How Would Travel Look Like In 2021?

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One or six of these travel predictions might just happen this year.

2020 has not been a kind year for travel. With closed borders, empty airports, and many airlines in financial peril, COVID-19 presents a challenge like none other.

While the ushering in of 2021 isn’t going to magically resolve the crisis, it does bring new hope that this year may see the gradual reintroduction of leisure travel, albeit with numerous restrictions and precautions.

So what does 2021 hold for travel? Here’s my take on a few trends we can expect to see.

#1: Leisure travel bubbles

It’s safe to say that the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble didn’t quite turn out according to plan. Originally set to launch on 22 November 2020, a spike in Hong Kong’s COVID-19 cases led to a last-minute postponement of two weeks. The bubble was subsequently delayed even further to 2021.

While no official announcement has been made yet, based on Hong Kong’s current 7-day average of unlinked community cases, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see the bubble starting up in January.

On the bright side, at least the air travel bubble has established a framework that can be replicated with other partners. There’s been talk about potential bubbles with countries that have brought COVID-19 under control, such as Australia, Taiwan or New Zealand. I’d feel confident about seeing some developments in the first half of 2021.

As with all bubble arrangements, expect a rigorous testing regime which may include up to four COVID-19 tests. Given the current cost of testing, it’s likely to add a significant financial burden on families in particular – something that will, unfortunately, be a fact of life until cheaper testing is rolled out.

#2: Digital verification of test results and vaccinations

While testing has become an integral part of the travel experience, there’s still a gap when it comes to the verification of results. It’s no secret there’s a booming underground trade in forged COVID-19 test slips, and authorities are keen to tighten the integrity of the process.

Singapore Airlines recently started trialling a new service to verify COVID-19 test results in real time, a first step towards a potential ‘vaccine passport’. Passengers who take their tests at selected clinics will be given digital or paper certificates with a QR code, which can be scanned by airport check-in staff and immigration authorities to provide instant verification.

This is likely to become standard practice in the near future across countries.

In addition to this, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is expected to introduce guidelines that could pave the way for vaccine passports, allowing immunised individuals greater freedom of movement across borders. This is good news for Singaporeans, given the government’s target of securing enough vaccines for the entire population by Q3 2021.

#3: Travel insurance plans with COVID-19 coverage

As it stands, most travel insurance plans still exclude coverage for medical expenses or travel disruptions caused by COVID-19.

However, this presents a chicken and egg problem: if travel insurance doesn’t cover COVID-19, people won’t have the confidence to travel. If people don’t travel, no one will buy travel insurance. One way or another, underwriters will have to incorporate COVID-19 protection into their plans, while mitigating their potential exposure.

Some have taken baby steps to this end; NTUC Income, for example, offers a COVID-19 travel insurance plan that covers up to US$100,000 of overseas medical expenses. Sompo also offers up to S$300,000 worth of overseas medical coverage for COVID-19, and I suspect we will see others following suit soon.

Given the relative novelty of COVID-19, it’s likely that different insurers will have significantly different terms and conditions regarding COVID-19 coverage – at least initially. This makes it crucial that you study the policy wording before making a purchase. For example, NTUC Income’s policy excludes travel to certain countries listed on the WHO’s high risk list, like the UK and USA.

#4: Increased flexibility for bookings

COVID-19 has forced airlines to overhaul their changes and cancellations policies, giving additional flexibility to customers. Singapore Airlines, for example, continues to offer unlimited date changes free of charge for any booking made by 28 February 2021, regardless of ticket class. Elsewhere, airlines in the USA are doing away with change fees altogether.

While I don’t expect all airlines to go to that extent, we should certainly see generous change policies persisting in 2021 and beyond. A large part of this is owing to the fact that leisure travel is expected to recover before business travel, and leisure travellers are highly price sensitive. Such a policy removes one of the key disadvantages of booking deep discount tickets, which are usually strictly non-changeable.

Cruise operators are also likely to retain their enhanced flexibility policies for 2021 too, given the need to woo back passengers. Royal Caribbean, for instance, allows customers to cancel up to 48 hours before departure and get a cruise credit good for 12 months.

#5: Reduced elite status requalification requirements

Business travel is expected to remain relatively sluggish throughout 2021, which means fewer opportunities for road warriors to clock up air miles and hotel nights. To retain their patronage when things pick up, airlines and hotels have unveiled reduced requalification requirements for the year ahead.

Singapore Airlines, for example, has cut renewal thresholds for KrisFlyer Elite and PPS Club members by 50% for 2021. This is in addition to the 12-month complimentary status extension that was already granted earlier this year, and means that members will be able to retain status with fewer flights than they normally would need.

Hotels are also adopting similar measures; World of Hyatt, for example, has cut the requalification requirements for elite status by 50% in 2021.

Expect to see major loyalty programs extend these policies to 2022 and beyond, should international travel remain largely restricted in 2021.

#6: A greater focus on domestic tourism

With international tourism at a standstill, governments have been encouraging citizens to explore more of their homeland. That’s all good and well for large countries like Australia and South Korea, but what does it mean for us in Singapore?

While Singapore isn’t exactly known for stunning vistas or sweeping plains (you could drive across the entire island in less than 40 minutes), the government is making their own domestic push with the $100 SingapoRediscovers vouchers.

I would expect to see additional initiatives to bolster the local tourism industry rolled out in 2021. The recently launched “Singapoliday” promotions, which bundle hotel rooms, attractions and tours, are one such example.

Conclusion

While I’m cautiously optimistic about some leisure travel happening in 2021, I think it’s good to temper expectations. As the experience in other countries has shown, the COVID-19 situation is extremely fluid, and places which once looked like they had overcome the virus can suffer from unexpected relapses.

The key thing when making travel plans for 2021 is to keep them flexible (don’t purchase any non-refundable bookings, no matter how enticing the discounts), protect yourself with travel insurance (as mentioned, more policies should be incorporating COVID-19 coverage soon), and adhere to relevant government advisories. Proof of vaccination may be required to fly with certain airlines or enter certain countries, so consider that when deciding whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Travel in 2021 will no doubt look very different from before, but at this point, most of us would take what we can get.

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By Aaron Wong
Aaron started The MileLion to help people travel better for less and impress “chiobu”. He was 50% successful. This is his story.