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Fall Travel Trends: Have You Heard of ‘Trip Stacking?’ (You Will.)

Uncertainty remains the new normal in travel this autumn driven by the rise in cases and ever-changing travel restrictions, but here are eight things you can expect.

After a summer in which travel accelerated rapidly, nearly reaching prepandemic numbers, fall is looking like the season of uncertainty. Increasing concern about the Delta variant, as well as a seasonal travel dip, have slowed bookings. Fear of the variant and the potential of changing regulations have prompted travelers to plan more cautiously.

International trips are being pushed to 2022, with some people monitoring conditions week by week before booking. The European Union’s announcement on Monday that it was removing the United States from its “safe list” of countries raises the question of whether European nations will reinstate restrictions.

Seth Borko, a senior research analyst at Skift Research, an arm of the Skift travel trade publication, said that while he thinks some countries — especially those dependent on international tourism — will ignore the guidance, some travelers may still be dissuaded. “The travel lists themselves reduce people’s inclination to go to those destinations,” he said.

Joshua Bush, the chief executive officer of Avenue Two Travel, a luxury travel agency based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said that as the virus continues to develop, “the one thing to know for certain is that everything is going to be uncertain, that things can change at any time.”

Here is what you can expect if you plan to travel this fall.

Because of the uncertainty raised by the Delta variant, said Paula Twidale, the senior vice president of travel at AAA, travelers are adopting a “wait and see approach,” delaying bookings or opting for flexible tickets.

Hopper, a travel booking app, has seen an increase in the use of its services that allow people to cancel or rebook flights free of charge. Purchases of its “cancel for any reason” add-on have increased 54 percent over the last 12 weeks and the number of people opting for its “rebooking guarantee” has grown by 50 percent since early spring.

Some airlines, like Delta and United, have reintroduced flexibility for basic economy passengers, who would not normally be allowed to change their tickets. This was a hallmark of early pandemic travel, said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that alerts subscribers to discounted airfares, adding that the reversal demonstrates the airline industry’s understanding of people’s skittishness in light of the Delta variant.

Some luxury travelers are opting for what some people call “trip stacking,” or buying two trips over the same time period in case one of them falls through, said Mr. Bush, who has been offering this service. Many of his clients had been forced to cancel travel plans because of regulation changes during the pandemic. Booking two trips, he said, ensures that “they wouldn’t be left out in the cold without having any trip at all.”

“Ultimately, they’re going to take both of those trips,” he said. “It just matters which is the one that is going to be most likely to come to fruition in October.”

For budget travelers thinking of trying this strategy, said Mr. Keyes, it’s important that they “come in cleareyed about what happens to the ticket they don’t use.”

Fliers are only entitled to a refund if the airline cancels the flight or there is a significant delay. If passengers cancel, airlines will typically offer travel vouchers for future use.

The only exception, said Mr. Keyes, is if you book with miles, in which case you will get back your miles and any taxes and fees if you decide not to travel.

Both domestic and international airfares are expected to drop this fall as demand drops, said Adit Damodaran, an economist and chief travel expert at Hopper. Though flight prices do not seem to have been affected by the new E.U. travel guidelines so far, Mr. Damodaran said that if restrictions are put in place and demand declines, prices could drop further.

“I would say that the general theme going into the fall at the moment is kind of a return to the way that travel was in the spring,” Mr. Damodaran said. “What I mean by that is lower prices compared to the summer, and also a little bit more domestic travel compared to international travel.”

But prices are still high in other sectors, especially for hotels and car rentals. A recent survey by Skift Research found that 73 percent of respondents intended to take a road trip in 2020, and Mr. Borko said that the E.U. action will likely accelerate that trend.

Because so many international destinations remain closed, “what is open, there’s such a high demand,” Ms. Twidale said. “If you’re waiting for a last minute booking or a last minute deal, it’s really not a good value proposition for you to do that,” she said.

Jasmine Jordan, 31, a singer-songwriter and marketer who lives in Seattle, said that she also now spends more on travel expenses that she considered unnecessary in the past, like travelers’ insurance.

During a recent trip to Mexico, she also opted for private transportation as opposed to shuttles to minimize her interaction with people outside her party. She finds herself “paying more for the convenience and, I guess, security of just knowing you’re in tighter spaces with really just your tight knit people,” she said.

The spread of the Delta variant has made many would-be travelers wary of making international travel plans, both because of personal reservations and also out of concern that changing regulations will force them to cancel.

The European Union taking the United States off its “safe list,” for instance, raises uncertainty about whether European countries will change regulations when it comes to American visitors. But Mr. Borko said that even during the summer while Europe was open, travelers were still inclined toward domestic tourism — a trend he expects to continue.

“I think what you see in the data is when people become more fearful, of the pandemic, of Covid, to the extent they’re traveling, it tends to be more focused domestically than internationally,” Mr. Keyes said.

Mr. Damodaran, of Hopper, said that international bookings have been going down month over month on that platform, while domestic bookings have remained stable.

“Part of that is the ‘seasonality’ that we’re seeing just going into the fall,” when travel normally falls off, he said, “and the other part of that could be some impact from the Delta variant” making travelers more hesitant to book trans-Atlantic travel.

This unpredictability led Ms. Jordan, who had a trip planned to Italy this fall, to postpone it for next year. Though she and her friend, a nurse, were sure they wanted to go, they had not yet booked their flight.

“Normally, it would be way in advance,” she said, but “I think we were just slowly tip toeing, kind of feeling out week to week.” She ultimately decided that she didn’t want to risk getting stuck in another country.

The pandemic has changed her overall attitude toward travel, she said, making her more flexible to changes. “In previous years I would get so frustrated when things didn’t happen exactly how I wanted to,” she said. “After this last year, I almost feel like I’m a new person.”

