How will travel look in 2023?

From pandemic restrictions to rail strikes, lost baggage and delays at ports, 2022 was a tricky year to navigate. Will we see the same issues in 2023? 

Passengers waiting at Hong Kong International Airport.

Photograph by Alamy
By Sarah Barrell
Published 20 Dec 2022, 11:00 GMT

The great ‘return to travel’ in 2022 was not the big break we’d been waiting for. “To say that last summer was a shambles would be an understatement,” says Ben Clatworthy, transport correspondent for The Times. With last-minute cancellations, huge airport queues and lost luggage, many passengers heading off on their first travels since 2019 faced problems at almost every turn. “Airports passed the blame: to the Cabinet Office, in charge of security vetting, and to ground handling companies. Airlines blamed just about everyone. And almost everyone across the aviation sector complained of staff shortages and blamed the tight labour market.”

So, what happens next? “Issues are already starting to ease,” says Clatworthy. “Airlines, airports and ground handlers have all managed to steadily increase their headcounts, getting new employees vetted, trained and onto rotas.” Pressure should also be eased during winter months which see lower traveller numbers. Will this allow travel companies time to recover? 

The Passport Office experienced unprecedented demand, a staffing crisis and a backlog of 500,000 documents which caused record delays to passport applications and renewals last summer, but an ongoing recruitment drive looks set to ease wait times this year. Supply issues that beset hire car companies also look set to improve. Having sold off stock during the pandemic, limited car numbers drove prices up last year. But things look more positive for this year. “When the industry makes excessive profits one year, companies tend to ramp up capacity the following year, and prices eventually revert to sensible levels,” explains travel journalist and broadcaster, Simon Calder.

Boosting capacity is broadly the recipe for success. Last summer saw huge queues at UK airports amid shortages of ground and air staff. Airlines advised travelling with hand luggage only, while many of those who checked in bags didn’t find them on arrival at their destination. Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, saw luggage pileups over summer 2022 largely due to baggage handlers and airlines unable to operate fully due to staff shortages. A recent statement from Heathrow noted that to meet demand at peak times, businesses across the airport ‘need to recruit and train up to 25,000 security-cleared people’ — a huge logistical challenge for these businesses.

Travellers checking in at Copenhagen Airport.

Travellers checking in at Copenhagen Airport.

Photograph by Alamy

Automating certain airport procedures may help. “One of the results of Brexit was the removal of our right to freedom of movement throughout the EU, and we are now treated the same as all non-EU citizens, by the rather old-fashioned method of physically stamping passports,” says Sean Tipton, spokesperson for the travel association, ABTA. “This process is expected to become fully automated in 2023 through the new Entry/Exit System (EES) and this should help process passengers quickly and efficiently and reduce queuing.” 

With fuel prices rising and the cost of living increasing, travel pricing looks difficult to predict in 2023. Like individuals, travel companies are also affected by fluctuations caused by factors such as exchange rates and fuel costs. “A way of guarding against this is by buying fuel or currency in advance, and many companies do this to provide themselves with a degree of certainty,” says Tipton. “Inevitably, though, at some stage, rising costs lead to higher prices. One way to guard against this unpredictability is to book now and lock in the price of your trip.”

Rail strikes

If any element of 2022’s travel chaos looks set to continue into this year, it’s rail strikes. Mick Lynch, general secretary of rail union RMT has said strikes could go on “indefinitely” with industrial action continuing “until a negotiated settlement is reached”. There currently seems to be little chance of a breakthrough but British travellers are finding workarounds. 

“Our data suggests that rather than the train strikes causing a drop in UK travel, people are adapting their plans around the disruptions,” says Axel Hefer, CEO of hotel comparison site Trivago. “We’ve seen a rise in travellers looking for destinations closer to home. This could be as a result of needing an emergency hotel for the night, or people simply not wanting to venture too far from home and  risk getting caught in the commotion.”

