Around this time last year, business took a major turn south for travel agent Lynn Farrell. Instead of sending couples off to their destination weddings, she found herself trying to bring stranded travelers back home to Chicago.

“We had clients who were hiking in the Himalayas,” said Farrell, president of Windy City Travel, a boutique agency in Old Town. “We got them to Kathmandu, and everything was closed. They had no way to get home.”

In addition to navigating nightmare scenarios such as that one, Farrell then had to unravel most of the trips she helped book for 2020. That meant negotiating refunds for scores of vacation packages or turning a fabulous international honeymoon into a domestic jaunt to Alaska. In all, she said she lost about 90% of her normal business.

As anyone who didn’t go anywhere last year might guess, the travel industry took a drubbing during the pandemic. Travel spending nationwide dropped 42% in 2020, compared to the previous year, according to a report from the U.S. Travel Association. As of November, passenger volume at O’Hare International Airport was down about 63% compared to the year before, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. A survey conducted by AAA found that 64% of Illinoisans canceled or rescheduled trips planned for 2020. Chicago-based United Airlines reported a $7.1 billion loss for the year.

But with the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines, the industry and wanderlust-ers are hopeful. Farrell said some of her business is trickling back, and people are starting to book fall and winter trips, even to countries that are currently restricted.

“We’ve got people going to Europe. We’ve got people going to the Greek Islands … all in the second half of the year,” Farrell said. Farrell plans to squeeze in personal trips to Bora Bora, New Zealand and Hawaii by December.

Get out of town

Chicagoan Athene Carras has been working from home for the past year — and she’s itching to get out. Last year, she and her niece were forced to cancel a trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. So instead, Carras and her husband settled for a socially distant road trip out west. She recently used her credits with the airline and tour agency to book a two-week trip in September to a dream destination: the famous Incan site Machu Picchu in Peru.

“My husband and I talked about what would keep us from going,” Carras said. “The only thing that would keep us from moving forward is if we somehow could not secure a vaccine.”

Carras feels relatively confident that she and her husband will get vaccinated in time to travel. She said she at least wanted to book the trip since she found an airfare from Chicago to South America for only $480, about what she paid for a roundtrip ticket to Miami before the pandemic.

Athene Carras
Athene Carras and her husband, Thomas Applegate, at Badlands National Park in South Dakota on their way to Yellowstone National Park last summer. Courtesy of Athene Carras

Vaccination optimism is growing

“The airlines aren’t making money yet, but the vaccination optimism is growing,” said DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman. “The sense is that airline travel is going to be pretty good this summer.” He estimated that the airline business could increase by 70-75% over the same period last year. Schwieterman said real recovery will happen when business travel and conventions come back, which likely won’t happen until 2022.

He also said international travel is a wildcard since big tours and school groups account for a huge part of annual demand. He warned that individual travelers testing the waters by booking those European trips may end up disappointed. “Airlines are not optimistic that [international travel] is going to be back really for another year,” he said. “It could be a lot of flights being cut over the next several weeks.”

On the brighter side, Schwieterman thinks domestic travel could have a big year, which will help bring in-airport businesses back. Right now, routes to popular locales such as Denver and Las Vegas are selling for 30-to-60% off and leisure travelers are flocking to warm-weather destinations such as Florida, according to Melissa Dohmen, senior brand manager of Orbitz, the online travel website. Flights out of Chicago will be cheapest this summer, and she predicted that travel to cities like Chicago will rebound as temperatures rise.

“Those are places that a lot of travelers are thinking, ‘OK, summer, back half of the year. Once I’m vaccinated and feel safe to hop on a plane,’” she said. “Chicago is going to be a top destination.”

For those dreaming about the world out there, travel experts say now may be the time to make a move. Here are some tips for how to make travel plans during this limbo period:

  • Book now, adjust later. “Prices are low for hotel rooms. I’m seeing all sorts of specials from the airlines,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Book it now because you can change it. In four or five months you’re going to wish you had booked it because they’re going to get more expensive.”

  • Research destination-specific COVID rules. Travel agent Lynn Farrell said people need to be aware of the changing COVID protocols. She, of course, recommends getting a travel agent to help you navigate the intricacies. For example, she said, no COVID testing is needed to fly to Mexico. But travelers to Hawaii need a specific type of test. “In Chicago, there are two places where you can get what they consider an NAAT [or, nucleic acid amplification test],” Farrell said. “I can tell you where to go. I can tell you what time to log on because it has to be within 72 hours of arrival.”

  • Consider travel insurance. Farrell says even though airlines are still allowing changes without fees, she recommends buying full-coverage travel insurance. “When you leave the United States, your medical insurance does not cover you,” she said. “Having insurance while you travel is a really important thing.”

  • Prioritize safety. Melissa Dohmen of Orbitz says travelers should plan a trip they’ll be comfortable with, including the COVID protocols for things like hotels and car rentals. “The number one influence on where people are traveling right now is the cleanliness and safety of their transportation and accommodations,” she said.

  • Pandemic-proof your itinerary. Checking ahead will spare you some disappointment. Dohmen says travelers have been caught off guard by restricted dining options. Museums and other tourist attractions may still be closed. “Restrictions and policies do differ by cities and by state,” she said. “Adjusting your expectations to meet the current time is a really smart thing.”

  • Have a plan B. If they can’t travel to Peru, Athene Carras said she and her husband will buckle up for another long-distance road trip. “For sure, there’ll be something else in our future if we don’t get to do this,” Carras said. “There’ll be another two week trip, it just won’t be as exotic.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.