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All About Flights and Accommodations
Nisreene Atassi: The other day, I was scrolling through Facebook and I couldn’t help but notice that Facebook had served up memories of photos that I had taken two years ago. And it just so happened to have been the time I had spent in Spain with my friends for a wedding. And as I was scrolling through the photos, I couldn’t help but wonder when my next trip would be. And I started thinking and planning on where I would go next when the time is right for me and my family.
I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System. In our last episode, we spoke about some of the general things people might want to do some homework on when it comes to traveling during COVID. Now, we want to dig in a little deeper and get into some of the most important details around booking flights and hotels right now.
Luckily, I’m not alone in this endeavor. I’m joined today by Bill Furlong straight from Austin, Vice President of North American Business for Expedia. He’s got his finger on the pulse for trends in accommodations and overall travel. Hi Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill Furlong: Thank you so much. It is fantastic to be with you today.
Nisreene Atassi: And for my listeners, I know what you’re thinking. It does sound like we’ve got Casey Kasem on the show, but it is in fact Bill. How many times have you gotten confused with Casey Kasem on the phone?
Bill Furlong: It comes up about every five years or so, and then I’ll just lay on them… Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars. And there you have it.
Nisreene Atassi: Well, speaking of keeping your feet, not on the ground, I’ve got Julie Kyse here with me. You all remember Julie from last season. Julie is Expedia’s Vice President of Global Air Partnerships, which means she’s the queen of all things flight related and she is sweating it out in Miami right now. Hi, Julie. Welcome back.
Julie Kyse: Hi, Nissy. Great to be here.
Nisreene Atassi: Bill, let’s go ahead and start with you. Can you give us a general overview of what we’re seeing in terms of lodging accommodations right now in times of COVID?
Bill Furlong: A few of the things worth mentioning are different destinations. People have definitely been focused on spending time in the great outdoors, for instance, more than ever before. Beaches have been incredibly popular, certainly over the summer, it’s going to change as we go into the fall and winter season, but that was a big theme in the summer time. But other places have been popular as well. National parks, drive destinations that are near your hometown that might be the great outdoors. Vacation rental homes have been very, very popular. And then the final thing I’ll just mention from an overview perspective is, people obviously want to know a lot about the safety and cleanliness of the places they’re staying. And so a big focus of all of us in the travel business has been providing that reassurance to people, providing them the resources and tools to make sure that they can make those decisions that are important to them right now.
Nisreene Atassi: Bill, I’m really glad that you brought up the cleanliness and hygiene piece, because I think that’s really important right now for travelers.
Bill Furlong: There is a lot of different things that hotels are doing to make sure that they’re providing is clean and safe place for people to stay on their vacation as possible. I’d really highlight four big categories. The first one are enhanced cleanliness measures that they’re doing to the property itself. So they’re using disinfectant obviously to clean the property and they’re doing that more frequently than ever, especially in common areas. They’re cleaning sheets and towels to a particularly high degree. So in high temperature, so they’re as clean as possible in many cases. They are focused on social distancing. Things like contactless checkout or having Plexiglas barriers between the guests and the person at the front desk so that they can have that social distancing happen. Or they’re saying to guests that social distancing has to happen in the common areas like the lobby of a hotel as well. Number three, they’re focused on safety measures with their team and their staff and their guests as well. So, personal protective equipment is worn by the staff. Masks obviously, as we’ve all gotten used to. The staff is having their temperature taken on a regular basis to make sure that they know that they’re healthy. They’re providing hand sanitizer and so on in the hotel. And then number four, in some cases, hotels are providing a buffer between guest stays. So some hotels are saying, ” Well, we won’t put a guest in the same hotel room within 24 or 48 hours of the previous guest stay.” So all of those are happening to varying degrees in different hotels around the country. And so we now have put on the detailed pages on Expedia, clear areas where you can find this information and be able to see what policies are in place at an individual hotel.
Nisreene Atassi: You mentioned a few things regarding social distancing and how hotels were adapting to that. How does that work when it comes to amenities? Because I know a lot of people, for example, love booking hotels because they love to have that sort of morning brunch and those big breakfast buffets and things like that. Are some of those being pulled away? And if so, what’s the best way for a traveler to really know what amenities are available when they’re booking these things and then also right before they go and travel?