How to deal with it: With staycations potentially seeing an uptick, if you’re planning a UK break this summer, book well ahead. The same goes for using coaches and airport parking on strike days and, if you have to take the train, it’s worth noting that even during last year’s national strikes — the biggest since 1989 — trains were not always cancelled across the board and most operators offered either a refund on tickets (even if your train isn’t cancelled) or the option to rebook. 

Book ahead and look out for sales is the expert consensus  for summer 2023.

Book ahead and look out for sales is the expert consensus  for summer 2023.

Photograph by Getty Images

Industrial action at airports

Airports across Europe saw thousands of flights delayed and cancelled by industrial action in summer 2022. This continued into autumn with strikes by budget airline unions in Italy and Spain, including Vueling and Ryanair, and air traffic control strikes in Italy.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the travel industry was one of those most severely affected, with over 190,000 European aviation workers being made redundant or placed on furlough,” says Nicky Kelvin, head of travel news website The Points Guy. “With post-pandemic hiring being affected by factors such as labour disputes and airport logistics constraints, many of the current airport staff are striking to avoid being overworked. 2023 will be challenging for the aviation sector, as airlines and airports will need to invest in higher numbers of staff to ensure untimely departures do not cause unnecessary delays.”  

How to deal with it: If you’re travelling with a UK or an EU airline — or from either of these regions — and your airline cancels your flight due to strikes, its legally obliged to offer you a full refund or a rerouting as soon as possible. If your flight gets cancelled within 14 days prior to travel, or your flight is delayed for three hours or more, you may be entitled to compensation.

Staff shortages at airlines 

Along with strikes, the number of planes taking to the skies last year was curtailed by airlines going bust. “There’s been a significant reduction in flight numbers and routes which has negatively impacted the smooth running of air travel,” says The Points Guy’s Nicky Kelvin. “Virgin Australia, Flybe and Alitalia are just a few of the many airlines which filed for bankruptcy following the financial constraints of the pandemic passenger decline.”

And many of the airlines that soldiered on did so with reduced schedules due to staff shortages, having laid off staff during the pandemic. Last July, an understaffed Heathrow airport made the decision to limit departing passengers to 100,000 per day — 4,000 fewer than originally expected. British Airways, Heathrow’s dominant carrier, placed a sales freeze on short-haul flights from the airport, cutting over 10,000 flights over the wintertime alone. “This is not going to be a quick fix,” said the airport’s CEO John Holland-Kaye last July, adding, “It’s absolutely possible that we could have another summer with a cap still in place.”

The rising cost of fuel looks set to push up  airfares this winter. Along with the cost of living crisis, this will “likely stymie passenger demand,” says The Times’ Ben Clatworthy. “In theory, this will take the pressure off airlines and airports... But it will be vital aviation doesn’t make the same mistake again and emerge this summer with too few staff.”

How to deal with it: For now, last-minute flight deals are largely a thing of the past. So, your mantra for air travel in 2023 is: book as far in advance as you can. Most airlines release tickets around a year ahead of departure, with the exception of some budget airlines including Ryanair, which sells up to six months ahead.

Airports across Europe saw thousands of flights delayed and cancelled.

Airports across Europe saw thousands of flights delayed and cancelled.

Photograph by Getty Images

Port & border delays

“As with aviation, so with ferries; the new realities of Brexit have been harder to adapt to because of staff shortages” said travel journalist Simon Calder in a feature for National Geographic Traveller last year. “Those should ease by this coming summer, but from late 2023, the outlook is actually worse. The new European Entry-Exit System (EES) and the European Travel Authorisation and Information System (EITIAS) are due to take effect in 2023. For airline travellers to the EU, this will constitute a minor inconvenience, but officials at the Port of Dover are expressing alarm at how travellers in vehicles will be processed, fearing they may have to get out in the middle of an area busy with traffic to have their biometrics taken.”

How to deal with it: Sail to and from the UK Monday-Thursday, and avoid travel on bank holidays or school holidays if you can. “Avoid Dover and go for longer sailings to France and Spain from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth, and to Belgium and Netherlands from Newcastle, Hull and Harwich,” recommends Calder, cautioning “prices may go up as people avoid the tailbacks and delays in Kent.”

