Travel

Here’s what Alaska travelers can expect now that we’re in 2021

As a traveler, looking back on 2020 was … well, never mind.

This was a year when the best-laid travel plans got upended by the global COVID-19 pandemic. But it also was a year that brought our priorities into sharp focus. Instead of stressing over frequent flyer miles or upgrades, many of us had to scramble to make ends meet. Some of us got sick and all of us had to “hunker down” at home to stop the virus.

Demand for travel vanished in April. Cruises were canceled. Flights were scaled way back. Many hotels closed, while communities instituted quarantine requirements — all designed to stop or slow the spread of the virus.

So, here we are in 2021. The first doses of a vaccine are being administered every day, primarily to elders and front-line health care workers around the state. What can travelers expect going forward?

Of course, just having the vaccine doesn’t mean that everyone gets it instantly. Because of that, most travel restrictions will remain firmly in place. Masks will be required. COVID-19 tests will be required here in Alaska and in Hawaii.

As case counts and hospital occupancy go down, travelers can expect other states to reduce or eliminate quarantine orders. While statewide counts in Alaska are on the decline, the pressure still is on in other states, including Washington, California and Oregon. Hawaii, the state with the lowest number of cases, also is the most stringent regarding prospective visitors.

After the state of Hawaii started accepting visitors on Oct. 15, lots of folks rushed to get a qualifying COVID-19 test in order to visit the islands. Even so, Kauai eventually backed out of the state program, re-instituting a strict quarantine for new arrivals. Recently, the length of quarantine was reduced from 14 days to 10 days.

Things continue to change for travelers who want to visit the islands. All travelers have to have test results in hand when they fly to Hawaii, in addition to uploading the test results to the state’s travel portal.

There’s lots of attention on travel to Hawaii, because of Alaska Air’s nonstops to Maui, Honolulu and Kona. But Hawaii’s restrictions are a cakewalk compared to other international destinations.

[The pandemic has upended Alaska flight schedules. If you travel next year, plan accordingly.]

Hopefully, as vaccination rates go up and COVID-19 numbers go down, Alaskans will once again be able to drive to the Lower 48 on the Alaska Highway. Currently, non-discretionary travel is not permitted. I do not expect this to change until case numbers go down in the U.S.

If you’re hoping to go to Australia, it’s going to be a long wait. U.S. citizens are prohibited from entering. This may not change until late 2021. Further, if you want to fly on Qantas, COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory.

International travel may be one of the last sectors that rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. Two airlines, Condor and Edelweiss, are hoping that the travel embargo between Europe and the U.S. will end. Both airlines plan to fly nonstop between Anchorage and Frankfurt all summer long.

That’s good for Alaska-based travel operators. Because of the state’s wide-open spaces and small population, Alaska still ranks near the top of destinations travelers want to see. “I keep hearing small, positive steps for recovery in our industry,” said Sarah Leonard, head of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “There’s a shift toward independent travel this year. And visitors are more likely to travel with a vaccine,” she said.

There is pent-up demand for travel in general and for Alaska in particular for 2021. Companies best-positioned for the boom may be those who offer a unique outdoor experience: kayakers, hikers, bike tours and raft trips.

The details on cruise operations, whether in Alaska or elsewhere, still are uncertain. Alaska operators are planning for a full season. But a successful season depends on a working arrangement with the CDC on safe cruise line operations. For Alaska, it also depends on approval from Canada, since most Alaska cruises either originate in Canada (Vancouver, British Columbia) or call in a Canadian port on the way to Alaska (Victoria, British Columbia).

There are exceptions, though. Small ship operators like UnCruise Adventures and Alaska Dream Cruises offer itineraries that start and end in Alaska on ships that hold between 12 and 150 passengers. Some of the itineraries do not call at a single port throughout the weeklong cruise. Rather, they anchor in remote bays away from communities.

Airlines that serve Anchorage have ramped up their summertime schedules. There are no plans by any airline to require travelers to get vaccinated. But, don’t expect airlines to modify their mask policy anytime soon. Alaska Airlines’ policy to block middle seats on their planes ends on Wednesday. Delta, however, has blocked out all middle seats on their planes through March 30.

Leonard, of ATIA, said she was encouraged by new air service to Anchorage, particularly Alaska Airlines’ announcement of new nonstop flights to Las Vegas, Denver and San Francisco.

Delta announced plans to resume its service between Seattle and Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau. We’ll wait and see if the carrier brings back the Anchorage-Atlanta nonstop.

Eastern Airlines, formerly known as Dynamic Airways, announced plans to offer weekly nonstop service between Anchorage and New York’s JFK airport. The Friday-only service starts on May 28, with prices from $178 per person, one way. Seat selection is extra.

Eastern will compete on the route with United Airlines, which will resume its daily Anchorage-Newark nonstop, currently priced at $197 one-way.

Most travel people are hoping 2021 is a building year, particularly with the rollout of the vaccine shots. Few anticipate the state will be back to pre-pandemic levels.

Public health officials are cautiously optimistic that cases in Alaska are declining, although there still could be a post-Christmas rush of new infections. And a second batch of vaccine (almost 53,000 doses) is on its way to Alaska this month.

It’s fair to say travelers can see the light at the end of the tunnel now … and it’s not the train coming the other way.

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