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Ask a Points Nerd: How could travel change after the pandemic?
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Ask a Points Nerd: How could travel change after the pandemic?

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While the present moment remains dismal, let’s cast our minds forward to a utopic travel future.

Mindfulness practice has helped keep me relatively sane throughout the pandemic so far, but no amount of living-in-the-moment can stop me from daydreaming about a time when we can travel freely again. Maybe it will be next spring, or several lifetimes from now, but someday we’ll once again cram into aluminum tubes and soar blissfully through the air together.

Some prognosticated changes to the travel industry have already come to pass. Airfare change fees are disappearing across many airlines (albeit mostly for domestic, non-basic-economy fares alone), and airlines got serious about keeping their aircraft surfaces and air clean, introducing new protocols that are unlikely to disappear even after the virus is under control.

But what other changes could we see once the pandemic clears? While the present moment remains dismal, let’s cast our minds forward to a utopic travel future.

Hotels could offer better accommodations for remote workers

One surprising byproduct of this global catastrophe is a sudden, unprecedented wave of remote workers spreading from high-cost coastal cities into the rest of the country. At first, these untethered workers were fleeing the higher rates of infection in major cities, but now many seem to be realizing they don’t ever have to go back “home” if they don’t want to.

This has created a huge demand for accommodations that support this geographically ambiguous workforce. Some hotel brands have dipped their toes into this new ecosystem, offering interesting work/live packages.

But as someone who was working remotely and living on the road since before all these Gen Z nomads were in preschool, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially with long-term stays. Nomads don’t want a room for a long weekend — we can stay for a month if the price is right.

Savvy hotel brands could even offer “memberships” that, for a fee, offer deep discounts across their entire portfolio of properties. Imagine:

“Where do you live?”

“The Hyatt.”

“Huh, which one?”

“All of them.”

Airbnb has already pivoted hard to long-term stays of a month or more, and some co-living ecosystems already cater to global digital nomads, but hotel brands could get into the action by effectively becoming landlords to the new nomadic generation.

We could see more dynamic award prices

You may have forgotten about those frequent flyer miles collecting dust in a long-neglected account, but I haven’t. I tracked the value of points and miles in 2020 compared with 2019 and found some interesting trends.

For the most part, these award points are worth less in 2020 than they were in 2019, but not for the reason you might think. Airlines and hotels didn’t hike the price of award tickets and nights in 2020, but they (mostly) didn’t lower the cost of these award bookings to match the dramatic shift in cash prices.

For example, a given flight on American Airlines might have cost $200 cash in 2019 but only $100 in 2020, while the award price stayed the same. This would halve the effective cent-per-mile value of the award booking, simply because it hadn’t kept pace with dropping cash prices.

The only domestic airline — United — and hotel program — IHG — that bucked this trend were those with the most “dynamic” award programs. That is, the ones that tied the cost of award bookings most closely to cash bookings.

Professional points-slingers like myself generally decry these “dynamic” award systems, as they don’t allow for the ultra-valuable redemptions we crave. But in this case, the dynamic programs were able to offer better relative value. I expect more static programs will adopt this free-market approach in the future.

Politics could stay out of travel safety

Whatever side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, you should be able to agree that public health should remain as apolitical as possible. Local health inspectors shouldn’t change their criteria for inspecting restaurants based on local politics, just as federal organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Aviation Administration should consider only health and safety when making and enforcing policies.

In April, at the height of the outbreak in New York City, I remember noticing with stunned disbelief how many daily flights were departing the city's three major airports. “Why are flights still leaving NYC?” I asked a colleague. I’m still waiting to hear a satisfactory answer.

I’m not an epidemiologist, but it doesn't seem like the airborne proliferation of New Yorkers across the country in April helped our country's fight against the virus.

Nonpartisan federal agencies should have the authority to lock down air travel in the event of a global pandemic, or at least enforce sensible safety precautions onboard. The major domestic airlines now all require masks, not because any agency required them to, but because overwhelming popular opinion demanded it.

The bottom line

I may not know what the future of travel will hold, but I have a few hopes about how it might unfold. Better long-term accommodations, more dynamic award pricing and common-sense airline safety rules top the list.

Now, mindfulness meditation teaches us to let go of thoughts of the future and return to the present moment. But forget that — the present moment is awful.

RELATED: What to know before traveling to the Caribbean this fall

Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to skemmis@nerdwallet.com.

Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.

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