly filled up to near 90% capacity for Labor Day weekend.
“Short term, demand has been phenomenal,” Ruedinger said.
The economic repercussions of the pandemic -— unemployment, furloughs and salary reductions — has encouraged more consumers to be deal hunters. Nearly half of frequent travelers, a demographic more affluent than most Americans, reported that they or someone in their home had had their hours reduced, with one-quarter saying their household suffered a job loss, according to ICF Next, a consulting firm focused on marketing, communications and associated technologies.
Among U.S. residents who ended up traveling this summer, Destination Analysts reported, 56% said they decreased spending and 42% said they were more budget conscious.
“Great travel deals may find a more receptive audience amongst travelers in the coming months,” MMGY’s September Travel Intention Pulse Survey reported, noting that containing the spread of Covid-19 was a factor losing influence on survey participants’ travel decisions, while the availability of great travel deals was gaining influence.
“Like many travel companies, we’ve seen a surge for domestic programs,” said Nathalie Gauthier, North American manager for World Expeditions Travel Group. “Worldwide, travelers have itchy feet. They want to go and are eager to explore.”
In the U.S., she said, the company has been unable to operate most tours due to border closings, but it anticipates a busy 2021 season, with tours already filling up in North American and Europe for next year.
As more destinations, tour companies and travel providers come back online, options, deals and unique opportunities are proliferating.
For the first time, HI USA has converted three properties — HI Point Montara Lighthouse, HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse and HI Point Reyes (all of which are in California) — into vacation rentals, with private units for groups or families. Larger groups can rent the entire hostel facility, including kitchen, indoor areas and outdoor recreation areas. Reservations require no deposit, and guests can cancel up to 24 hours prior to arrival.
“Things are different and there’s a lot of uncertainty, but there are some really great travel experiences people can have on a budget, especially for Americans who want to travel right now,” HI USA head of marketing Lisa Jordan said. “It’s a great time to check your domestic bucket list and try some new experiences.”
Tour operators have also shifted with consumer demand, featuring more options closer to home and catering to private groups or families. G Adventures, for example, recently launched small-group, domestic day tours in Boston and Toronto to encourage people to explore their own home regions.
“We are putting together self-guided trips in the United States that are more affordable, compared to our guided tours and excursions that go to more remote areas,” said Gauthier said, who added that World Expeditions Travel Group brands including UTracks and Great Canadian Trails offer excursions for $1,000-$2,000, inclusive of accommodations, transfers, support and rental equipment. “Everything our clients need to have a good experience is included in the price,” she said.
While outdoor excursions have been popular during the pandemic, and many urban attractions remain closed or are operating at limited capacity, several travel advisors have pointed to cities that are offering great deals concurrent with the opportunity to see typically overcrowded sights with diminished crowds.
“Las Vegas is a great budget city. I was just there, and the deals right now are incredible,” said Debra Schroeder, former travel advisor and founder of the blog Traveling Well for Less. “It’s almost like the old days when you could get a steak dinner for $1.99.”
Schroeder has also noted exceptional deals on flights, rental cars and Caribbean travel, and she expects more unique offers to surface as destinations and companies continue to reboot for tourism.
“If you’re willing to fly, Mexico has amazing hotel deals right now,” she said. “With kids doing school from home, parents might want to take the classroom on the road and go to all of the museums in D.C., which are generally free. There are some spectacular deals on downtown city hotels right now.”
In Los Angeles, travel advisor and tour guide Derek Krantz, of Go Legendary Adventures, said his coastal hiking tour that starts at $95 per person and stops at Santa Monica Pier and Malibu Lagoon State Beach has been extremely popular lately as people look for alternatives to typical city tourism. In many cases, Krantz said, companies are now offering private versions of previously large-group tours for the same price.
“With so many people trying outdoor vacations during the pandemic, one of the huge cost savers for me is introducing a rugged part to the experience,” he said. “If the group is willing to go with a campsite, glamping situation or a yurt, you can save a lot on accommodations and stay in some amazing locations.”
While reopening under new health and safety regulations is one part of the equation, providing an enriching, enjoyable experience is still a crucial component.
Fabrizio Giulio, chief supply officer for Hostelworld Group, said properties in their network are thinking creatively across operations, including encouraging alternative greetings like “foot shakes,” Covid-safe beer pong matches and glow-in-the-dark “dancing spots” in hostel bars.
“Some hostels are also surprising their guests with free upgrades to private rooms, which helps with social distancing but also gives travelers an extra-special experience,” Giulio said. “Over the summer, there has also been an increase in families choosing to book hostels for their prime locations, meaning less travel on public transport, and lower prices.”
While domestic tourism is up right now, once borders do reopen, many in the travel industry expect deep discounting and creative offers and, perhaps for a time, government subsidies until tourism-dependent regions stabilize. Greece has cut taxes on flights, Japan is dishing out discounts and Sicily is developing a tourism-incentive program that will offer discounted accommodations in addition to free tickets to all museums and archaeological sites.
Globus’ Cosmos brand launched a North America menu for its “Undiscovered” series of off-the-beaten-path destinations last year that happened to meet the pandemic travel niche well, McGillivray said. The most recent offering, a nine-day Pacific Northwest program, has been particularly popular, he said, but he also expects more international opportunities to open up in 2021.
“Consumer confidence is starting to build again, and I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling of wanting to get out there. The next six to 12 months will be exciting,” McGillivray said.
“I think if you go to Europe in spring 2021, it will be one of the most memorable experiences you can ever imagine,” he added. “It won’t be quite back to its normal volume, and for the traveler adventurous enough to go when things open up to U.S. tourists, I think they’ll have an unbelievable experience. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see parts of the world like you’ll never see them again.”
And, very likely, at bargain-basement prices.