The business travel universe is on the rebound. Despite higher airfares and hotel room rates in general, nearly a quarter of both large and small companies positively report their firms are already back to pre-COVID travel levels, and 34 percent anticipate a full recovery by the end of 2023.

But even though things are heating back up, there are still significant barriers to travel. Visa and passport requirements are creating huge bottlenecks, with long wait times and inconsistent policies from one country to the next. Holdups during the check in process is a continuing area of concern. Medical insurance mandates also vary from country to country, and the lack of a centralized database where all information is pooled doesn’t make for happy travel managers. And then of course, there are the changing COVID vaccine requirements.

These disruptions create undue stress on business travelers as well as their employers. It’s no wonder then, according to the International Air Transport Association, that “simplification and convenience” are travelers’ top concerns for travel in the post COVID era.

According to the IATA 2022 Global Passenger Survey:
• Proximity to the airport was passengers’ main priority when choosing where to fly from (75 percent). This was more important than the ticket price (39 percent).
• Travelers were satisfied being able to pay with their preferred payment method which was available for 82 percent of travelers. Having access to planning and booking information in one single place was identified as being top priority.
• Nearly one in five passengers (18 percent) said that they offset their carbon emissions, the main reason given by those that did not was not being aware of the option (36 percent).

“The biggest pain points travelers are experiencing right now are the inconsistencies and a lack of clarity when it comes to country-specific policies,” says Shehzad Moiz, VP of travel at Navan. “Beyond this, transportation disruptions, cancellations and delays have been impacting global travel. To ensure that they have the proper information at all times – whether that’s changing travel restrictions or a flight delay – travelers should book travel on a tech-forward platform that shares updates in real time.”

In addition, circumstances are pushing travelers to be much more proactive with booking hotels, flights and other trip necessities, notes Wanda Baumgartner, global client solutions manager at Fox World Travel. “Just earlier this year, according to Fox World Travel records for Quarter 1, about 60 percent of travelers were booking trips 14-20 days in advance,” Baumgartner says. “Now, nearly 80 percent of travelers are booking trips 14-20 days in advance or even earlier.”

Let’s Get This Party Started 
This “simplification and convenience” begins at the earliest planning and booking stages, and includes visas. Application fees for visas can be expensive, or nominal, and every country has a different set of application rules and eligibility requirements – whether that’s for a tourist, business, transit or visitor visa.

“While it is difficult to generalize, it is fair to say that since the pandemic, processing times for travel documents such as passports and visas have increased in some countries,” says Perry Flint, IATA’s head of corporate communications USA. “For example, the US State Dept. recently cautioned of longer processing times for passports and renewals.”

The IATA 2022 GPS Survey found that:
• 37 percent of travelers said immigration requirements have discouraged them from traveling to a particular destination. Process complexity was the main deterrent for 65 percent of travelers, 12 percent cited costs and 8 percent time.
• Where visas are required, 66 percent of travelers want to obtain a visa online prior to travel, 20 percent prefer to go to the consulate or embassy and 14 percent at the airport.
• 83 percent of travelers said they would share their immigration information to speed up the airport arrival process. While this is high, it is slightly down from the 88 percent recorded in 2021.

Some countries are definitely worse than others when it comes to obtaining visas, according to Tanya Green, senior vice president, NORAM Operations at BCD Travel. “It is harder for US residents to get visas in some countries like India and China,” Green says. “India is being more selective about granting long-term visas and have new restrictions in place to limit these. Many countries have legislation in place or are planning to add more restrictions to their visa programs, so you should regularly check the country’s specifications leading up to your travel.”

There are several hacks a traveler can use to smooth out this process. For example, “If you’re worried about getting your travel documents in time, expedite! It’s a small fee to save you time and curb your stress. You can also pay for USPS Priority Mail Express to ensure one- to two-day delivery once your passport is ready,” Green advises. “Each state will have a different turnaround time so be sure to check your state’s website for updates. You can also check to see if you can make an in-person appointment which should greatly cut back on the processing time.”

Post-Pandemic Passport Power 
Why is passport processing time such an issue these days? According to Baumgartner, “This wait time for passports seems to be attached to the fact that there was a rush to travel again once the pandemic restrictions lifted in many places. People tended to not pay attention to the expiration dates on their passports when we were all locked down but now, people are looking to travel again and realizing they need a passport to do it. This is why we are advising travelers to plan six months in advance of any trip and start applying for visas and passport(s) at that time.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the most significant visa pain points currently relate to Asia as that market opens for international business. “Multi-entry Chinese visas which were issued pre-pandemic, were invalidated for a while,” says John Keichline, CEO of Reed & Mackay North America. “Fortunately, these have now been reinstated, but as the demand for Chinese visas continues to grow, so do the processing times. If your travelers are looking to visit China – and Asia at large – then plan ahead!” The other visa pain point right now, he cautions, is Brazil, which is once again requiring US travelers to obtain a visa before entry, due to reciprocity.

“Wait times for passport renewals are problematic in the US right now,” Keichline continues. “Routine processing times are currently 10-13 weeks and Expedited Service (which costs $60) only decreases processing time to 7-9 weeks. The Department of State does offer an Emergency Passport Service if you need a passport, and it's within 14 calendar days of travel. Proof of Travel reservation is required as proof of Emergency Travel. The right TMC can assist their clients with producing a confirmed travel itinerary in these cases.”

