Skip to Content
MarketWatch

Business travel has not rebounded, enabling tourists to find discounts

Jacob Passy

Corporate demand for flights is still down 64% compared with before COVID-19, meaning discounts are easy to find for savvy travelers

Nick Ewen, a senior editor at SmarterTravel.com, is travelling from Orlando to New York City this weekend -- and he's planning to do so in style.

At Orlando International Airport, he will visit the Delta Sky Club lounge to relax and take in the amenities. And he's considering an upgrade to a first-class seat on his flight. After all, the change will cost him less than $200, or around 16,900 airlines miles.

"Airline clubs and first-class cabins are typically filled with business travelers, but for now, they may be a bit emptier compared to pre-pandemic levels," he said.

Ewen's upcoming trip is a prime example of the options leisure travelers and tourists have at their disposal as the travel sector continues to face setbacks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the highly contagious delta variant.

Earlier this year, it appeared that airlines and hotels were going to see booming business as vaccinated Americans packed their bags and splurged on "revenge trips" after a year of social distancing and mask mandates. But then came the delta variant -- a more contagious strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 which might be able to evade some of the protections afforded by vaccines.

The variant prompted a fourth wave of the virus, overwhelming hospitals across the country. And now with the summer drawing to a close, an expected revival in business travel may be fizzling out.

Trade groups like the Financial Planning Association, the National Rifle Association and the Specialty Food Association have cancelled planned meetings and conferences that attract thousands of attendees out of concerns for public health. Other big events like the New Orleans Jazz Festival and BravoCon are also casualties of this trend.

That's bad news for airlines and hotels that were relying on a resurgence in business travel this fall to tide them over until the holiday season. But it's good news for savvy travelers who are still hoping to book a long-awaited getaway -- if they know how to play their cards right.

Here are five tips for people looking to book trips this fall:

Consider traveling to larger cities

Don't have a destination in mind? Book a vacation to a major city like New York or Los Angeles.

"Consider trips to destinations that are normally popular for business travelers, especially larger cities," Ewen said. "You'll have a better chance of finding lower-priced flights and hotel rooms."

For instance, a flight search Ewen performed uncovered multiple dates with roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to New York for as little as $137 per person, well below normal.

There are other ancillary benefits to visiting a big city right now as opposed to a smaller town further from the beaten path. "This can also help avoid any lingering issues from the rental-car shortage that was so well-documented over the summer, since many large cities have better public transportation and more extensive ride-hailing options," Ewen said.

Business and first-class seats are seeing steep discounts

Corporate demand for flights is down 64% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Willis Orlando, member operations specialist at travel website Scott's Cheap Flights. And that's the perfect recipe for discounted premium seats.

"Whereas pre-pandemic, robust corporate sales helped keep prices high for the fancy seats at the front of the plane, without this demand, airlines have had to cut prices to try to fill some of those seats," Orlando said.

On transatlantic routes, you can find $1,200 business class fares to Spain and $1,800 fares to other destinations in Europe. That's less than half the cost of these same seats before the pandemic, Orlando said. The discounts are even more pronounced with domestic trips, though.

Airlines are generally flying larger aircraft for their domestic or short-haul international routes nowadays. "This not only means greater supply of business-class seats, which naturally drives prices down, but also that the quality of the business class product for these short-haul routes is better," Orlando said.

Case in point, you can purchase round-trip airfare from the U.S. to the Caribbean in business class for only $500 to $800. And there's a decent chance you'll get a lie-flat seat. "Regular consumers have a rare opportunity to try out a pretty fancy product for a bargain price," Orlando said.

Put your stockpiled airlines miles to work

Waiting until the day of your flight to try for an upgrade may still not work, even nowadays. But for the experienced traveler, there are still ways to work the system.

A better strategy, Ewen said, is to use credit-card points or airline miles to book a first- or business-class ticket from the star. He used a partner program to book first-class seats on a domestic flight with Delta for himself, his wife and his daughter. "It's rare to see a single Delta (DAL) seat available to partners in domestic first class -- let alone three on one flight," he said.

Particularly for anyone who has been sitting on miles for the past year or so, this can be a winning approach. If you have vouchers from flights you cancelled due to the pandemic, you can even try braving the long waits on hold to see about having a customer support representative combine those with stockpiled miles to save on your bookings.

Flexibility and discounts go together

Finding the best deals now is all about flexibility, travel experts stressed. For instance, reserving a room at a conference hotel might be a way to score a discount given all the recent cancellations, but you have to pay close attention to the calendar.

As Ewen noted, the Orlando Convention Center still has a number of major events booked in the coming months, meaning discounts aren't guaranteed.

One way to game the system is to use cancellation policies to your advantage. Most hotels allow for free cancellations, and many airlines have maintained their free flight-change policies (aside from tickets in basic economy). You could book multiple reservations at different times and then see if you can find better rates later on. "Just be sure to set a calendar reminder to cancel the ones you won't ultimately use," Ewen said.

Take precautions -- health-wise and financially

To be sure, the reason why business travel hasn't made a comeback is the health risks involved with travel. Venturing far afield can increase one's chance of coming into contact with someone who has COVID-19 or contracting it themselves.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, short road trips with your household or fully vaccinated people are safer than flights or bus rides.

Furthermore, changing guidelines -- both overseas and here in the U.S. -- can easily ruin a person's travel plans if they're not paying attention. To say nothing of the fact that getting sick could leave one stranded far from home.

"Consider a travel insurance policy that provides coverage if you become ill while traveling, or if you have to cancel because of illness," said Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet. "Cancel for Any Reason coverage is pricey, but could be worth it for those once-in-a-lifetime vacations."

Another tip from Rathner: Pack an abundance of masks, more than you'll need, including surgical-style masks in case airlines or destinations don't allow cloth ones.

-Jacob Passy

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

09-11-21 0938ET

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.