There are numerous indicators that leisure travel has rebounded to 2019 levels and even higher after being decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arkansas' state government collected more than $20.5 million from its tourism tax in 2021, which was almost 17% more than the previous high in 2019, and hotel and restaurant tax collections in tourist destinations like Hot Springs and Eureka Springs similarly blew past their pre-COVID levels.
But much of that comes from people traveling in the state or from states within driving distance. What if you're jonesing to get further away? You definitely aren't alone, and you definitely won't be able to forget all about the coronavirus since a new strain — the BA.2 subvariant of the omicron strain that peaked two months ago — has been gaining steam.
The good news is that may not mean any tightening of existing travel requirements within and from the U.S. The bad news is that's because travel on common carriers has never returned to pre-pandemic normal.
The Work Wife talked to Janet Brown, a consultant at West Rock Travel in Little Rock with more than 35 years of experience, about things to keep in mind if you want to travel this spring or summer. Here's what we learned.
Travel planning is still a leap of faith. "We can't really tell you today what's going to happen two weeks from now," Brown says. While the U.S. has not changed travel protocols in several months, other countries have and will continue to adjust to COVID case loads.
Get familiar with state.travel.gov. The U.S. State Department has the go-to website for travel information (including country-specific COVID-19 information) and safety warnings. The State Department issued a "leave immediately" advisory for Russia this week, but there are routine advisories for many foreign destinations.
Check your passport. If you are thinking of leaving the U.S., make sure it doesn't expire for at least six months after your planned return date. A positive COVID test has delayed a lot of return trips, and you can't cut it too close. This is especially true if you will be visiting a foreign destination that doesn't have a handy U.S. embassy.
If you need to get or renew your passport, apply as soon as possible. "Passports are taking anywhere from five to seven weeks if you get them expedited, eight to 11 weeks if they aren't expedited," Brown says. The State Department has already raised the base price of passports in recent months, and expediting adds another $60 to the cost of each.
Fuel prices may increase the cost of traveling — or maybe not. There's just no telling, Brown says. "Of 200 people on a plane, you hardly ever find two people who paid the same price." The same is true of cruises, which are Brown's specialty.
Traditionally, cruise passengers who book earliest get the best prices and the best choice of cabins, she says, but the cruise industry is the one form of leisure travel that has not come close to pre-pandemic popularity, so cruise lines are trying to sell excess capacity by offering last-minute bargains.
Brown still recommends booking cruises early in order to get better rooms. The cruise lines require proof of COVID vaccination, but if there were an outbreak, you'll want a balcony and not a windowless interior cabin.