Josephine Darwin, 65, marked March 3 on her calendar with the importance of a golden anniversary and planned to celebrate it with similar gusto. On that date, she and her husband, John, 67, would officially be immune"-or as near as can be"-from COVID-19. Newly vaccinated with the Pfizer shot, the Nashville retirees are wasting no time getting back to travel: They plan to fly to Charleston, S.C. next week for a post-vaccine vacation. Call it a 'vaxication.'
"I can't begin to describe our excitement to get out and meet people again," says Josephine, who hasn't left her home since March 17, 2020, except for brief walks around the neighborhood and to get jabbed. As soon as she and her husband had their vaccination appointments, they started trip planning. A two-week vacation in Newfoundland is now on the books for September, assuming borders open by then. (They very well may not be; Canada's eastern provinces have been so strict about pandemic travel bans, they have even denied entry to fellow Canadians.)
As the US vaccination rollout has sped up, so, too, have requests for vaxications. "We have seen a 25% increase in travel inquiries since the first round of vaccinations became available," says Leah Smith, president of Denver-based Tafari Travel. "Pretty much weekly, I am getting emails from clients saying they just got their first vaccination and are ready to plan the next two years of travel."
"It's not uncommon to get up to four trip requests in one email," Smith continues. "Many clients aren't even waiting for the second round to book a trip."
And they aren't going to visit their grandkids, says Brooke Lavery, a partner at the high-end travel consultancy Local Foreigner. "People who normally take five to seven trips a year and for whom travel has been a lifestyle for decades are doing celebration trips," she says.
The movement may be premature. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has delayed its release of updated Covid-safety guidelines for Americans who've been fully vaccinated. To date, the organization has continued encouraging the inoculated among us to wear masks, continue to social distance, and avoid crowds.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has publicly expressed caution around post-vaccination travels, given the possibility of spreading the virus along the way.
'Travel was our life'
Charlotte Benedict, 74, is among the many people who are ready to take the risk. She is three weeks into her second dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, and her husband Roy is a few weeks behind her. Next month, the retired, Dallas-based couple plans to celebrate immunity with a golf trip to St. George, Utah.
"Travel was our life," says Charlotte. "We canceled five trips last year and are ready to resume our travels." A farther-flung plan to safari in Kenya with their adult daughter, however, is on hold until 2022.
Destinations that offer outdoor settings and naturally social distanced activities are still proving most popular, even to travelers with immunity. "People want to start out with remote places, where they can be outside most of the time," says travel consultant Lavery. "They're still not ready to return to busy resorts."
Ted Martens, chief marketing officer of the Boulder, Colo.-based wildlife travel operator Natural Habitat Adventures, says bookings jumped as soon as vaccines started rolling out in December. "We've been riding the pent-up demand for the last two months," he says. "After months of hovering around 35% to 45% booking rates, we saw a jump in January and have been hovering around 80% of normal booking volume these last few months."
In many cases, that thirst for wide-open spaces is an excuse to check off big bucket-list vacations, which explains why such places as Antarctica have led the way for the travel industry's recovery.
The white continent, along with Egypt and Rwanda, has driven an outsize share of demand for Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founder of luxury travel firm Indagare, who adds that most inquiries are for immediate"-not long-term"-plans. "We are seeing much shorter sign-up windows," she says. "People who have just been vaccinated are eager to get away in the next month or two to places that they'd usually spend months planning for."
Recovery at last?
These requests are keeping travel operators busier than they have been in a long time.
Biggs Bradley says Indagare's bookings remained pretty anemic from March through October. But in November, following news of the first promising vaccine results, she saw an uptick that has continued to grow.
Through February, Indagare reported 100% increases in bookings week-over-week, achieving the highest volumes the company has seen since lockdown began. By the end of the month, the company was fielding two to three times as many bookings on a weekly basis as it would have for the entire month of October last year. That constant growth may be the best sign of optimism the ailing travel industry has seen since the pandemic began.
Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond, a boutique safari specialist based in Minnesota, says that in the last two weeks he's had at least five clients mention vaccinations as the reason for initiating trips. His clients are among the lucky demographic that has not been financially affected by the pandemic"-if anything, lockdowns have curtailed their spending. Now, they want to travel as soon as possible, he says.
"After a year without travel, restaurants, or entertainment, clients are finding they have a lot more money than they did a year ago," says Beal. "They're upgrading trips they deferred in 2020 with that extra money."
There's still a catch: Vaccination doesn't make the hassles of traveling during a global pandemic disappear.
"There's a whole layer of procedure and regulations people aren't used to, and it keeps changing," says Biggs Bradley. "It's not as simple as having a passport and vaccine."
Many clients think they can spread their wings two weeks after their second shot, and her team has had to rein them back to the realities of quarantine rules and border closures that still apply to vaccinated travelers.
Worries about virus variants also have some vaccinated travelers, like Josephine Darwin, still taking extensive precautions"-in line with the current recommendations. She even bought a face shield for her first flight. "We've spent the past year dreaming of travel and planning trips," she says. "I'd rather wear a mask than stay home."