Fun Travel May Mean Road Trips for the Foreseeable Future

Unless you are especially dedicated to seeing the world and willing to run a gauntlet of hassles to do so, travel is poised to become a more local activity.


If you travel in the near future, you're likely to be masked, restricted, and monitored very closely—and despite how that sounds, you probably won't be locked in the trunk of a car. Actually, that's how you're likely to travel if you're not in a car.

Based on regulatory guidance, industry recommendations, and company policies, the only way any of us are getting from Point A to Point B anytime soon without running a gauntlet of additional hassle and expense is to drive our own vehicles. And pick your destination carefully—hotels and tourist attractions may take a while to get back to normal, too.

For starters, if you're like me and habitually chafe at intrusive post-9/11 security theater in airports, you might want to get yourself a tranquilizer prescription—or swear off flying for the time being. The old security screenings will likely be augmented by health checks, restricted service, and delays.

"Travellers at airports will find themselves tested before they fly and upon arrival at their destination airport. They can expect to see social distancing measures at the airport and during boarding, as well as wearing masks while onboard," predicts the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

The World Economic Forum (WEF), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and SimpliFlying, a consulting firm, all see the use of thermal scanners to detect fevers with only those deemed "fit to fly" allowed to proceed. On the same note, the use of symptom-tracking and contact-tracing apps may be mandatory for anybody planning to board a plane.

While acknowledging privacy concerns, WEF predicts the accelerated replacement of standard travel documents with biometrics "where your face and body are your passport" in order to minimize physical contact. Digital contact via biometrics with a vast database on our activities and movements can be assumed. In addition to the usual proof-of-identity, "immunity passports" may be required, limiting access to some destinations to travelers who have already had COVID-19 (assuming that actually conveys immunity).

Everybody expects masks to be required in airports and on flights, social distancing to be enforced, and procedures to take longer. Passengers and luggage alike will probably run through disinfection via fogging and/or ultraviolet light, which will add time and complexity to the process. SimpliFlying believes "people may be required to show up at least four hours prior to departure." And who doesn't want to spend more time in airports? Oh, wait…

In-flight, we can expect limited service even in First Class, additional confinement to our seats, and possibly empty middle seats to reduce the chance for contagion (though keeping that many seats deliberately unsold is controversial, as you might expect).

IATA foresees "more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning," which SimpliFlying says means that "every aircraft, after every flight, will have to be deep-cleaned, fogged and perhaps even sterilised."

All of that is going to mean fewer flights, higher costs, and—after the current bargains fade away—almost certainly more expensive fares as a result. We'll pay through the nose for a sterile and monitored ordeal and may still be turned away from our destinations if we fail a health check.

If you're looking for alternative mass transit, bus and train travel won't feature the same hassles as air travel—implementing all of those screening and sterilization procedures at every bus depot and train station in the country would be impossible —but you can still expect some changes. Greyhound is requiring masks and encouraging social distancing. Amtrak also requires masks and is limiting bookings to 50 percent of available seats.

So, even once your intended destination is out of lockdown and there's something to do upon arrival, you may want to focus your travel plans on road trips, for a while. Traveling in your own vehicle will largely eliminate the poking, prodding, and pure misery that air passengers are in for.

"The consumer mindset about vacations may take a longer-term shift in favor of the outdoors and trips that can be made with just the family or smaller groups of friends," predicts The Motley Fool's Jim Crumply. He sees a boom in demand for recreational vehicles and camping gear that can be used away from crowds.

The revival of the road trip may even kneecap efforts to discourage car ownership and reverse the trend away from driving among younger Americans. Famously resistant to the allure of the automobile, Millennials and Gen. Z haven't even been eager to get driver's licenses. But the annoyance of owning a vehicle is likely to pale in comparison to passing through increasingly intrusive security procedures in order to pay a premium for sterile service in traveling metal tubes. By contrast, owning and driving a car may be seen, as it was in the past, as liberating.

The situation at your destination is less predictable. Hotels and attractions are subject to local rules and conditions. Some will return to business as usual, while others will adopt new restrictions.

"There will be new protocols for check-in involving digital technology; hand sanitiser stations at frequent points including where luggage is stored; contactless payment instead of cash; using stairs more often than lifts where the 2 meter rule can be harder to maintain; and fitness equipment being moved for greater separation among other examples," the WTTC predicts for hotels.

The organization developed protocols for the hospitality industry that include recommendations for the use of masks and gloves, possible health and temperature checks for guests, greater spacing in restaurants and meeting rooms, and more-frequent cleaning. All of that is meant to reassure travelers, but it could be a bit off-putting.

If all of this sounds to you like long-distance traveling is becoming more of a pain in the ass, we're on the same page. I'd suspect that control-freak bureaucrats upset by a mobile population designed the "new normal" for air travel, in particular, to discourage us from going anywhere, except that it's certain to push many of us to our cars. Travelers setting their own itineraries in their own vehicles are the hardest to track, and the most unpredictable.

But we can't go everywhere by car. That means that long journeys—especially international travel across non-contiguous borders—is likely to take a hit for some time to come. Except for those of us who really need to visit foreign destinations, or who are especially dedicated to seeing the world and willing to run a gauntlet of hassles to do so, travel looks poised to become a more local activity than it's been in decades.