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Travel agencies, cruise lines and airlines gear up for rebound in bookings

NBC News logo NBC News 2/12/2021 Harriet Baskas

As the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations is ramping up, so is consumer confidence — and with it, a surge in travel bookings for later this year and for 2022.

"Many travelers are feeling optimistic that they will be able to vacation abroad this year. Many people are already actively planning their next big trip — even for trips more than four months out," said Shibani Walia, senior research analyst at Tripadvisor.

2020 was the worst year in history for air travel demand, according to the International Air Transport Association, with global passenger traffic falling more than 65 percent, compared to 2019. The hotel industry also tanked, surpassing 1 billion unsold room nights, according to hotel industry research firm STR. The story was much the same for cruises, attractions and tours, with the World Tourism Organization calling 2020 the worst year on record.

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But now, with a comprehensive vaccine schedule and pent-up demand for leaving home, vacation planning and bookings are on the rise for late 2021, 2022 and beyond.

Spirit Airlines announced Thursday it would start training new pilots and flight attendants as of next month, in preparation for a spike in leisure travel.

“Vaccine deployment, lowering total Covid case numbers should lead to more confidence from the traveling public and a loosening of restrictions,” CEO Ted Christie said.

A recent Tripadvisor survey found that 80 percent of U.S. consumers planned to take at least one overnight domestic leisure trip in 2021, with just over one-third of respondents planning at least three domestic trips this year. Popular destinations such as Orlando are already seeing a hopeful booking rebound.

“The region expects 2021 spring break travel to mirror the Christmas and New Year holidays, when occupancy reached 50 percent," said Daryl Cronk, senior director of market research for Visit Orlando. “This would be a significant improvement over last year’s 12 percent, one of the lowest points of the year.”

Tripadvisor’s survey also found a lot of interest in international travel planning. Nearly half (47%) of all respondents said they are planning to travel internationally in 2021.

“Already, the majority of hotel clicks for trips taking place from May onwards are to international destinations,” Tripadvisor noted. “This is an early signal that travelers are feeling increasingly confident they will be able to travel abroad in 2021, at least in the back half of the year.”

Italy, France, Japan, Australia and Greece are at the top of most travelers' lists, said Misty Belles, managing director at Virtuoso travel network, citing customer planning.

Travelers are also eyeing cruises, a good sign for the many cruise lines that had to abandon entire sailing seasons.

Now is a good time to book future trips, since most travel companies have flexible and more generous booking and cancellation policies.

“We’re seeing growing confidence from cruisers as vaccines begin to be distributed,” Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic, told NBC News. “Both because they see it as a step in the right direction for the return of travel, and because they’ll feel most comfortable sailing knowing that they — and their fellow passengers — have been vaccinated.”

Rich and Suzi McClear of Sitka, Alaska, whose 2020 Holland America Line world cruise was cut short due to the pandemic, are anxious to go back to sea. “We’re rebooked for a 2022 world cruise. We’re also booked for the 2023 world cruise, which we view as an insurance policy in case the 2022 does not go,” they said in an email.

Most travel companies now have flexible and more generous booking and cancellation policies, and prices are historically low. So, it can be a good time to book future trips.

Airfares, for example, are 20 percent lower compared to last year, said Adit Damodaran, economist for travel app Hopper. "Domestic airfare prices are expected to rise in mid-to-late March and gradually return to 2019 levels over the course of the year. And it is not too early to book for 2022, especially if you're booking with trip protection or flexible booking options.”

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