Bill Furlong: That’s a great point. In fact, just a week ago with my family, as we were traveling back from a 14 hour, 1, 000 mile road trip, we stayed in a hotel that typically we stayed at before in Amarillo, Texas, that has typically a great breakfast buffet. And of course, when you’re on a road trip, that’s a great way. I’ve got two young kids, we’d go pile in, load ourselves up on all of the breakfast waffles and so on that you can get. But that’s changed now in COVID and they had a grab and go breakfast. And so they had packaged up muffins and bananas and fruit and orange juice and so on, so that we could take it out of the property and take it with us, or if people wanted, they could have it in their hotel room. But it’s changed, and it’s different. On Expedia, we do try to have an area where the hotel management can share that information when it’s changed and many of them have.
If it’s one of the things that’s a top consideration or driver for where you’re going to stay, you may want to contact the hotel to find out if it’s there.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. That’s a great tip, Bill. So definitely call before you go, just to make sure everything’s going to be open. Julie, what about you? Are you seeing the airlines really taking enhanced precautions, especially when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness?
Julie Kyse: They’ve invested in a lot of new technology, as far as cleaning and air filtration is concerned. Most modern aircraft have HEPA filters, which recirculate fresh air very, very frequently. And that’s been on the aircraft while before COVID. In addition, airlines are starting to use things like electrostatic spraying, use of disinfectants. They’re cleaning the aircraft so frequently that next time you step on an airplane, you’ll be like, “Wow, this is the cleanest airplane I’ve ever stepped on” And that has to be a positive outcome of this pandemic is that airplanes are now going to be cleaner than ever. There’s other things the airlines are doing to help with the social distancing, to reduce contact between fellow customers as well as their own staff.
So for instance, they’ve instituted touchless check- in. So you don’t have to touch those screens that might be a little bit grubby. You don’t have to have a lot of physical interaction with their staff. On board the aircraft, the catering might be a bit reduced to limit the amount of interaction with the flight attendants. So, if you’re flying, you might want to think about bringing a snack or a drink to make yourself more comfortable because that may or may not be available on your flight in order to maintain that social distancing.
Nisreene Atassi: What about masks and temperature checks?
Julie Kyse: Yeah. Masks are going to be of critical importance, no matter where you’re flying, what airline you’re flying. I am unaware of any airline worldwide that doesn’t have a mask policy and some are being very strict about it. If you’re not wearing your mask in the boarding area, they won’t let you on board. If you don’t wear your mask on the flight, or if you take it off, they may ban you. They may stop you from traveling. They’re taking this very seriously in order to reassure everyone that the flying experience is safe. Temperature checks are a little less common here in the United States. We see one airline that we’re aware of Frontier, that is doing this on a regular basis. In the international markets, definitely seeing more temperature checks happening. And then also people are being asked to affirm that they don’t have the symptoms of COVID before they’re allowed to check in, before they’re allowed to board their flights.
Nisreene Atassi: So what’s the best way for a traveler to know what policies are in place for their flight before they go?
Julie Kyse: When you go to Expedia.com to search for flights, you’ll be able to see what different measures different airlines are taking to ensure safety and social distancing. So all of that information is available for you at the time of booking. As Bill suggested, I would also say that one of the things you might want to do before you fly, maybe about a week before you fly is go to the airline site, just to make sure that there hasn’t been any changes to those policies that might affect you. So for instance, we have one airline, Air France which requires a surgical mask being worn. You would want to find that out before you flew so that you would have the right equipment in order to board the aircraft. But for the most part, that information is going to be readily available on Expedia.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, that’s super helpful. I know for my parents, they actually recently just flew to Seattle to come visit me and my family from Chicago, and what was really important to them was to fly on an airline that was not selling the middle seat, because I know that that’s still a practice that some of the airlines have in place to help enhance that social distancing. So when they went to go book on Expedia, it actually showed us one of the features that no middle seats were being sold. So I know that that’s definitely one of the features that people might want to look at in terms of enhancing their distance from others.
Julie Kyse: Other airlines may be selling the middle seat, but if the flight books to a certain capacity, they’re reaching out to customers and saying, ” Hey, this flight is kind of full. Would you like to change free of charge?” So they’re giving people an opportunity to take flights that are maybe a little less crowded if that’s more along their speed. I think that right now, in order to get people flying again, they have to be flexible. They have to be accommodating to people’s concerns about the uncertainty that’s going on. And we’re seeing the vast majority of airlines stepping up in that respect.
Nisreene Atassi: Awesome. Anecdotally, Julie I was scrolling through Amazon and I actually noticed that they sell seat covers for your entire seat. So things have really gone to a whole new level when it comes to airline safety and taking precautions. Have you seen any of those by chance?
Julie Kyse: I have not, but if it gives somebody reassurance and get some flying, I’m all for it.
