Travel forecast 2022: Experts weigh in on pandemic-ready getaways and strategies

Editor’s note: This story is intended as a general overview of the outlook on travel for all of 2022. However, given the rapid spread of the coronavirus omicron variant, if you are planning to travel, please heed local health authorities’ safety recommendations as they’re updated, and check local and federal health authorities’ websites for COVID-19 requirements and the latest information at both your departure and arrival destinations.

Despite the blows dealt to the travel industry by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, eager travelers are packed and ready for 2022, Seattle-area travel experts say. 

Resurgent vacationers have new goals in mind — to have rich, unforgettable experiences — but they’ll have to be agile to reach them while navigating the ever-changing landscape of regulations. With omicron now the dominant variant in the U.S., plans always have the potential to be disrupted.

With that in mind, we spoke to Seattle-based travelers and travel experts to compile their outlooks for the domestic and international travel landscape. Even though the surging omicron variant, coupled with winter weather issues, caused travel chaos over December’s peak holiday travel week, there’s still a sense of cautious optimism in the air as relates to travel in 2022.

Ah, what a year it has been! As 2021’s final hours pass by, take a peek forward at some of our region’s most anticipated events, places and things for 2022, including places we’re looking forward to eating at, exciting things to do and more.

Two-thirds of Americans are planning significant trips next year, according to Seattle-based Expedia’s 2022 Travel Trends Report, which dubbed its theme as the “Greatest of All Trips” mindset. The report, a collaboration with Northstar Research Firm, polled 12,000 people worldwide.

Of the American respondents, 41% said they are seeking excitement, making the most of their trips (40%), and are open to splurging to do so (40%). An additional 27% are willing to extend vacations longer than usual.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

“Last year people realized they would never take travel for granted ever again,” said Christie Hudson, a senior public relations manager at Expedia. “The first thing most people did when they got vaccinated was plan a trip — it’s how we connect,” said Hudson. “As soon as a destination opens up, as soon as people feel safe and secure going there, the recovery follows,” she said.

As for destinations, while most Americans — 59% — are sticking to domestic travel in 2022, 37% are charting international vacations. Popular domestic spots include Orlando and Destin, Florida, and Maui, Hawaii, while global picks include London, Madrid, Rome, the Mexican Caribbean and Bali, Indonesia. Nearly one-third of respondents (32%) are opting for a bucket-list getaway.

“Ever since the pandemic, things have been so restricted and complicated, people have this feeling of wanting to get every bit of richness and joy out of their trips. Wherever they end up going, they want it to feel big and special,” Hudson said.

After months of local restrictions and prolonged isolation, it’s not surprising that travelers are ready to ditch their routines and explore new cultures in the new year. The report shows 23% are seeking out “lesser-known experiences” and 40% look forward to sampling new cuisines.

Another notable shift — perhaps a reaction to the stress of the pandemic, not to mention Zoom fatigue — is a yen for well-being and mindfulness (36%) and to disconnect from devices (24%).

That desire for mindfulness emerges as being open to spontaneity — scrap the schedule and see what the day brings.

How travel has changed

In early 2020, Rick Steves’ Europe, based in Edmonds, already had 24,000 tours booked — and 2020 was tracking to be the tour company’s biggest year ever. When the pandemic hit, Steves canceled and refunded those bookings. The company reopened this summer for 2022 bookings, and business has been brisk. “We sold five tours a minute” initially, said Steves, making up for those 24,000 pandemic-canceled tours within a couple of weeks.

In considering travel, Steves — interviewed in early December, before the recent surge of omicron domestically and abroad — says it’s a personal decision.

“If you’re comfortable visiting relatives in Spokane, then you can just as easily fly to Dublin. I think flying is perfectly safe, and I’m thankful and relieved there are high standards in Europe for people getting into crowded places,” Steves said.

Steves first ventured back to Europe this fall on a hiking trip in the Alps, followed by a few days in Paris “totally relaxing on my favorite market street doing exactly what I’ve done pre-COVID, nursing a drink, petting poodles and watching the people.”

He followed that by training tour guides in Italy and shooting a new television series on European art and architecture in Rome and Florence, Italy, and Athens, Greece.

Steves says European cities are setting a high bar, with vaccination and occupancy requirements becoming the norm. His tours require vaccination because unvaccinated travelers will not be able to visit most sites.

“Here in the States, we are highly politicized. In Europe, it’s more of a ‘tough love’ mindset. Europeans are used to being more densely populated — you have to respect your neighbors,” Steves said.