Mukhaye Nangalama, a 33-year-old who works in business affairs for a record label in Los Angeles, also expressed reservations about booking international travel. “I really don’t want to go anywhere international until we kind of see how 2022 pans out,” Ms. Nangalama said. “Some foreign countries, their medical health infrastructure is not as good as here,” she said, adding that she would “hate to be stuck somewhere very far from home and not have access to certain medical care if I were to get sick.”

Many travelers are gravitating toward beach vacations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Hawaii, which are close and provide an outdoor escape. Hawaii has been so overwhelmed by tourists amid rising coronavirus case numbers that Gov. David Ige urged travelers to stay away in an Aug. 23 news conference.

This is a trend that continues from last winter and spring, when travelers gravitated more toward these places because of the stringent restrictions in place in the European Union, for instance, said Mr. Damodaran.

Lia Avellino, 33, the director of a mental well-being program at the Well, a wellness center in New York, has traveled quite a bit throughout the pandemic, primarily to places near the city. But this fall, she is taking her family to Costa Rica for a beach surf vacation, their first international trip since the pandemic.

She said they got travel insurance in case they need to change or cancel the flight based on how the Delta variant affects the country, and she plans on keeping her young children masked.

Though she has family in Europe, Ms. Avellino said that she wanted to go somewhere closer to home for the family’s first international trip, “and then see how that feels for our nervous systems.”

Businesses across the travel industry continue to struggle to rebuild their work force, so services are still being cut back and limited.

Car rental counters in airports have been condensed to include multiple brands, often operated by one or two agents, Ms. Twidale said. Airlines have cut some routes, offering fewer nonstop flights. There has also been a shortage in rental cars, which Ms. Twidale said may not resolve itself until 2022 because of a semiconductor chip shortage affecting car rental companies’ ability to upgrade or add vehicles to their fleets. And airline companies are scrambling to hire more call center employees to reduce call wait times, which are now several hours for most airlines.

“Everyone’s trying to get staff back in place, because the demand just spiked and surged,” Ms. Twidale said. “That’s going to be the challenge for a little while, not only the hiring but bringing the competency up to speed.”

JetBlue said in an email that it is currently working to “hire and train 4,000 new crew members” to meet increased demand and “the added steps Covid travel mandates have created, like verifying test results and other health documents.” And American Airlines said it is hiring “hundreds” of reservation agents to better support customers.

One area in which there appears to be growth is among the budget airlines, which have taken advantage of the shift toward leisure travel during the pandemic.

Mr. Keyes said that while the number of available “seat miles,” which refers to available seats, are down across major airlines compared to before the pandemic, budget airlines have actually added seat miles. Spirit has 14 percent more than it did the same time two years ago, while Allegiant has 28 percent more.

“You see the budget airlines really trying to not only bounce back quicker but really make a play to gobble up market share away from these sort of legacy airlines,” he said. “They’re seeing the travel landscape changing toward their sort of playing field.”

Budget airlines offer direct flights to popular vacation destinations and appeal to casual leisure travelers who are paying out of pocket. Legacy airlines, on the other hand, rely more heavily on business travel, which continues to lag, said Mr. Borko of Skift Research.

Still, the budget airlines have not been immune to the challenges the industry is facing. Spirit Airlines, for instance, canceled hundreds of flights in August, and has been struggling with cancellations for months.

With vaccinations still unavailable for children under 12, families must calculate the risk of traveling with their young children.

“That’s why there’s a high propensity of road trips and domestic travel happening,” Ms. Twidale said. She encourages families to go places where they can have more control over their environments and limit the number of people with whom they interact, like national parks.

That’s the route that Dr. Amber Schmidtke, 40, and her family, who live in Kansas City, took during the pandemic. Over the summer, for example, she and her family packed up their camper and traveled for three weeks through Colorado and Utah. Camping, she said, is “sort of pandemic-proof.”

In March, after she and her husband got vaccinated, they booked a Labor Day trip to Hawaii with their children, 10 and 12, with another family of mixed vaccination status.

“We fully expected that there would be a pediatric vaccine by now,” Dr. Schmidtke said. But a few weeks ago, as she saw cases rise in Hawaii and reflected on how the virus has disproportionately harmed people of color, including Native Hawaiians, she decided to cancel her trip.

Dr. Schmidtke is particularly attuned to the spread of the Delta variant because of her work as a Covid researcher at the University of St. Mary in Kansas.

“I may be a little more paranoid than some parents,” she said, but “especially with unvaccinated kids, it’s just a risk that we weren’t willing to take.” She added that she didn’t want to “be responsible for any sort of outbreak” in Hawaii.

Bookings have already started to pick up for next year. Gemma Jamieson, a spokeswoman for Skyscanner, a flight-booking app, said in an email that bookings for 2022 created in the last week were up 30 percent compared to the same time in July. The top bookings were to Cancún, London, Paris, Rome and Tokyo, indicating a continued demand for travel worldwide.

It’s too early to tell how these bookings will be affected by the European Union’s action this week. But, said Dia Adams, a travel expert at Forbes Advisor, “I do think the top line will scare some European travelers off booking their trips.”

Mr. Borko said that he anticipates a continued interest in domestic or regional travel, to places such as Mexico and the Caribbean.

“International travel is recovering very slowly and still very much below where we were,” he said, “and the sentiment about Covid has turned much more sharply negative.”

Despite the continued challenges to the travel industry, Ms. Twidale said that she’s optimistic about next year.

“Twenty-nineteen was a banner year for travel,” she said. “Twenty-twenty-two could be an even bigger banner year than 2019.”

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places list for 2021.

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