Bill Furlong: I think one of the things that COVID has certainly taught us all is that when it came to germs, to some extent pre- COVID ignorance was blessed. We often didn’t think about it that much. Now, of course, we’ve got a very heightened awareness of it. We’ll be slight germaphobes and we’ve been known to travel with sanitary wipes pre- COVID and wipe down the tray table on an airline.
Nisreene Atassi: Julie, so just sticking with flights right now. Do you feel like airlines are offering specific incentives right now to try and get travelers back into the flights?
Julie Kyse: A lot of flexibility. If somebody buys a ticket and ends up getting cold feet, something changes, there’s another outbreak, they’re going to be have a lot more flexibility with those tickets. Even the cheapest tickets have flexibility today. And the tickets are cheap. So, that’s one of the things that is really an incentive. If you feel comfortable, traveling, there are fantastic bargains to be had right now. I think Nissy, you were talking about your parents traveling and they got an amazing price, right?
Nisreene Atassi: They did. Yeah. It was $ 89 from Chicago to Seattle each way, which is unheard of. Typically the average round trip airfare is around $400 for regular economy. So it was absolutely a steal for sure.
Julie Kyse: Yeah. So if you’re flexible, you can get great prices.
Nisreene Atassi: So Julie, when we had you on the show last season, we talked a lot about how if you bundle on Expedia, you can save. Do you feel like those types of tips still stand now, or do you feel like because pricing is so dynamic right now and things are changing and might not necessarily be the case?
Julie Kyse: Look, I think you can get great prices standalone, but I think you can still get really good bargains by booking packages. Customers who book packages often will get a discount from both the airline and the hotels. And as we know, the supply is much greater than the demand, so they’re all going to be offering great deals. Packages are still going to be a great way to make some good savings.
Nisreene Atassi: How should travelers be looking at the cancellation policies and things like that when they do sort of bundle their pieces together?
Julie Kyse: Oftentimes the hotels will have different policies than the airlines. The airlines are offering flexibility, meaning you can change your trip. However, hotels in many cases are refundable. So you might end up canceling your package down the road and getting a refund for the hotel, but having a ticket credit for the airlines. So, it is important for you to do your homework and to figure out what the right product is for you.
Nisreene Atassi: So it sounds like regardless of whether you booked it separately or together, each airline or hotelier or vacation rental still has their own cancellation policy in place. So it’s not one policy for the whole thing?
Julie Kyse: That’s correct.
Nisreene Atassi: This is Out Travel The System. And I’m your host Nisreene Atassi. We’re sharing inspiration for your future travel and giving you the inside track on savings based on the power of Expedia. Stay on top of your travel game by liking and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to talk to us (@expedia) about travel on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. So we are back with Bill Furlong and Julie Kyse, two of our resident Expedia experts on accommodations and flights. So, Bill back to you on this one, before the break, we were asking Julie about airline incentives to get people back on flights. Are you seeing anything like that on the accommodation space?
Bill Furlong: It’s a mixed bag. So, if you looked on average across all the accommodations in the country, for sure, the average rate per night that a hotel is charging is lower this year than it was at the same time last year, but it really depends where you’re going. So what we found is if you were going to a beach destination or to a mountain destination or a Lake or a national park, in many cases, those prices were a little bit higher this year than they were a year before, because as we all know, it’s a function of supply and demand. And that demand for those places has actually been in some cases higher than it was a year ago. At the same time, a lot of traditional city destinations have been a lot lower this year and have had much lower hotel rates than they had in the past. And so, it really is dependent where you want to go.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I think that makes sense. Bill, you mentioned earlier that vacation rentals were really popular right now.
Bill Furlong: What people like about them now in particular in an era of a pandemic is one, you’ve obviously got privacy there and so you’re not going to be interacting in a common area with a lot of other guests. You’re typically not going to be in an elevator or a small confined space with other people staying at that place. So you typically have more privacy. Another thing that people like is obviously restaurants are a big question when you’re on vacation now. Where are you going to get your meals? Are you nervous about going into a restaurant if you’re in destination? And one of the nice things about a vacation rental home is you typically have a fully stocked kitchen and can cook your meals at home. And so that’s appealing to people as well.
And then finally, in a lot of vacation rental homes, the things that you’re going to do to entertain yourselves and your family on vacation are actually on the property itself. Vacation rental homes may have a private pool, so you don’t have to go and share a pool space with a lot of other people. They may have a media room where you can watch movies instead of going out to see a movie in a movie theater. And so those are all things that people have liked about vacation rental homes in particular during COVID.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I’ve actually seen a lot of people who are looking at vacation rentals as extended stays now. So as they have more clarity on whether their children will be going back to school or not, and if their kids are doing e- learning and the parents might also be working from home, I’ve heard of a lot of families who are exploring, going and working and getting a vacation rental in the mountains for a month because this way they can be a little bit farther from other people and able to social distance, but now they’re in the mountains and able to sort of get a different experience. Have you seen any trends like that where people are booking sort of longer stays by chance?
