May 18, 2020

Two-tier travel: The more you spend, the easier it will be to find distance in a post-COVID-19 world

The seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai where rates start at $1,000 per night

A private jet carrying passengers from from London tries to sneak its way into a French airport where helicopters wait to whisk revelers to a secluded resort. 

A U.S. airline offers to "sell" socially-distanced upgrades by proposing passengers purchase the middle seat.  

Passengers arriving and leaving the airport in Vienna avoid mandatory quarantines by paying $200 for a test certifying they have tested negative for COVID-19.

It will be a while before Americans begin traveling again, but when we do, we should be prepared for a two-tier system that favors those willing to pay for privacy and safety.  

The more you spend, the easier it will be to keep your distance in a post-COVID-19 world.

Luxury travel marketers will take "private" to a new level, promoting stays in private villas, staffed with cooks and caretakers who are tested daily rather than just passing temperature checks.

Private villas come with private pools at a luxury
desert camp near Dubai

Airlines will enjoy increased demand for expensive business class and first-class seats. Less-expensive "premium" economy could include an extra charge for a seat adjacent to one left empty.

"Hotels" within hotels - perhaps whole separate floors - will separate those willing to pay more for being around fewer people. Same with cruises for those who want to avoid group dining, swimming and sunbathing.

It's too early to predict long-lasting trends, but I see a few developing. Some will make travel safer and more comfortable (better hygiene standards, no more packed planes). Others, I fear, threaten to keep us at a distance from the people and places that create the most memorable travel experiences. 

Will we be inclined to opt for an Airbnb the next time we travel, or choose a hermetically sealed hotel room where we'll check ourselves in and out without ever talking to another person? Will we book a private dining room in a four-star restaurant, or patronize the family-run taverna where the tables spill onto the sidewalk crowded with passersby? If a new friend invites us home for dinner, will we accept? 

Coronavirus testing

Look for quick COVID-19 tests to evolve as countries demand proof of a recent negative test as a condition of entry. It's hard to say what the cost will be, hopefully lower than $200, but the tests will likely come at a price, just as there's a charge for TSA Pre-Check or the CLEAR system used by business travelers to avoid hassles at airport security checkpoints.

Home testing kits are set to go on the market soon for $125. On the other hand, destinations hungry to kick-start their tourism could follow Iceland's lead when it reopens to tourists in mid-June. The country is said to be planning to give travelers free tests upon arrival at the airport — those who test negative would be free to enjoy their time in the country, but those who test positive would have to self-isolate for 14 days.

Airline seating

Frontier Airlines dropped its plans to charge extra for keeping middle seats open but what's to stop airlines from intentionally leaving some seats empty, then jacking up fares in general to make up the difference? 

That's essentially what Delta has given itself permission to do with a new policy of reducing capacity to 50-60 percent. Middle and certain aisle and window seats will be blocked. There's no direct link to higher fares, but as demand increases, and as long as the need for distancing remains, fares almost certainly will rise. 

Watch for airlines to begin adding surcharges for "Covid-safety features." (Some dentists and hair salons are already doing this), and new rules limiting the size and weight of carry-on bags along with higher fees for checked bags. 


Hotels are preparing for remote check-in and minimal contact with staff. Private villas and bungalows will be in demand. Not so much the cheap all-inclusive resorts packed with families and the bargain bus tours.

A private view of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate from a suite in the Adlon Hotel 

Celebrity chef David Burke is willing to bet that private dining will thrive. 

“You walk in with your own group, you have the room, you have your own bathroom, your own waiter,” he predicts. “Then when you leave, everything gets cleaned up and another group comes in.” 

Burke, who owns restaurants in New York City, New Jersey, Saratoga Springs, and Washington, D.C., is planning to take this familiar concept even further when he reopens David Burke Tavern in Manhattan, where guests will be able to book a private, contact-less, glass-enclosed dining space built into the back of a flatbed truck.

Street food in Xian, China's Muslim quarter

Bottom line

All of this begs the question:  What is travel all about? I think the emphasis on privacy points to what's ahead for vacationing rather than traveling, if for you as it does to me me, travel means connecting with people and diving into the local culture by mingling with the masses.  

The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt
Sure, I enjoy an occasional retreat to an over-priced hotel bar, especially in third-world countries where the heat and crowds call for an escape. I'm recalling the lunch my husband and I shared this time last year on the terrace of Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel, built in 1889 by Thomas Cook for European travelers taking Nile cruises. So many people want to visit, the hotel requires non-guests to buy $15 vouchers for food or drinks so that others who can't afford it will stay away.

That said, I have no desire to hide away for weeks in an exclusive resort or eat in a private dining room, walled off from the world around me. I don't want to tour the U.S. in an RV, and cook my own food brought from home. 

Take me back to the pulque bar in Mexico City or the street food market in Xian, China's Muslim quarter. More than that lunch at the Cataract in Aswan, I remember zipping around the crowded streets of Cairo in an Uber, using a meal-sharing site to dine in the home of a Egyptian family, and breakfasting on the rooftop of our Airbnb on an island in the Nile. 

A home-cooked Cairo meal

When it will be safe, comfortable or wise to do that type of traveling again, I have no idea, but I'm willing to wait.


  1. I agree completely that the question is not "When will travel be safe?", but "When will reasonably safe travel be fun?". It's hard to enjoy traveling if you have to view every other human as a potential killer.