Book Now or Miss Out

Do you ever experience FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)? Well, get ready to have a bad case of FOMO if you aren’t booking your 2022 and 2023 vacations now. If you aren’t, you’re missing out on some of the best prices you will see for the next year. I know you’re probably thinking I’m saying this just to boost sales. I am a Travel Advisor, after all. But, I am confident I will have sales, so that’s not really a worry for me. In fact, in the first two weeks of January, I’ve quoted nearly as much as we sold in all of 2021. And there are good reasons for it. We’ll get into that, but I don’t want to miss a chance to repeat this call to action…BOOK YOUR VACATIONS NOW. I’m telling you this because I love to travel and love helping others travel, and I’m getting concerned that many won’t be able to enjoy the vacations they want this year if they don’t take action now.

So why am I so concerned? There are a number of converging, related factors that are simply going to eat up the capacity. Those factors stem primarily from COVID’s impact the last two years and its impending demise. That’s right, it will be ending soon, or at least that’s what I’ve been reading and hearing a lot lately.

COVID’s Last Hurrah
As a Travel Advisor, I attend a lot of webinars and read a lot of industry news. Over the last couple of weeks, I have attended multiple webinars in which travel industry executives or scientists have said the same thing – COVID infection rates will likely start to improve by the end of February in the U.S. and continue to drop until it is a minor concern as the year continues. Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a former FDA Commissioner and is currently a Pfizer board member, COVID-19 advisor to multiple state governors, and serves as Chairman of Norwegian Cruise Line’s SailSafe Program. Based on the information he shared that has been echoed by others, there are a number of new therapeutics coming and new vaccines taht will help make COVID more treatable and survivable. He also said Omicron has been so contagious that a lot more people now have the antibodies. That coupled with vaccination rates (including boosters) should lead to fewer infections in coming weeks. He shared that, historically, pandemics last three to 5 years and we are entering year 3 now. Looking at South Africa, where Omicron was first detected in late November 2021, peak infections seem to have passed and Dr. Gottlieb expects we will soon see the same occur in the U.S. On Jan. 9, Dr. Gottlieb said on “Face the Nation” that data indicated infection rates in the Northeast and Florida may be hitting their peaks, but did indicate rates could still climb in other parts of the U.S. Nevertheless, he has also suggested that all U.S. regions may see better numbers by the end of February.

More Demand than Capacity
Also, remember how COVID began in 2020. There were no vaccines and a COVID diagnosis was scary, a death sentence for far too many. As of now, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports more than 5.5 million people have died from COVID around the world. Early on, the reaction around the world was to enter lockdown and close borders. There was no travel for several months. Travel suppliers issued future travel credits (FTCs) and most need to be used by the end of 2022. While 2021 bookings were better than 2020, they still weren’t back to pre-pandemic levels considering many resorts and cruises operated at partial capacity. In particular, cruise lines kept many ships out of service and sailed anywhere from 40% to 70% occupied. As we start 2022, some of those cruise lines have had to cancel sailings again due to the high rates of infection that come with Omicron. As their crew members test positive and port destinations close, they simply don’t want to sail and give customers bad experiences or further spread infection. The result of all this is that we have people with pent up urges to travel after two years of COVID and people who have FTCs that need to be used by the end of 2022. It’s very possible that those who wait to use their FTCs simply won’t find a vacation available to use them.

Borders are Reopening
International borders have been reopening over the last few months and more continue to open. While keeping track of each country’s requirements can be difficult, working with a good Travel Advisor should help. Some countries require testing or vaccination or both. Many require registering ahead of time, submitting test results electronically, and being approved for entry. Some are doing random spot testing upon arrival. A small number may require quarantine regardless of vaccination status, and there are some with no restrictions or requirements at all. But, the overall trend is to get borders opened and keep them open.

2021 Provided a Preview of Travel’s Rebound
Last summer as more Americans became vaccinated, confidence grew that we were nearly done with COVID. Of course, that was before Delta and later Omicron presented themselves. But, during those few months of relief, people began booking vacations again. The travel industry quickly found itself grappling with a surge in demand, but limited capacity to meet it. Travelers who did travel learned to be flexible and adaptable. Many who visited Caribbean resorts found some restaurants and bars at resorts closed or service levels diminished due to reduced staffing. Cruisers found the opposite – amazing service on ships that were fully staffed, but had fewer passengers. We cruised ourself on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady and loved the reduced capacity sailing. We never waited for anything and it was like having much of the ship to ourselves.