Bill Furlong: Yeah, for sure. In fact, I divided maybe into two different groups. We saw over the course of the pandemic period since March, you could see one trend of people who were renting vacation homes for extended periods nearby the city where they live. So it might’ve been people who live in Boston and the renting of vacation home on Cape Cod, or they live in New York and they were renting a home on Long Island. And so people who are doing that for an extended period frankly, to get out of a place where the pandemic was raging into a place where it was less severe. And so we saw that.
Now, we’re moving into a phase where you see people doing a little bit more of what you’re talking about, which is taking advantage of some of the flexibility that’s emerged into our society, where more people who are working are obviously working from home in many cases when they can. And are working on their computers, which they can connect with Wi-Fi from anywhere. Their kids are in many cases, starting the school year, doing remote learning. And they can do that in many cases from anywhere as well.
Nisreene Atassi: Julie, do you think we would ever get to that place where people would start to feel more comfortable flying private and in which case the industry might respond and start to reduce the prices on things like that? Do you think that would ever happen?
Julie Kyse: Well, I have friends who work in the private aviation industry and they are seeing an uptick in travel, but for most people that’s not really accessible, especially now times are tight. There are people are losing jobs and they’re looking to save money. I don’t see a lot of people really deciding to spend a tremendously large amount of money on private aircraft. I do think there’s opportunities for people who would like to travel maybe in premium cabins. It’s a lot cheaper because we don’t have a lot of business travelers going at this point in time. So the airlines do have great fairs in the front of the cabin. And that could be particularly appealing because there’s fewer people up there so it also enables some social distancing. But the private aircraft, I think is still probably a little bit out of reach for most listeners of the podcast, including myself.
Nisreene Atassi: What’s your advice to a traveler who might be thinking, “Okay, well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know I always like to travel internationally.” Let’s just say for Christmas. Do you think it’s worth still booking that far ahead or would you advise travelers to wait until a little bit closer to their travel day?
Julie Kyse: So since the prices are low and that flexibility exists, you don’t have a lot to lose by booking it now, especially because you can change it at any point if that’s what you need to do. The one thing I would caution you about though, about booking far in advance is that the airline schedules are a little bit unstable. As they’re seeing how many people are interested in flying, they are standing up their schedule, but then sometimes they’re canceling some of those flights as well. So you may not end up actually flying on the flight times that you originally booked. You might get rescheduled.
Bill Furlong: I think one of the points Julie made is a great one for people to think about, which is, because of the flexibility that airlines and hotels, and in many case vacation rentals as well have introduced now, it does change how to think a bit about the trips you’re going to take. I think a great example right now, it might be a ski trip, ski vacation with a family. It’s coming up to be ski season. In fact, it’s something that’s always top of mind for me because on the day that the pandemic lock down really started was about March, 13th. My family had our bags packed in our front hallway. Our kids were asleep and we were getting ready to get into the car, to drive to Colorado to go skiing for spring vacation because the spring vacation was just about to start. And that night things started to escalate in terms of shutdowns and so on because of COVID and my wife and I decided that we weren’t going to make the trip.
The kids came down at six o’clock the next morning in their pajamas, ready to jump into the car and start driving and we were still in bed and they said, “What’s going on? Why aren’t you up packing the car?” And we said, “We’re not going.” And they couldn’t believe it. And so our ski trip was canceled. And so we really want to think about skiing again this year, but everyone’s wondering how are ski resorts going to handle the pandemic? Now, what we’ve heard from the big skier is that they do plan to start the ski season as scheduled on time when the snow permits. Probably sometime around Thanksgiving, maybe December. And they’re planning to have a good ski season. Now, it’s going to be different. They’re going to have to make accommodations. There’s probably going to be fewer people hanging out in crowded lodges at lunchtime and they’re probably going to be distancing in ski lift lines. And they may be loading the lifts with people that you travel with as opposed to strangers.
So all those are possibilities. A lot of people might say, “Well, I’m just going to wait and see what happens.” But the good news now is if you’re going to take a trip, you may have that ability to say, “I’m going to book the trip today. I’m going to get the hotel that I want to stay in or the vacation rental home that I want to stay in locked in today. I can get it with a refundable fare or a refundable rate in the case of a hotel. If our plans have to change, we’ll change them.” The place you stay has a big impact on the quality of the vacation you’re going to have. And so if-
Nisreene Atassi: Absolutely.
