When it comes to traveling in 2021, there’s a lot to think about. Do you need to pack proof of vaccination? What happens if you cancel your trip? And should you pay extra for travel insurance?
Though those are valid concerns for travel in the COVID-19 era, over a third of surveyed Americans (39%) say the most concerning aspect of their next trip is actually “overcrowding and long lines.”
That’s according to a report by TripIt from Concur, a travel and expense management company that surveyed more than 1,500 of its U.S. users in July 2021 about their upcoming travel plans. The survey asked respondents, “Which of the following aspects of travel, if any, will concern you the most the next time you travel?” and allowed them to select up to three items. Here were the responses:
Overcrowding and long lines: 39%.
Staying up-to-date on travel restrictions: 36%.
Unruly passengers: 29%.
Dealing with airport logistics: 23%.
Understanding vaccine/infection rates: 19%.
Uncertainty regarding vaccination rules: 18%.
Knowing how to cancel or rebook: 17%.
Scheduling a COVID-19 test: 13%.
I will not be concerned: 18%.
Overcrowding has been a growing problem for the travel industry as it transitions from a period of extremely low travel rates in 2020 to now, when many Americans are making up for a year of missed vacations with more (or longer) trips. In some cases, 2021 travel figures have outpaced not just 2020, but even 2019.
For example, the 2021 Fourth of July holiday weekend was huge. On Thursday, July 1, the Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.14 million people — 103% of the 2.08 million travelers screened on the Thursday of the 2019 Fourth of July weekend.
National parks have reported a record number of visitors in 2021 as people seek socially distant and outdoor-focused vacations. Many outdoor tour operators are reporting increased bookings as well. For instance, REI Co-op said that bookings for its guided backpack, cycling and camping trips around the U.S. increased by 28% in early 2021 compared with 2019.
And with the holiday season around the corner, overcrowding and long lines could very well continue through the rest of the year. Despite the rise in COVID-19 cases in many places across the U.S., travelers should prepare to contend with crowds in the coming months too.
How to cope with crowds while traveling
Even seemingly isolated places like hiking trails and small towns are going to be crowded this year. Expect airports and hotel check-in desks to be more chaotic than not. That said, here are three ways to avoid overcrowding and long lines:
1. Apply for TSA PreCheck
When flying out of most U.S. airports, you can avoid not just long lines, but also the irritating process of removing your shoes, liquids and laptop by having TSA PreCheck, a clearance program that lets you pass through airport security in a separate, expedited line.
Most PreCheck lines move so quickly that you might not even have time to guzzle your last sip of water before sending the bottle through the scanner. A whopping 96% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes in August 2021, according to the TSA.
You’ll have to apply in advance with both an online application and a short, in-person appointment, and there’s an $85 application fee (but it’s good for a five-year membership). Thankfully, many travel credit cards reimburse that fee if you pay with the card.
2. Less is more: Pack light
Skip the line at the bag counter before you hit airport security by committing to carry-on only. Even better, avoid the crowding around the boarding gate to secure overhead bin space by packing light enough so that everything fits under the seat in front of you.
Plus, with just carry-ons, you won’t need to worry about a checked bag’s whereabouts if the flight gets canceled and rebooked at the last minute.
3. Rely on your smartphone
More travel providers are turning to smartphones to do jobs that humans used to do, and — given long lines and labor shortages — that might not be a bad thing. Before flying or staying in a hotel, see if the company has a smartphone app.
Many large hotel chains have embraced this kind of technology, such as the Marriott Bonvoy
app. This app doubles as an easy way to check in and a virtual key to your accommodations.
At the airport, you can often bypass the check-in counter and display your boarding pass on your phone if you’ve downloaded the airline’s app.
And when dining out, you can often skip restaurant lines by ordering ahead on your mobile device. Some restaurants offer order-ahead features on their websites, while others rely on food delivery apps for takeout or delivery orders. Some credit cards offer additional discounts for using food delivery apps.
Just remember to pack a portable power bank since you’ll be burning through more battery than normal on your smartphone.
If you’re concerned about traveling
Travel crowds are huge right now, and travelers should be ready for them to ramp up even more in the upcoming holiday season. A lot has changed about travel since the pandemic started, and travel may not necessarily be the stress-reliever you hoped for this year.
However, many of the pain points of travel can be avoided or reduced by taking actions that are under your control. Plan ahead, pack light and make room in your carry-on for a portable smartphone power bank. And if all else fails, bring the thing that doesn’t take up any space in a suitcase: your patience.
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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SAFmedia.