Reed & MacKay offer the following advice for US travelers:
• If traveling for business, consider a second passport application (that way, you have a backup if you need to send a passport away for a visa application).
• Applying for a multiple-entry visa might be more expensive but could save considerable time and stress in the future.
• If you have a trip booked and think you know the current travel guidance, make sure to double-check a week or two before you travel, as restrictions may have changed (your TMC should inform you of any changes prior to travel).

The Airport Experience 
So let’s say you have your booking, ticket, visa and passport, and now you’re off to face the next hurdle – the airport. Delays at check in, confusion on what documentation is necessary for flights, and changing vaccine requirements can make this a facet of the travel experience many dread. However, travelers who are willing to engage in a trade-off can exchange their biometric data to ease the airport process.

The IATA study finds:
• Nearly half (44 percent) of passengers identify check-in as their top pick for off-airport processing, followed by immigration procedures (32 percent). And 93 percent of passengers are interested in some kind of trusted traveler programs involving background checks to expedite security screening.
• Two-thirds of survey respondents (67 percent) say they would be interested in home pick-up and delivery of baggage and nearly three-quarters (73 percent) in remote check-in options. Half of those surveyed (50 percent) said they have used or would be interested in using an electronic bag tag.
• Three-quarters of passengers asked (75 percent) say they want to use biometric data instead of passports and boarding passes, while over a third have already experienced using biometric identification in their travels, with an 88 percent satisfaction rate. But data protection remains a concern for about half of those surveyed.

Some travel industry groups have jumped to the forefront with innovative technology in an effort to address airport issues. For example, IATA’s newly released Recommended Practice on Digitalization of Admissibility is an industry standard that will enable travelers to arrive at airports “ready-to-fly,” with digital proof of admissibility to an international destination using contactless biometric-enabled processes. The One ID Initiative helps avoid a stop at the check-in desk or boarding gate for document checks.

Passport-less travel is another trend garnering the industry’s attention. British Airways has become the first UK airline to trial the use of biometric technology for international flights, enabling customers taking part in a trial to travel through the airport “smartly” without having to show their passport.

Medical Madness
As if passports, visas and airport holdups weren’t enough, now there’s also proof of medical insurance to worry about. But how much medical insurance is “sufficient” and what does it even cover?

“Many, if not most, countries require proof of medical insurance before a traveler is allowed to enter,” according to Kevin Burchler, managing director at SIP Medical Family Office, independent consultants for international health insurance and health management, located in Zurich. “This includes the Schengen Area, Thailand, UAE, Egypt, Cuba, Indonesia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and many more. Since requirements are ever-changing and vary from country to country it can be very onerous for frequent travelers to keep track of their obligations.”

For long-term stays and visa purposes, most countries have strict and detailed obligations on proof of medical insurance, Burchler notes. “Thailand requires visitors and visa applicants to demonstrate medical insurance with a minimum coverage of $100,000 for medical expenses, explicitly stating coverage for COVID-19. Dubai requires applicants to demonstrate DHA (Dubai Health Authority) compliant health insurance. Sweden, Portugal, Malta, and many more of the most popular visa and residence destinations require proof of valid medical insurance. Often, requirements go beyond simple proof of medical insurance, but policies must demonstrate full protection without COVID-19 medical exclusions – which is a problem because many travel insurance policies still have restricted or excluded cover for pandemics.”

Burchler advises frequent global travelers to have International Private Medical Insurance, sometimes even paired with travel insurance. “Such a health insurance policy offers sufficient coverage to qualify for all destinations (some exceptions may be unavoidable),” he says. “Such insurance should also be issued by an internationally known insurance company since this is typically better accepted by immigration authorities. From a strategic health planning perspective most importantly, the right medical insurance allows seamless portability upon relocation to avoid reoccurring insurance applications and exclusions for newly acquired medical conditions.”

Chris Weedon, VP global sales and service at GlobalStar Travel Management, cautions, “If you’re traveling abroad, it's still important to take out appropriate insurance that provides cover for coronavirus-related events, including medical treatment and travel disruption. If you choose a new policy, make sure you check how it covers these issues,”

No Vaccine? No Problem
It’s worth noting that proof of medical insurance is not the same as proof of COVID vaccination, which may be still required for entry in certain countries. Still, travelers sometimes get the two mixed up. In general, “We have seen most countries ease or lift their COVID-19 related entry requirements over the past 12-16 months,” states IATA’s Flint. “Most notably, the US has announced it will end its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for foreign visitors on May 11.”

While it’s best to contact your company’s travel or HR department if you’re confused about quarantine rules and vaccine requirements, some sites such as Sherpa have comprehensive information for travelers.

“Compared to 12 months ago, the travel vaccination requirements have definitely become more consistent – but not yet settled,” adds SIP’s Burchler. “For example, Thailand reintroduced a COVID-19 vaccination policy in early January 2023. Within 48 hours of the announcement, and likely thousands of disappointed travelers that had to stop or cancel their trips, the policy was again revoked. Legally, companies have a duty of care to support and protect their employees while abroad. We often see this neglected due to a lack of internal resources or knowledge. An experienced international insurance specialist can easily analyze needs and recommend third-party travel assistance that fits a company’s profile. Such assistance services have real-time updated data on travel requirements, support before, during, and after employees’ travel – often including military-level emergency support and evacuation for health or political reasons.”

For the rebounding global business travel market, knowledge is the essential prerequisite to planning and preparation. “Having one platform as a single source of truth for all international travel information needed for employees, travel managers and leisure travelers can help eliminate a lot of travel anxiety,” Navan’s Moiz points out. “Overall, staying informed is the key to navigating the constantly changing landscape of travel restrictions and regulations.”