People traveling to Europe found they had to limit their visits to fewer countries due to the various restrictions they had to manage. We had clients land in Berlin in December only to learn their hotel was shutting down. Thankfully, they were able to move to a better hotel across the street at no additional cost. And all these travelers had to contend with pre-travel testing, pre-departure testing, and navigating all the challenges with that. We had clients travel to St. Lucia last fall and their test results didn’t meet requirements. Once we were able to help them fix that, I had to track down government officials in St. Lucia to get their entry approved hours before their flights took off. While travel should get easier in 2022, flexibility and adaptability will continue to be incredibly important. Travelers who may struggle with that may want to refocus attention on domestic vacations instead. But, even that will continue to be difficult. Before the end of last year, over 85% of the southwest Florida vacation rental capacity had been booked through the first quarter.

If travel executives and scientists like Dr. Gottlieb are correct, people will soon see infection rates improving and grow much more confident, leading to even more of that capacity getting booked up. You have a chance now to get in early and beat the rush. And remember, the longer you wait, the more expensive your vacation will likely be. As limited capacity gets tighter, there will be less incentive for travel suppliers to offer promotions and sales for 2022 and 2023 bookings.

We Already See Booking Trouble Brewing
Earlier I mentioned a family wanting to travel to Italy this coming summer. They are wanting a custom itinerary that covers nearly 3 weeks in Northern Italy. I have designed a plan for them that they love. They prefer to stay in private villas rather than hotels, so that’s where I want to focus my attention first. I need to know the dates for their villa rentals so I can plan all the other components around that. They need villas for 7 days in Tuscany and 5 days around Lake Como. And they want four bedrooms. So far, I’m finding very limited availability with the suppliers I use. My concern is I may not be able to help them and they may have to try booking them on their own using Air B&B. I don’t like that option because it can be tough to get insurance coverage or it may require multiple insurance policies to cover the rentals and then the rest of the vacation separately. But, I need to make a determination this week and advise my clients so there is time to get a booking done before all the suitable properties are booked.

I quoted clients a guided tour in Spain and we have a range of dates, but all within about 2 months next Autumn. There is still availability, but we did find two of those weeks don’t have enough capacity for all 3 travelers. I can book 2, but not the 3rd person. So, we’re now limited to a narrower range. My clients will need to decide on a date quickly or risk missing out.

We just booked clients traveling to Alaska in July. We quoted them a price with flights on Tuesday evening. They contacted us Wednesday morning and told us to book it. But, by then, the flights were more expensive and less optimal. The original flights quoted were all booked up.

Even for ourselves, we’re finding 2023 to be challenging. We have two graduations to celebrate. Our son will graduate from high school and one of our daughters will graduate from college in May 2023. We going to celebrate by spending much of the summer in Hawaii. We are booking at a resort, but because it is for multiple weeks, we’re being advised to schedule it now so we don’t have to worry about switching bresorts as other travelers book their own vacations. We also want to take a cruise around the islands for a week. While there are still cabins available, they’re getting booked quickly. I’m giving myself a deadline to have my bookings made by the end of February to ensure I won’t have trouble. That is 16 months in advance of travel. That gives you an idea of what you can expect – book early or risk your vacation.

So Finish Reading and Book Now!!
If you’ve made it this far in this lengthy blog post, then you surely have interest in traveling. Hopefully you can understand now why I’m concerned that many will miss the opportunity to have the vacation they want. Many will instead have the most acceptable vacations they can get, and some won’t vacation at all. As better COVID treatments enter the market in the next 2-3 months and infection rates drop, people will become more confident and want to start booking vacations. Along with growing confidence will be loosening travel requirements and restrictions and easier international travel. This, in turn, will lead to greater travel confidence. COVID confidence combined with travel confidence will be all that is needed to open all the booking floodgates. When that happens, people will find the vacations they want will be less available than they expect and likely cost more than they expect. If you are someone with FTCs, you may even find you can’t make use of them when you want for the vacation you want.

