McHenry County travel agencies see ‘tidal wave’ of business with fewer COVID-19 restrictions

‘There are lots of people that are ready to make up for lost time,’ one travel agency owner says

With COVID-19 restrictions lifting many places, travel is rebounding.

At least, that’s been what McHenry County area travel agencies have been seeing this summer as Illinois entered Phase 5 of its reopening plan earlier this year.

Susan Swett, one of the owners of Crystal Lake Travel, along with Patty DeRoo, said they’ve been doing a lot of booking for Mexico, Hawaii and the Caribbean since last summer, something other travel agents who spoke to the Northwest Herald have also been seeing.

“It’s wonderful – all in capital letters,” Swett said.

Neelie Kruse, owner of Cary Travel Express, chalked it up to " pent-up travel anxiety.”

“They’d get trips canceled, had to postpone things, and now they’re just ready to go and travel and get on with their lives,” Kruse said. “It’s great, but it’s also, in some respects, overwhelming because it’s almost come back like a tidal wave.”

The Transportation Security Administration said about 2.2 million people were screened at airport checkpoints on July 18, the highest number since February 2020, before travel collapsed because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

This time last year, the TSA was screening, on average, about 660,000 passengers each day compared with 2.7 million in mid-July 2019.

“There are lots of people that are ready to make up for lost time,” said Bernice Bakley, owner of Huntley Travel. “Obviously, travel right now is still a little more difficult than it used to be, but that’s one reason why we’re so busy, because maybe [those who] were doing things on their own are deciding to come back to travel agents and use our services.”

“We’ve been very busy, very, very busy,” Bakely added. “We’ve got a lot of lost sales to make up for, so I’m delighted to be busy.”

Just like many other industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, the travel industry was at a standstill last year when the highly infectious COVID-19 caused countries to impose mitigations and lockdowns.

“We didn’t have anything to sell because everything was in lockdown,” Swett said.

The past pandemic year was “devastating” for the industry, Bakely said.

“We don’t earn our commission until people travel,” she explained. “For the most part after March of last year, everything we had on our books canceled.”

Everything either had to be refunded or in some cases, people got future travel credits. Bakely said she was rebooking trips for the third, or in some cases, even the fourth time.

And with different places having different COVID-19 rules, travelers have had more to think about when planning their trips than in past years.

“People do ask a lot of questions, wondering what the policies and features are for each area or a particular resort,” Swett said. “They want to go and they are going, but they want to be smart about it, too.”

There’s a lot to navigate, Bakely said.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” she said. “... Something we’ve been doing for the last three weeks, it can change tomorrow. That actually happened to me when I was going to Jamaica back in March. At that time, when I booked my trip, you had to provide the negative test within 10 days of travel. And then they suddenly changed it to within 72 hours of travel. So if you’re not paying attention to what the requirements are, you can end up losing out on your trip.”

That’s why travel agents are telling clients to do their research.

“In addition to checking all the rules and requirements for wherever you’re going, make sure that you’re vaccinated, social distancing, [wearing] masks where you feel it’s necessary or required, hand washing, all the typical things that we’ve been doing over the last year,” Swett said.

For those planning their own vacation, especially now, travel agents suggest paying attention to everything.

“In the past, maybe you were the one that just breezed in an hour before a flight, never had a problem,” Bakely said. “Well, I don’t recommend that today.”

Something Kruse has noticed is that more people are doing a lot more multi-generation travel, such as taking a vacation with grandparents, as well.

“In the past, they all felt they needed to be home to buy all these gifts and spend time with the family,” Kruse said. “[Now they’re saying] let’s take the family on a trip and have them create a memory versus buying them another sweater or something.”

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.