Chicago hotels lose 10,000 room nights in two weeks as delta variant prompts some travelers to postpone trips

© Chicago Tribune

After a year with little travel, Kate Davis hoped to make up for lost time at the end of the summer, with a trip to visit a friend in Colorado before heading to a Labor Day weekend wedding in Boston.

But as Davis, who is pregnant, watched COVID-19 case counts rise in recent weeks, she decided to call off both trips.

“It just feels really unfair,” said Davis, 33, of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. “It feels like we’re being sent back inside to detention because 30% of people won’t get vaccinated.”

Even as travel has rebounded this summer, the recent rise in COVID-19 cases fueled by variants that appear to be more contagious is putting some trips on hold. With companies delaying the return to the office, business travelers have fewer reasons to hit the road. And vacationers, even fully vaccinated ones, are again facing concerns about shifting travel restrictions, particularly for people heading overseas.

“They’re not worried about getting sick, they’re worried about getting stuck,” said Carrie Wallace, founder and president of Chicago-based Cerulean World Travel. “They’re worried about the experience getting compromised in some way.”

In late July, several travel companies said the rising case numbers weren’t affecting bookings, including United Airlines, American Airlines, and Hilton. In a statement, Chicago-based Hyatt said “the momentum we have seen to date, coupled with forward-looking indicators and conversations with our largest customers, gives us confidence that the recovery will continue into the fall.”

But more recently, Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines said they’ve seen a slowdown in bookings that both airlines attributed to a rise in COVID-19 cases associated with the delta variant.

Travel booking website Kayak said domestic travel searches have fallen more than expected for this time of year. Searches dropped 26% over the last three weeks, compared with a 3% decline over the same period in 2019, the company said.

Meanwhile, Expedia Group, parent of travel companies such as Vrbo, CheapTickets and Chicago-based Orbitz, blamed the delta variant for “some backward movement” in July after revenues rose 273% during the quarter that ended June 30.

“There’s a lot of unknowns. … We’re starting to see some of that percolate through cancellation rates and more volatility in the numbers,” CEO Peter Kern said during an Aug. 5 call discussing the company’s financial results.

In Chicago, hotels saw 10,000 room nights canceled over the next two weeks, all within the past 10 days, Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, told Illinois legislators during a virtual hearing Thursday. Most were booked by business travelers, he said.

Jacobson is hopeful the increase in cases linked to the delta variant will be short-lived. In the meantime, companies are delaying the return to offices and conventions, preventing business travel from picking up to replace leisure travel that typically slows in late summer.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” he said.

Not everyone is staying home. The share of people who reported feeling comfortable traveling dropped from 66% in early June to 51% at the end of July, according to a CivicScience survey. Still, in a separate survey conducted by the same company, the share of consumers who said they planned to fly in the next month held relatively steady.

The delta variant will likely have a bigger impact on global air travel than flying within the U.S., where leisure travel has been resilient and there’s less concern about shifting travel restrictions, said John Grant, senior analyst with aviation data firm OAG.

Wallace, at Cerulean World Travel, said some clients planning overseas trips in next two months have opted to stay closer to home. One couple canceled a trip to South Africa because they worried they’d miss the wedding celebration they scheduled after their trip if forced to quarantine, she said. Another couple decided to skip Europe and head to the Caribbean, which has been open to U.S. tourists longer.

Wallace said she’s advising clients to keep an eye on case counts and travel restrictions and avoid making any decisions until they have to. Few people have raised concerns about trips later in the fall or winter.

“The outlook is still optimistic, until there’s a reason not to be,” she said.

Travel experts advised people who are feeling cautious to pay attention to cancellation policies and plan trips that allow flexibility.

United, American and Delta all eliminated change fees on flights departing the U.S. last year, and United and Delta recently extended the fee-free flight changes to travelers purchasing basic economy tickets.

Previously, basic economy travelers only got a temporary reprieve.

Even before the pandemic, Southwest didn’t charge change fees. Travelers on all four airlines are still responsible for covering the extra cost if their new flight is more expensive than the original.

Travelers who change a flight also won’t get their cash back unless they opt for a more expensive fully refundable ticket, so people worried about having to cancel may want to book with points or frequent flyer miles to avoid being out the cost of the original ticket, said Scott Keyes, founder of airfare deals tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights.

This also might not be the time for a complicated itinerary with lots of connecting flights or stops in multiple countries, said Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at travel website The Points Guy.

“Any time there’s a change, it’s going to affect something else,” she said. “Keeping it streamlined will make it easier if you need to alter your plans.”

Others are simply making fewer long-range plans.

In late June, Elizabeth Tamny, 55, of Streeterville, planned an August trip to visit her parents for the first time since December 2019 after missing both their 80th birthdays last year. She recently made a “pretty tortured decision” to call off the trip because of concerns about rising case numbers.

Next time she’s ready to travel, she doesn’t plan to wait as long between booking and hitting the road.

“If it feels like there’s a real window, I’ll try to grab it sooner,” she said.