Realizing pandemic protocols will potentially be with us for years to come, Steves is training his staff in logistics and expectations management. For instance, guides may need to divide and stagger groups to align with occupancy rules in crowded churches and museums. On the client side, Steves said, “We need to be very candid and straightforward” about regulations. “We are looking for flexible, resilient travelers.”

The company has extended refund policies to make travelers more comfortable booking in uncertain times. “We want to let people plan longer in advance with no financial risk,” Steves said.

After two years of tension and division, Steves sees a hopeful note in the return to travel, because travel knits connections.  

“When we travel, we connect to the world, we embrace the world in all its diversity. We’re more inclined to want bridges than walls,” he said. “The existential challenges of our future are going to be blind to walls, borders and conventional military defense systems. They’re going to be led by science and good governance — and if we don’t travel, that makes it much more difficult.”

Seattle’s Andrea Day Huber is optimistic, too — she took a December retreat led by Deepak Chopra to soak up the sun and the Zen in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, near Cancún.

“I had to let go of my fear,” she wrote. “It’s so interesting to see people so inspired and ready to go outside of their bubbles,” she said. Day Huber is embracing travel and in January, she begins training to become a full-time flight attendant.

Sienna Utt, of Everett, is traveling across Europe on an eight-month adventure — sometimes going solo, sometimes meeting up with friends. Since November, she’s been to Iceland, Portugal, Spain and France. “I decided to travel now because I think winter can actually be a really nice time to go abroad with tourist sites being less busy,” she said, “and I felt it was the safest time to go with the majority of the population being vaccinated — obviously things are changing with the omicron variant, though.”

That fact, and a flexible response to it, seem to be recurring themes.

Sheri Smith, lead agent for Seattle’s Elizabeth Holmes Travel, says clients nationwide are reported having some of the best experiences in their lives this year. She thinks several factors are at play, including a newfound appreciation for travel.  

“You don’t realize what you’ve missed until you can’t do it anymore. There’s a different kind of gratitude in being able to go,” Smith said. “Things aren’t as crowded. Destinations that maybe got a little tired of us Americans are happy to see us back. The people that are traveling are being well advised and going in with their eyes wide open.”

The agency’s bookings were going “gangbusters” this year, she said, though things slowed recently with the emergence of the omicron variant in late November. “I would estimate that 70% of the people whose tickets I refunded [in 2020] have rebooked for 2022,” Smith said.

Two trends she’s spotted are people opting to pay for premium airline seats and looking for smaller cruises, like river cruises or expedition-style cruises with less crowding, which offer a more immersive experience in fewer stops than the giant cruise ships.

With a name that seems chosen for this moment, Lynnwood’s Anywhere But Here Travel reports that U.S. and Mexico trips are going strong, and the company is seeing a slower return to Europe and places farther afield, especially with nonstop flights. “Folks really need some sun here in the Pacific Northwest. Tahiti has really grown for us over the last year,” said Andrea King, Anywhere But Here president.

Some clients are asking for longer stays in one spot to minimize hassles between town or country borders. Many are asking more informed questions about cancellations and contingency plans. To help with that, King is negotiating with her vendors for more flexible refund periods.

Travel tips for 2022

How to smoothly navigate travel in 2022? The experts agree that for your best 2022 travel experiences, the key is flexibility — especially with your time and budget.

Paying for refundable flights and travel insurance is well worth the expense, given the erratic nature of travel today. For travel insurance, Expedia’s Hudson says Cancel for Any Reason coverage is the safest option. Most standard policies don’t cover illness or pandemic-related delays. Renting a car? Look for a “book now, pay later” option.

Hudson recommends booking early if your travel dates are fixed, or if you’re going to a place where condominiums are the prime lodging, like Mexico or Hawaii — now is not too early for summer, she says.

Other tips? Research your destination’s vaccine and testing regulations as well as your airline’s policy (read that confirmation email!). Build in time for testing and quarantines on both ends of your trip. Double-check lodging and sightseeing details. Steves suggests using government websites for the most current information on regulations and finding local coronavirus testing, if needed, at a pharmacy or through your hotel concierge, rather than waiting to test at the airport on your way home.

Ultimately, traveling in 2022 means being ready to cancel or adapt your plans at any point. If you’re up for that, whether it’s in London or Lake Chelan, you have a world of options. Just keep abreast of coronavirus infection rates and evolving protocols at both your departure and arrival destinations and be ready to adjust your plans on the fly.