Of course, we could all be wrong. A new problem could develop and surprise everyone. But, I’m less concerned about that because I’ve had the benefit of reading many articles and sitting in on a few webinars lately where multiple experts have all said the same thing – we’re nearing the end of COVID. So, you can wait for the data to prove it, which will be a lagging indicator. And if you lag too long, you will likely miss out on the current low prices, great promotions, and available capacity. Good luck, everyone!

Cruising is Safe and the CDC is Wrong

Chris Lay

Cruising is one of the safest things you can do in the age of COVID and you are making a mistake if you dismiss it as a reasonable vacation option due to pandemic fear, despite what the CDC may say.

On Dec. 30, 2021, the CDC raised its travel warning to Level 4, the highest level possible, due to recent infections on a number of sailings during the Omicron wave. The warning doesn’t prohibit cruising, but strongly advises against it. According to the CDC, the virus spreads easily between people in close quarters onboard ships. Cruisers that do go ahead and travel are encouraged to be fully vaccinated and boosted and to quarantine for five days after the cruise ends.

Stock photo acquired on Pixabay.

What else does the CDC think we should avoid? Apparently, nothing else should be avoided since the agency continues to apply its warnings and strict monitoring to only the cruising industry. The CDC has not announced warnings for air travel, concert attendance, holiday shopping, subway riding, etc. and it is encouraging public school attendance in person because “students benefit from in-person learning.”

Before its warning level change, the CDC announced it was monitoring 92 cruise ships. That monitoring was triggered when a ship experienced positive test results with 0.1% or more of its passengers within a seven-day period. In Georgia, where I live and the CDC is headquartered, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a 7-day positivity rate of 21.7% as of Dec. 29, 2021. If the CDC treated its own environment the way it treats cruise ships, why aren’t we hearing warnings to avoid entering the state or warnings encouraging those of us here to flee for our lives?

As of Dec. 30, 2021, Royal Caribbean says it has sailed over 1.1 million passengers with 1,745 positive cases, resulting in a 0.02% infection rate.

Royal Caribbean International

Even without the CDC’s bewildering warning, recent news outlets would have us all believe the infection rates have been much higher and that cruise ships are petri dishes or COVID incubators. The same was said years ago when cruise ships suffered from rhinovirus outbreaks. Following those highly publicized stories, the cruise lines became hyper-focused on hygiene, sanitation, and controlling infectious disease. Since then, any regular cruiser has become fondly familiar with the words “washee washee,” meant to remind you to wash your hands before entering dining halls. And for years, the cruise lines promoted regular use of hand sanitizer with stations setup across ships, long before COVID made it a common practice elsewhere.

Nevertheless, COVID is presenting a new challenge to cruise lines as, once again, they seem to be called out as the only environment for contagion. However sensational the news stories may be, the data proves cruises do not present significant risk. As of 12/30/2021, according to Bermello Ajamil & Partners’ Cruise Recovery Dashboard, there have been 467 documented COVID cases aboard cruise ships since cruising restarted last summer. That is a small number compared to the more than 5.6 million people who sailed during that same time, for a 0.008% infection rate. You don’t hear that on the news, unfortunately.

The Bermello Ajamil & Partners data is not perfect or precise. It is based on news stories and not from the cruise lines, health departments or other sources. So let’s look at another measure – this one from Royal Caribbean International, which has provided data specific to it’s sailings. As of Dec. 30, 2021, Royal Caribbean says it has sailed over 1.1 million passengers with 1,745 positive cases, resulting in a 0.02% infection rate.

The pause in cruising that began in 2020 inspired the cruise industry to take aggressive action to make further improvements to sanitation, implement measures to promote social distancing, and take measures to limit exposure and manage infections once they develop. Examples include reduced-capacity sailing in which 60% or fewer births are booked, requiring vaccinations and testing before boarding, use of masks on some ships, limiting reservations and seating in dining halls, restaurants, and shows, conducting virtual muster drills, and enhancing the medical offices on board.

