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Pandemic forced sweeping changes in travel. Experts argue these should stay.

From extra flexibility to increased sanitation, covid-19 adjustments

From extra flexibility to increased sanitation, covid-19 adjustments show us what a more traveler-friendly industry could look like. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

At the start of the pandemic last year, passenger rights advocate Adeline Noorderhaven found herself in the most far-reaching dilemma anyone in her field had ever faced: Airlines grounded almost every flight, and virtually every passenger expected a refund.

"This was obviously not possible for airlines considering the scale of cancellations that started in March 2020," says Noorderhaven, president of the Association of Passenger Rights Advocates, which advocates for the rights of all air travelers entering the European Union. Instead of cash, airlines were handing out vouchers. "We have therefore been focused on passengers fighting to get their money back," she said.

Airlines don't have a reputation for being traveler friendly. But major airlines have been making long-overdue improvements to policies that have long irritated frequent fliers, she said.

Across sectors, brands have made changes that once might have seemed radical - everything from flexible booking terms and more transparent cancellations to stricter cleaning protocols and even germ-zapping robots.

But there's one catch: So far, a lot of these changes remain temporary measures put in place to boost consumer confidence as the industry struggles through the economic downturn.

Here's what some experts suggest needs to stick around in the long term.

Extra flexibility and no more change fees for fliers

Airlines were never known for flexibility. The most notorious example is ticket change fees, which would often exceed the value of the original flight. "Personally, I never saw how the $200 change fee was even reasonable for customers," says Jessica Nabongo, a professional traveler and the founder of boutique tourism agency Jet Black

"Eliminating the change fees has been a very positive move in giving people peace of mind and removing an obstacle to booking a trip," says Henry Harteveldt, a widely cited industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

Axing change fees - and extending that to basic economy and international routes - ranks as the most significant improvement Nabongo hopes to see long term. A close second: "The reduction of price gouging" for last-minute flights, Nabongo says.

Harteveldt would like travel brands to keep flexibility embedded in their refund policies.

More long stays, less crowding the same old spots

Because of the rise in working from home, newbie telecommuters are planning longer-term "workcations" to remote and rural locales. Hotels and vacation rentals are offering Netflix-style lodging subscriptions to appeal to this growing demographic.

A longer stay in a single destination gives travelers the chance to more respectfully engage the culture and support locally owned businesses.

Sweeping changes in Airbnb's policies

It took a global pandemic for Airbnb to finally address some long-standing traveler complaints. Makarand Mody, assistant professor of hospitality marketing at Boston University, points to the enhanced cleaning protocols, which Airbnb made mandatory in November.

Similarly, the company has recently tweaked its booking system to make cancellation policies clearer to guests before they confirm a reservation. Hosts also have the ability to offer "refundable" or "nonrefundable" options to guests, offering discounts for the former.

Stricter cleanliness standards everywhere we go

An overwhelming majority of traverlers now consider cleanliness the most important factor when booking trips. This has already led to heightened scrutiny about how, exactly, housekeeping operates.

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