Bill Furlong: … you see that… If you see, hey-
Nisreene Atassi: It makes the trip.
Bill Furlong: … it makes the trip.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. So when it comes to planning, it sounds like regardless, research is absolutely critical, both on the flight and the accommodations front. So, Bill why don’t we start with you? What is your number one tip for travelers to make sure that they stay on top of the information and have a seamless of a booking and travel experience as possible?
Bill Furlong: As you mentioned, it’s a time where you have to do more homework to have a successful vacation than ever before. And you have to make sure that you understand what the local regulations are, if there’s any restrictions where you’re traveling and so on. And that takes some research. One of the things we’ve tried to do is to make it a little bit easier by creating a resource center on Expedia. So if you go to expedia.com/covidtravel, one word, you’ll find a resource center, a travel guide that collects a lot of the information you need to know. So health, safety and travel advisories. We can’t ourselves keep up with all of those changes. But what we’ve tried to do is collect all of the links to the right local governmental sites and state sites so that you can find out what it’s like, whether you’re going to be able to travel to an area where there’s a quarantine rule in place. We tell you about what it’s going to be like when you arrive at an airport and what you can expect there.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Julie, what about you, what’s sort of your one tip for travelers right now who are either sort of researching or getting ready to book? What would you suggest that they do to make sure that they’ve got a seamless experience?
Julie Kyse: Yeah. Well, in addition to all of the information that Bill mentioned that’s available on Expedia, there’s another site that I really like for air, it’s called flyertalk.com and it’s a forum of frequent travelers. So you can ask questions about the specific experience that you should expect to encounter on your trip. And they’ve got different boards for each of the different airlines, where you can get a lot of information about what to expect during the trip, which should give you that extra degree of reassurance, because things will be a little bit different than what you’re used to.
Nisreene Atassi: Ooh, that’s a really great tip. I hadn’t heard of that one. So, thank you for sharing.
Bill Furlong: I think the thing we have to realize is that travel in the era of COVID it’s a personal decision. Weighing those risks is a personal decision. Risks about, “Am I going to be able to change at the last minute? How much am I willing to lock into a great rate or a great place or the place that it’s going to be perfect for our vacation, that doesn’t have quite as much flexibility as another place?” There are so many different elements to traveling today that are personal decisions that people take.
Nisreene Atassi: Bill, do you have sort of like a dream vacation that you’re thinking about taking or that you’d love to take in the near future?
Bill Furlong: Yeah. I work in the travel business and travel is super important for me and my wife and our family. In many cases we love to travel and we think of travel as the biggest gift we can give to our kids is giving them the chance to see the amazing cultural and natural diversity that we’ve got in our world. And so we really look at trips for the next six years before our oldest kid goes off to college as a depleting group of opportunities to give our kids that kind of experience. And so, we’ve got a lot of big family trips we want to do before the kids go to college. A number of them are international. And one of the big questions that my wife and I have is are we going to be able to travel internationally next summer? Knock on wood, we’re all going to feel great about that, but no one really knows. So we’re hedging our bets a little bit. Right now, we’re in the midst of planning another trip that’s on our punch list, which is to raft the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.
Nisreene Atassi: Wow.
Bill Furlong: And so, that’s one of the six trips that we’ve got earmarked for the next six years. And so we’re planning that today and we’re trying to figure out things like, do you go with a motorized raft where you can go through the flat water a little bit quicker, the whole way and peddle it the whole way? So, that’s our plan, is rafting the Grand Canyon.
Nisreene Atassi: Amazing. Love that. Julie, what about you? Any sort of dream trips that you’re thinking about taking, or trying to plan ahead on?
Julie Kyse: All right. And don’t laugh at me. My dream is, I want to go to New Jersey and all right, you laughed, but that’s okay. The reason I want to go to New Jersey is my family’s there. And I haven’t seen them since the pandemic started. Now, I live in Florida. We have a quarantine situation when we go to New Jersey. So my current plan is to go up there about three weeks before Christmas, rent a vacation rental near my parents’ house, self isolate for two weeks, and then head over for the family holiday. And I can’t wait. I’ll probably burst into tears on the plane. I’ll be so happy to be there.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, I love that. Listen, I think quarantine times and COVID, I think has made us all really appreciate the special things in life and family is definitely one of them. So I can absolutely see why that would be a dream vacation. And you know what? New Jersey is dreamy, why not?
Julie Kyse: Exactly.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. Well, many thanks to Bill Furlong and Julie Kyse of Expedia for joining me today. They’re go- to people for information on accommodations and flights. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel The System brought to you by Expedia. Join us next time when we get the inside details on traveling during shoulder season. Until then, happy travels.