The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on travel this year, and it has made it necessary for us to travel in safe and controlled ways. The rise of traveling in a "pod" is an emerging trend at present, but what does it mean - and is it the future of COVID-era vacations?

Two main types of pod vacations are gaining in popularity, with the first being where a group of family and friends take a trip together. With 2020 reminding us of the importance of being connected to loved ones, this option is great for people who wish to come together to share an adventure, while reducing the risks associated with socializing with others.

A group of friends in a cafe
Friends traveling together in pods is a new trend © Tetra images RF/Getty Images

Family and friend pods may choose to rent a villa or several cabins together or charter a boat to minimize the chances of coming into contact with other people. There is a lot of trust required for these types of pods to work, because everyone has to agree in advance to follow agreed health and safety rules, mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, and take steps such as COVID-19 testing, quarantining before departure, if required, and reporting any symptoms that may arise.

Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies, conducted an Instagram poll during the summer and found that 79% of respondents would travel with families whose pandemic values align with their own. This is most important, because vacations are meant to be fun, so it is advisable that potential pod members share a similar attitude toward safety and risk in order to avoid drama and tension arising on the trip.

The second type of pod is where travelers join with a group of strangers on an organised trip to visit a new destination, and create a travel pod with them. These pods can include all types of travelers, ranging from solo travelers to multigenerational groups, and they will usually have been tested for the virus before departure. By staying with the same group and guides throughout the trip, members don't mingle with other people, thus reducing their risk of exposure to the virus. The organizer will have established protocols around health and safety in advance that the group is obliged to follow.

Airbnb says that pod travel is one of the trends redefining travel in 2021, and notes that the shift to more remote and socially-distanced stays is also reflected in some of its most-booked spaces. Entire homes have officially replaced apartments as the most popular among guests for 2021, providing controlled, private space for pods. More off-the-beaten-path stays like cabins and cottages are in the top five types of spaces for 2021 trips, replacing villas and townhouses from 2020.

A wooden house with the Northern Lights above it
Chad Blakely is allowing travelers to stay at his house in Abisko © Lights Over Lapland

Providing a private space is something that Chad Blakely of Lights Over Lapland is offering on a new four-night Private Aurora Escape experience. Chad is giving up his own house in the heart of Abisko, the world-famous Northern Lights destination in Swedish Lapland, to groups wishing to create a travel pod. They can choose from a range of daytime activities, including a guided trip to Icehotel, ice fishing, a hiking adventure, a wildlife-watching safari, a landscape photography course or snowshoe hike.

People sitting on ice going ice fishing
Travel pods can go ice fishing in Swedish Lapland © Lights Over Lapland

Every evening, the guide will assess the weather forecast and take the guests to the best possible place to experience the Northern Lights. "All of the activities are delivered with the same really skilled guide, making the most of the experience but minimising contact with others," says Blakley. "While the wilderness around Abisko is already one of the best possible places for social distancing, we wanted to build a trip that allowed our guests to have their own space and limit contact while delivering the best once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

According to travel expert Gabe Saglie, senior editor with Travelzoo, hitting the road with others has always greatly enhanced our travel experiences, but we often traveled in pods pre-COVID because it was convenient or budget-friendly. "Today, the travel pod offers something else: peace of mind and a sense of safety, both of which, for many of us, are more important to the travel experience today than ever before," he says. "A pod creates a united front, which both heightens its members' sense of health and safety and elevates the travel experience overall."

Family travel itineraries now account for a quarter of Intrepid Travel’s most booked trips, which has inspired it to launch new Family Retreats for pods of maximum 12 people, usually comprised of three to five families. The itineraries embrace ‘slow travel’ in remote locales like Morocco’s Toubkal National Park, Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and England’s Cornish countryside.

People standing at a rice terrace
Intrepid Travel has launched new Family Retreats © Intrepid Travel

They allow adventurers to engage with the surrounding communities away from the crowds and in a more controlled settings. Groups are accompanied by a local leader who has received specific COVID-19 training. “After months spent indoors away from friends and classmates, we’ve seen families are eager to get out and explore the world once it is safe to do so, and have a desire to reconnect with both nature and like-minded people,” said Dyan Mckie, Intrepid’s family product manager.

Two women jumping on the Bolivia Salt Flats
G Adventures is offering private travel options © G Adventures Inc.

G Adventures is offering private travel options, where travelers in a pod of eight or 12 people can take one of 80 tours. On a private tour, they get to choose how they want to travel and who they travel with for added confidence and peace of mind. They can also customize a trip entirely for their pod, staying at smaller hotels with fewer guests, and will travel in private vehicles and boats with assigned seating and daily deep cleaning.

Traveling with a pod is likely to remain with us long after a vaccine has been found for the virus, because it has made us more conscious of our health in group situations and also how important spending time with friends and family is to us. "People within a travel pod - whether it's extended family or multiple households or groups of friends or like-minded individuals - will have a few key things in common," says Gabe Saglie. "Wanderlust, for one, and, these days, plenty of pent-up desire to go."

"Going as a pod allows people to identify and execute practices that might be tough to prioritize on their own, so it will appeal to many intrepid COVID-era travelers simply because it affords them the ability to travel at all."

Ask LP: I want to travel for Thanksgiving - is it responsible right now?

While many travel companies are offering new options for those interested in pod travel, individuals should stay up-to-date on all relevant government and health authority information. 

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