Post-Brexit staffing

We’ve seen a dearth of staff in numerous industries including hospitality, aviation, ports and airports with the post-Brexit exodus of European workers. This has added to delays at ports and airports, and seen overstretched staff strike over working conditions. But the impact has also been felt overseas. 

“One of the logistical impacts on British travel companies of Brexit is that they are no longer allowed to employ UK nationals overseas without a work permit from the relevant country,” says ABTA’s Sean Tipton. “This has meant that travel companies may have had to either replace the services of staff such as reps or chalet workers through other means such as helplines or apps, or by employing local people and outsourcing to local companies. Not ideal for the travel companies or their UK staff, but they will have done their best to minimise the impact on their customers.”

Various travel organisations, including ABTA, have been lobbying EU and British governments to implement a mobility scheme that makes it easier for 18 to 34 year olds (younger workers dominate the seasonal travel job market) to find short-term employment in European countries, with a reciprocal deal in the UK.

How to deal with it: Reliant on seasonal workers, the ski industry has perhaps been most heavily impacted. Catered ski chalets, traditionally a popular option for British travellers taking winter breaks in the Alps, may be harder to come by via mainstream tour operators as the industry shifts towards self-catering and hotel accommodation. For the widest choice of catered chalet options, choose one of the smaller operators specialising in chalet accommodation and book well in advance. 

Passengers were forced to wait for up to six hours at the Port of Dover in ...

Passengers were forced to wait for up to six hours at the Port of Dover in July.

Photograph by Getty Images

Post-Brexit red tape

The European Entry-Exit System (EES) is due to take effect in May 2023, while the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) should be operational by November 2023. EES will record the entrance and exit of all third-country nationals travelling to Europe (this includes British nationals), replacing manual passport stamping. In theory this will quicken entry for non-EU nationals, who will be able to access self-service kiosks similar to those available currently for EU citizens at Schengen entry ports, where a passenger’s full name, passport number and fingerprint is recorded, and passport photograph verified against their live facial image.

ETIAS is a visa-waiver travel authorisation which applies to third-country nationals travelling to Europe (including British passport holders). It is a pre-departure arrangement requiring travellers to complete an online ETIAS form. The application will cost €7 (£6.17, free for under 18s), and is valid for three consecutive years, for stays of no more than 
90 days in a 180-day period. 

Increased airfares

As travel bounced back in 2022, the surge in demand for flights, combined with the lack of supply, also saw air fares increase. Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), has warned of further price hikes: “Flights are getting more expensive because of the high price of oil and it’s becoming clear to everybody that that will be reflected in higher ticket prices.”

The industry expects to see a change in consumer habits as a result. “With the cost-of-living crisis taking full hold, Brits will be cautious about where they holiday, particularly during peak seasons,” says The Points Guy’s Nicky Kelvin. “Many travellers will be looking to fly with lower-cost airlines or go shorter distances. Many airlines are rushing to combat this. For example, EasyJet announced a huge sale in autumn 2022, with flights available to book in advance up to early 2024. Many destinations included in the sale are significantly reduced, with a variety of beach destinations coming in at under £100 return.”

And as for rising fuel costs? “Flights operate using kerosene fuels, the price of which is extremely volatile,” says The Times’ Ben Clatworthy. “To make it easier to plan for the swings in the cost, airlines take out fuel hedging — a sort of insurance, or bet, against future price increases. Many airlines ‘locked in’ their summer fuel long before Russia invaded Ukraine and the price of jet fuel soared. But those airlines have now burnt the fuel. As of October 14, jet fuel in Europe was 46% more expensive year-on-year. And the value of the pound has tanked against the dollar. The result? Almost guaranteed higher airfares come the winter.” 

How to deal with it: Book in advance and look out for sales. “Passengers can monitor flight prices and deals using Google Flights (or any preferred flight search engine) and receive alerts with updates for price drops and deals to ensure they get the best value for money they possibly can,” advises Kelvin.  

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of  National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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