In just a few days, the United States will reopen its border to vaccinated foreign tourists, welcoming people back to the country for the first time in nearly two years. And experts say international travelers are getting ready.
Hotel bookings, flight searches, and vacation home rentals throughout the U.S. have all seen a bump in traffic in the days since the Nov. 8 reopening date was announced, signaling a beacon of hope to travel pros for the industry’s return to normal or at least a new version of normal.
Following the announcement, Expedia saw a 43% increase in Australian travelers searching for hotels in the U.S., a 28% bump in hotel searches from UK travelers, and a 24% increase from French travelers, the company shared with Travel + Leisure. And Vrbo saw a more than 160% increase in searches for U.S. vacation homes from international travelers.
“There was a lot of dreaming and what I call ‘soft planning’ happening before Nov. 8 was announced,” Melanie Fish, a travel expert and head of Public Relations for the Expedia Brands, told T+L. “That soft planning turned into all business the moment international travelers got the news and searches really started in earnest. There is a feeling of confidence this time around among travelers that I haven’t seen in any of the fits and starts in travel we’ve seen since the pandemic began.”
And that confidence has turned searches into actual bookings, especially when it comes to places to stay. Hyatt told T+L that nearly 50% of its U.S. hotel bookings for the week of Nov. 8 were made after the border reopening was announced.
This is what travelers should expect when the U.S. reopens its international air and land borders next week.
Who will be allowed to enter on Nov. 8?
Travelers who have gotten vaccinated with a shot approved by either the Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization — which include Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, as well as AstraZeneca/Oxford, Sinopharm, Sinovac, and Covishield — will be allowed to enter.
There will be some exceptions to the vaccine mandate, including for children who are under 18 years old.
Fully vaccinated travelers will have to get tested within three days of boarding a flight to the U.S. Unvaccinated air travelers — including U.S. citizens — will be required to show proof of a negative test taken within one day of boarding a flight. Children under 2 years old are exempt from testing and “accommodations” will be made for people who tested positive for COVID-19 within 90 days and recovered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Airlines will also collect contact information for passengers for contact tracing purposes.
What will flights look like?
Senior product operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights, Willis Orlando, told T+L that a pattern has emerged throughout the pandemic. When a border reopening is announced, airlines ready their jets in anticipation of increased demand — and that’s likely true this time as well.
Since the U.S. border announcement was made in late September, travel app Hopper saw a 338% spike in international flight searches to the U.S for trips after Nov. 8, the company shared with T+L.
Additionally, a spokeswoman for United Airlines told T+L the carrier expects to see more than 30,000 international inbound passengers on Nov. 8, adding most flights will be “fairly full,” in line with the peak days this summer. Following the announcement, United actually saw transatlantic bookings for November and beyond exceed 2019 levels for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
But while there is a noticeable bump, Orlando said international bookings still remain down compared to pre-COVID-19, leading to good news — and good deals — for travelers.
“For short-term travel, we’re seeing some great deals. These planes are being put back into action quickly… We’re seeing cheap flights in both directions right now as these European airlines have joined the party,” he said, adding, “I do think the impact will be somewhat short-lived. It will last throughout the holiday season in terms of these great deals and then things will normalize.”
As of now, Orlando said it’s not unheard of to find flights as low as $325 roundtrip from New York, Chicago, Miami, and Washington D.C. to places like Ireland and Italy.
He also said it’s a good time to splurge on a better seat as the price difference between premium economy and business class is markedly slim.
“Right now the gap between premium economy and business class is as low as it’s ever going to be,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity for leisure travelers who may not be the cheapest of the cheap.”
What should travelers expect from hotels?
As international travelers return to the U.S., many will head back to the large cities they’ve loved for years. According to Expedia and Hotels.com, that means New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami, and Los Angeles.
“It made sense during the pandemic that people were craving a way to get away from home but still be near the great outdoors, be where they felt they had space to spread out,” Expedia’s Fish told T+L. But that’s starting to change. “International travelers have always flocked to big tourist destinations, big urban destinations. So it makes sense now that they’re coming back, they’re going to those places.”
Fish said she expects to see a “steady increase” in hotel traffic starting in November through the holidays, followed by an increase throughout the beginning of 2022.
“And by next summer, it’s going to be a flood of travelers going every which way across every ocean,” she said.
Asad Ahmed, the SVP of commercial services for Hyatt, also told T+L that the hotel group is seeing a 72% increase in resort bookings throughout the Americas over the Thanksgiving holiday, compared to 2019. While urban properties haven’t quite hit those numbers, they’re hovering around 86% of 2019 levels, which is the best they’ve been since Labor Day.
“Even before announcement went out, we have continued to see the international traveler population testing the waters, putting bookings in the system and saying aspirationally ‘I do want to go to New York’ or ‘I do want to go to Chicago,'” he said. “If anything, formal government announcements have given people the confidence to do what people have already been thinking of.”
What can travelers expect from vacation rentals?
There’s been a shift when it comes to vacation rental bookings throughout the pandemic with travelers securing homes months earlier than they would have before COVID-19. That’s still very much the case, Fish said, creating the potential for some steep competition.
“International travelers are searching for Vrbo vacation rentals in popular warm-weather destinations. These are places that Vrbo was already doing incredibly well in with U.S. travelers,” she said. “So the competition for whole private vacation homes is going to be intense. It’s going to result in people needing to be more flexible if they’re married to a certain destination or a certain type of vacation home.”
Maui, Hawaii, was the most popular search destination for international travelers on Vrbo, followed by Palm Springs in California and Fort Myers in Florida.
For fellow home rental company Airbnb, the site saw a 44% increase in U.S. bookings by foreign guests for stays starting Nov. 8 after the reopening date was announced, the company told T+L. International travelers on the site who are headed to the U.S. are most often coming from London, Paris, Santiago, Toronto, and Vancouver.
What are travelers valuing for the future?
Experts agreed there are two things travelers will be looking for going forward: flexibility and information.
“People are paying attention to cancelation policies, booking flexible rates,” Fish said. “These are all lessons we learned, like it or not, during the pandemic and these are the lessons… that [is] going to be a permanent part of how we plan our travel.”
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she’s not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.