A Different Early-Bird Special: Have Vaccine, Will Travel

When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas, Texas.

But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their Covid-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.

Across the United States, older people have been among the first in line to receive their Covid-19 vaccinations. And among hotels, cruise lines and tour operators, the data is clear: Older travelers are leading a wave in new travel bookings. Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel — often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine. For the silver-haired, it’s a silver lining.

“We’ve very willingly been compliant with masking and social distancing, and have basically lived inside of our bubble here in Dallas,” Mr. Drayer said. “We haven’t been inside a restaurant in a year. So we’re anxious to get out now and do things a little more safely.”

At the Foundry Hotel in Asheville, N.C., an 87-room luxury hotel housed in what was once a steel factory for the Biltmore Estate, reservations made with the hotel’s AARP promotional rate were up 50 percent last month. Aqua-Aston Hospitality, a Honolulu-based company with resorts, hotels and condos in its portfolio, reports that senior-rate bookings climbed nearly 60 recent in January.

The Drayers, who have gone gorilla trekking in Africa and done adventure travel in India, Israel and Egypt, admit that their trip to Hawaii, which they booked through the members-only vacation club, Exclusive Resorts, is something of a baby step. (The vacation club reports that more than 50 percent of their current bookings are vacations for members over the age of 65.)

“We’re testing the waters,” Ms. Drayer said. “We didn’t want to end up quarantined in a foreign country or not allowed back in the United States. This felt like a safe place to go, where we were still in the United States.”

That sense of safety is partly because Hawaii, with its mandatory quarantine and contact tracing, has managed the pandemic well. The couple feel confident that if they were to face any health issues while on the island, they wouldn’t be stymied by an overburdened health system.

“We’re traveling to a destination that, by all the numbers, is safer than where we live right now,” said Mr. Drayer. “It feels like our bubble has cracked open a little a bit.”

Alice Southworth, 75, was also looking for a post-vaccine travel destination in a place that was still taking Covid-19 precautions seriously, and didn’t push her too far out of her comfort zone. A semiretired psychologist, she has continued to see a handful of patients throughout the pandemic, but hasn’t ventured beyond her hometown of McLean, Va., in more than a year. She also hasn’t been able to use an indoor gym or attend her beloved water aerobics classes, so as soon as she received the first dose of the vaccine, she booked a visit to Hilton Head Health, a wellness resort in South Carolina, where she’ll have access to a full range of fitness classes and activities. And when she arrives on March 28, she’ll be fully vaccinated.

Receiving that coveted first shot, she said, wasn’t just a factor in convincing her to book the trip. “It was the whole of the decision,” she said. But even having been immunized, she knows the vaccine is not a magic bullet, and wanted to be sure she was selecting a vacation spot where she trusted sanitation measures and where social distancing would still be possible.

“Hilton Head is a good investment in my own health,” she said, “and it’s a place where I feel I will be safe enough. I’m not going to Rome, you know.”

Older people are more eager to travel in 2021 than other age groups, and also more likely to link the timing of their travel to when they receive their vaccinations, according to a January survey conducted by the travel agency network Virtuoso. In the study, 83 percent of respondents over 77 said they were more ready to travel in 2021 than in 2020, and 95 percent of the same group said they would wait to travel until they received their vaccine (in other age groups, the percentage dipped to 80).

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And while some older adults are focusing on short distances and Covid-19 precautions at their destinations when it comes to post-pandemic travel, others are enthusiastically planning to just go big.

“There’s a lot of pent-up desire among seniors, and a sense of life running out,” said Jeff Galak, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “There’s a theory called mortality salience: When your own mortality is brought to mind, behaviors change. We’re going to see upgrades to better cabins on cruise ships, and booking of better hotels.”

For travelers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, said Conor Goodwin, corporate manager of Charlestowne Hotels, the ticking of the clock is another strong motivation to book as soon as an inoculation makes it safe.

“The 65-plus demographic is losing out on their golden years and they’re understandably eager to get back out there,” he said.

The Bristol Hotel in Virginia, which is part of Charlestowne’s portfolio, saw revenue from travelers over the age of 65 increase 179 percent between Dec. 13 and Jan. 22. The French Quarter Inn, in Charleston, S.C., which is also managed by Charlestowne, saw 11 percent more bookings from people over 65 between Jan. 10 and 28 compared Dec. 22 to Jan 9.

Some older travelers are even opting to finally book those big-ticket dream trips. Fernando Diez, who owns Quasar Expeditions, a luxury cruise operator in the Galápagos Islands, says that in December, when frontline health care workers were among the very first Americans to receive vaccines, he saw a wave of requests for trip information from doctors and nurses.

Since Jan. 1, however, 70 percent of his booking inquiries have come from guests over the age of 65 — in previous years, that number was closer to 40 percent. Most inquiries are for travel from June onward.

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What You Need to Know About the Vaccine Rollout

    • Providers in the U.S. are administering about 1.3 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines per day, on average. Almost 30 million people have received at least one dose, and about 7 million have been fully vaccinated. How many people have been vaccinated in your state?
    • The U.S. is far behind several other countries in getting its population vaccinated.
    • In the near future, travel may require digital documentation showing that passengers have been vaccinated or tested for the coronavirus.
    • When can you get the vaccine? What are the vaccine’s side effects? Is it safe to take during pregnancy? We’ve have answers to many of your questions.

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