Think about it – in your day-to-day life, where do you go that requires you to prove you are vaccinated and requires a negative test before entry? You and thousands of others visit grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, gyms, movie theatres, sporting events, airports, and more every day, and none of those organizations employ the strict controls in place that cruises do. So why do we hear about infections on cruises? I think it’s because in all those other scenarios, people enter with infection, spread the infection, and leave within a short time. There is no way to contact trace when a stranger breathes too closely to you next to the dairy case at the grocery store and then you both walk away carrying the disease to your next stops or back home to your families. But, on a cruise, you are there for a few days or more, all together. If someone does get on board with the start of infection (that may still test negative) and it then spreads, they, and maybe you, could develop symptoms before the cruise is over. So, it’s not that cruising is less safe than all those other things we all do each day; you just don’t have the opportunity to leave the ship and never be seen or heard from again, like you do just about anywhere else. There is just greater monitoring and awareness of what is happening on a cruise ship and greater ability to isolate those who test positive, contact trace, and quarantine others who may have been exposed. In reality, cruising is being picked on because the cruise lines have the data whereas no other organization does. They are doing the right things that no other organization is doing.

What non-cruise environment may be the most similar? How about public schools where our children spend hours each day, five days a week, with the same people in “close quarters,” the situation concerning the CDC about cruises? Sure, the CDC thinks kids shouldn’t go to school either, right? Well, actually they think differently about that. And they have used data to justify their position that kids should be in school.

Just one year ago the CDC shared research on its website, which is still there, to support its recommendation for in-school attendance. Among that research was a finding that, of 17 rural Wisconsin schools, the rate of infection was 0.035%, which was lower than the county’s overall infection rate of 0.055%. Additionally, “…only 3.7% of the cases identified in those schools were linked to in-school spread. (I bolded the word only for emphasis). So, the CDC is okay with our children being in environments with as much as a 3.7% rate of infection, but the agency is not okay with fully-vaccinated and tested adults in a controlled cruising environment with much lower infection rates.

So why does the CDC take contrarian views on schools versus cruises? The only explanations are that they either don’t know what they’re doing or they are making policy recommendations based on political factors. I am not suggesting they are bad at their true jobs – studying disease. I am suggesting they are bad at the public policy part of their jobs, or at least they are doing poorly at it right now. They clearly have lost credibility with many of us when they make policy recommendations that do not seem to be based on data or are contradictory at best. The result is that we all must instead make the best decisions we can with the information we have since the CDC is not proving it has the integrity to be a good broker of information.

Think about it – in your day-to-day life, where do you go that requires you to prove you are vaccinated and requires a negative test before entry? You and thousands of others visit grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, movie theatres, sporting events, airports, and more every day, and none of those organizations employ the strict controls in place that cruises do.

For me and my family, we are going to keep cruising. Our next cruise is a river cruise in Europe in just a few weeks. And I’m eager to try and fit in a short Caribbean cruise before then. I realize I may be considered biased as a Travel Advisor, and during this pandemic, our travel agency has suffered lost business and lost opportunities, but most of those were self-inflicted. My customers have eagerly wanted to travel for the past two years. In some cases, borders closed and forced cancellations or reschedules. But, in most cases, I encouraged customers to cancel or postpone vacations because I didn’t want to help put anyone at significant risk. But, at this point, that caution no longer makes sense. The vaccines have been available for all, except small children. The cruise lines have implemented strong controls and management practices. In fact, because there are such great controls and monitoring, cruising is one of the safest things you can do right now, other than being locked down at home, and there is data to prove it.

On the weekend the Omicron news broke out of South Africa, I was on a plane and sitting across the aisle from a passenger who struggled to keep his mask on properly. At the end of the flight, he triumphantly declared he was finishing a very long trip home…from South Africa. Standing at the front of the plane waiting for the door to open, a flight attendant and I both stepped back and looked at each other with concern. That’s about all the protection the airlines were affording – wear a mask and good luck! Despite the breaking news, there was no testing required, no vaccination required, and certainly no CDC warning.

Quite simply, the CDC’s singular fixation on cruising is weird and shows how questionable its credibility is right now as a policymaking body. In all facets of our lives, we are free to be as responsible or irresponsible as we want with COVID. The CDC isn’t warning anyone to stop anything, except cruise. Ask yourself if that makes sense. Then decide what makes the most sense for you. You can listen to weird or you can choose to use real data and make an informed choice. For me it’s continue cruising because I know it is safe and I know the CDC is wrong to say otherwise.