How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe
A tourist swims on Sarolimeni beach, Mani peninsula, Peloponnese region, Greece. (Photographer: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg)

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

For a brief window in January, as the Covid-19 vaccine rollout began in earnest across the U.S., the phone lines at travel agencies were abuzz with new inquiries. A majority of them pointed the same way: to Europe and specifically, the Mediterranean.

Then, at the end of the month, that window slammed shut.

Climbing virus caseloads and fears of new variants led France to close all borders on Jan. 29; Germany followed suit by extending its lockdown. Raising hopes, the U.K. announced its road map to recovery in mid-February; the same week, Italy called for tighter restrictions.

Safeguarding summer travel with vaccine passports has been floated in the E.U., batted down, and floated again. And while the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would have enough supply to vaccinate all adults by May, the E.U.’s far slower vaccination campaign hopes merely to have 70% of adults inoculated by summer’s end.

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

Whiplashed? So are the rest of us. But many travelers are optimistically hedging their bets for summer in Europe. At worst, they’ll push back their plans. At best, they’ll be the first ones in the door when borders eventually reopen.

“People are just throwing darts at the board,” says Paul Tumpowsky, founder and chief executive officer of luxury online travel agency Skylark. That may sound haphazard, but there’s a lot of strategizing happening on where to aim. Here’s what that may mean for you.

Long Shots, Realistic Bets

Traditional favorites such as Positano, Saint Tropez, and even Mallorca may be off limits this summer, as Italy, France, and Spain appear to be taking a more conservative approach to reopening borders. Among them, Spain shows the most optimism: Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez hopes to allow travelers from the EU starting on June 21 and to open access in July for additional countries reciprocally.

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

“We love Italy—it’s our favorite place in the world,” says Jack Ezon, whose U.S.-based travel consultancy Embark Beyond targets ultra-high-net-worth individuals. “But based off what we’re hearing from locals, I’m just not sure they’ll be open to Americans this summer.”

“It doesn’t look pretty for France or Spain, either” Ezon adds. Instead, he is encouraging his clients to book refundable stays at villas and resorts throughout Greece and in Bodrum, Turkey. Just this week, Greece announced plans to allow all vaccinated travelers beginning in May; in Turkey, borders have been open since mid-2020.

Also looking promising is Cyprus—which has announced a policy allowing entry to vaccinated Brits this summer—and Portugal, which may soon do the same.

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

“Emirates is restarting flights from the U.S. to Greece on June 1, and we want our clients to be the first to get space when they realize that nothing else is opening. If that’s the only place people can go, it’s going to be a mad rush,” Ezon predicts.

Hoteliers in the Greek isles are counting on it. Daniel Kerzner, owner of the just-opened, six-villa Santorini Sky resort, is unfazed by a recent spike in local caseloads, which he says are largely confined to the mainland.

“Greece did a fantastic job last year, preparing for the tourist seasons and tightening things up before it. The same is happening now,” he says. “We’re the perfect place to restart tourism in 2021.”

Skylark’s Tumpowsky says the Aegean country has several advantages this summer: “Greece has a lot of outdoor hotels, and they also didn’t have a lot of problems last summer when they opened up.” He believes that Greece’s decision to allow foreigners could pressure other EU countries to follow suit. But he’s reluctant to envision Americans being able to travel widely in Europe before August.

To manage that uncertainty, Ezon suggests “doubling your pleasure” by booking a “sure-thing vacation” in the U.S., Greece, or Turkey, and another in a “TBD destination” such as Italy or France, both for the same refundable window. “When we see what happens with the border situations, we’ll make a decision.”

Get Money on the Table

Regardless of where you want to go, now may be the best time to book.

“Clients with agents have their money tied up in all sorts of places,” says Tumpowsky, referring to credits and vouchers that were offered to travelers when they cancelled their 2020 plans. Especially if those credits are at risk of expiring, it makes sense to get a new booking on the calendar as a placeholder and hope it pans out.

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

This may disadvantage travelers who don’t already have money on the table. “What we’re seeing is a massive compression problem,” Tumpowsky explains. Bookings from 2020 are being rolled into 2021, and in some cases, he says, that demand is already bubbling over into peak season 2022.

Add in European travelers who are still confined to their own regions, a bevy of buyouts for rescheduled weddings, and U.K. residents eyeing their own return to the road, and competition for hotel inventory is indeed heating up.

The Britannia Hotel in Trondheim, Norway, is already anticipating occupancy rates of 80% through the summer, with July likely to come very close to 100%, according to a rep. Most of that business is from Norwegians. Niall Rochford, general manager of Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland, says demand from locals is “very strong” on account of the government’s recommendation to delay foreign holidays until 2022.

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

At Heckfield Place in Hampshire, England, demand was so intense following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Feb. 22 announcement about phased reopening plans that the hotel had to pull staff into its reservations department to answer calls and emails. For the hotel’s first week back in business, in mid-May, the rooms are nearly sold out.

Stretch the Season

For many Americans, this means that the best way to guarantee a summer trip to Europe might be to plan one for the fall.

“Italy in September? It’s amazing,” says Tumpowsky. “The water’s fantastic, harvest is going on … the only reason we focus so much on summer is because, traditionally, we used to have a rush back to the office after Labor Day.”

Given the realities of work from home, he says, “That might not be the case anymore.”

How to Think About Booking Summer Travel in Europe

Santorini hotelier Kerzner echoes that sentiment. “With 2021 getting off to a late start and such limited travel in 2020, we are expecting the season to run longer than usual—likely all year,” he says.

Tumpowsky adds that travelers should be ready to act fast, regardless of where or when they plan to go.

“The approval of the Johnson & Johnson shot is going to be a game-changer for everyone,” he says, anticipating that the new, single-dose vaccine will get more and more people thinking about  “vaxications.” “In six weeks,” he predicts, “this whole thing is over. The world is going to shift into fourth gear—and really quickly.”

“If you know exactly what you want,” he advises, “you’d better jump on it now—or risk that it might be gone for the next two years.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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