‘We Were Going and I Am Not at All Sorry’

Many Americans booked travel well before COVID-19 cases started soaring. Now what?

A torn up boarding pass
Daniel Reiner / Alamy; The Atlantic

America’s hot vax summer began exactly how it was billed—less pandemic, more vacci-cations. Over the past few months, Americans have gone nuts with travel. Airbnbs are booked months in advance. Good luck finding a rental car. Even cruises are back … unfortunately. For a couple of days in July, airports were busier than they were at the same point in 2019.

But you know what happened next. Would-be travelers expecting a carefree summer did not have this Delta in mind when forking up for plane tickets and hotels. Now Americans with travel plans are finding themselves stuck in the pandemic’s purgatory phase. Seventy-three percent of adults have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, and the vaccines remain extraordinarily protective. But America is getting pummeled. The United States is hitting 150,000 new coronavirus cases per day. ICUs can’t keep up, overwhelmed with unvaccinated patients. People are concerned about breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and rising cases among young children, who don’t yet have access to the vaccines.

As Americans have way more travel freedom than during any previous surge, the Delta variant is making hapless travelers very, very confused about whether to still go on what they thought would be a dreamy end-of-summer junket. For many, vacation season has turned into something far more anxiety-inducing than relaxing.

Unlike during past pandemic surges, not that many Americans are outright dropping their vacation plans. I got a hint of this when I emailed Helane Becker, an airline-industry analyst at the investment bank Cowen, and received the following auto-response: “Hello. For the first time in 29 years, I am off the grid. I will have no access to email this week.” Once Becker returned to the grid, she pointed me to the TSA's handy tracker of how many travelers are passing through airport checkpoints every day. Fewer people are flying now than in June and July, but it’s back-to-school season. The same trend happens every year, Becker told me. There are still almost three times the number of travelers every day than there were during the height of the previous pandemic surge, in January.

It’s much the same with Airbnbs: Cancellations relative to bookings on Airbnb are around 25 percent right now, up from 20 percent earlier in the summer but nothing like the rate from the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, says Jamie Lane, the head of research at AirDNA, a research firm that studies vacation rentals. In spring 2020, that rate topped out at 121 percent. Take a look at new bookings and you’d have a hard time even knowing that the Delta variant was a thing, he told me. “Most Airbnb hosts have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of demand they’re seeing,” Lane said.

That’s not to say there are no signs of people second-guessing their travel plans. “Americans do seem a bit concerned about traveling,” Becker said. “It’s substantial enough that we’re seeing airlines make note of it.” Southwest recently claimed that last-minute cancellations are eating into its profits, and Frontier has blamed Delta—the variant, not the airline—for a sag in bookings. (Delta the airline hasn’t noted any decline because of the variant, but please just refer to it as B.1.617.2.) Meanwhile, the research company Morning Consult polls Americans every week on how comfortable they feel about going on vacation, and yes, there’s been a modest Delta dip. Just over half of people are willing to go on a trip right now, the lowest percentage since May 1.

The most obvious reason for this discomfort might be sheer safety concerns: People could be hesitant to take a risk with this variant, especially if they have young, unvaccinated children. And with case numbers so high, surely some people have had to abandon plans not out of choice but because they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus. While most states, with the exception of Hawaii, aren’t asking tourists to stay away, Americans who want to go abroad still have to contend with a jigsaw puzzle of changing travel restrictions: Sure, you technically can go to Greece, but the country’s current COVID-19 wave has put it on the State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list.

None of these decisions is new, really. They’re mostly the same types of genuinely vexing, headache-inducing safety calculations Americans have had to make all pandemic long. But this time, companies are largely done making our lives any easier. If you do decide that the Delta variant just isn’t worth the risk of traveling, don’t expect any of the flexible policies from earlier in the pandemic. “At this point, if you cancel, it’s on you,” says Bob Mann, a travel-industry analyst. “The likelihood is that people get no refund—at most airlines, not even a credit toward future travel.”

So what’s the actual risk that travel poses to Americans right now? Well, it’s complicated. As my colleague Amanda Mull has written, the race between vaccinations and variants has added even more twists and turns in the game of pandemic risk assessment. Undoubtedly, the Delta variant makes everything even more dangerous for the vaccine holdouts. (The CDC continues to recommend that Americans delay travel until they’re fully vaccinated.) For the vaccinated, the Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage says that the risk of infection while traveling is still relatively low in many situations. “It would probably be worth avoiding a crowded nightclub in Florida at the moment regardless of vaccine status,” he said in an email. But there are other considerations. Beyond factoring in many individual safety variables—for instance, if you’re traveling with or returning to people who are elderly or immunocompromised—travelers also have to think ahead to logistical hurdles. “My own family was planning on a trip to Iceland this month,” Hanage said, “which we canceled at short notice because of the chances of disruption (travel with unvaccinated kids is hard if you are not sure they will be out of quarantine in time to enjoy the trip).”

The reason Americans seem so jumbled about whether to cancel their trips right now is that Americans are jumbled about basically every activity right now. We’re living in a swirl of pandemic life and normalcy, and that makes for some pretty muddled messaging. After Americans were told that vaccines were a portal to the Before Times and that vaccinated people could chuck their masks, the whiplash from having to re-mask and stress about everything all over again can be maddening. “All of this is creating a lot of confusion,” says Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a health-communication professor at Harvard. “And when people are confused, you know what they do? They just do the best for themselves and their families, having to cope with this tide of information. People have decided they can't just put a stop to their lives.”

This is how Becker felt about her own “off the grid” vacci-cation—a sojourn in Ecuador and the eastern Galápagos Islands with her family. “We had canceled and postponed this vacation twice because of COVID, and I was adamant about not doing it again,” she said. “We were going and I am not at all sorry.”