What Does Brexit Mean for Travel?

The shorter- and longer-term effects of Britain’s departure from the EU

By now you undoubtedly have read that Britons voted Thursday for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union after 43 years. 

To say “Brexit” (that’s what the Brits called it) came as a shock would be the understatement of the century; most pre-election polls indicated Brits would vote to stay, but an overwhelming percentage of registered voters turned out—72 percent in all—and the secessionists won.

Within hours, the vote had triggered panic and history-shaking response.

First, the British pound tanked, dropping 11 percent to lower than US$1.30 and marking the lowest value of the local currency since 1985. Experts predicted global markets would respond Friday in similarly horrific fashion, kicking off what many expect will be the most serious financial crisis since the U.S. housing meltdown back in 2008. Case in point: By midnight Thursday in California, the Nikkei—Tokyo’s stock exchange—had fallen 1,200 points, or 8 percent. U.S. markets also reacted with concern; the Dow dropped 500 points, about 3 percent, in midday trading.

 Second, like dominoes falling in succession, other nations reacted to the vote by calling for their own referenda. Within hours of the projected results, leaders in France and The Netherlands had championed similar plebiscites regarding their nations’ respective EU memberships. (On the flipside, Scotland, which narrowly voted against secession from the United Kingdom in 2014, expressed interest in having a second vote to leave the U.K. and join the EU.)

Next, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his intention to resign.

To put things into perspective, it could take years for Britain to negotiate an exit from the EU; a Brexit vote is not legally binding, and there are a few ways it could theoretically be blocked or overturned. Still, it’s certain that the vote will continue to change life as everyone knows it in the U.K., and it’s likely some of those changes will impact travel to and from Great Britain.

Perhaps the most obvious impact of Brexit on travel is the exchange rate—until the markets stabilize, traveling to and in the United Kingdom will be more affordable for U.S. citizens over the next few weeks than at any time in the last 30 years. Some domestic influencers, such as The Points Guy, made light of the situation on Twitter, noting that “@British_Airways award ticket fees just got a little more bearable for us Americans.”  Time to take that trip to London.

Still, a closer look reveals some troubling short-term prospects in the airline industry.

A report from Seeking Alpha noted that among domestic carriers, American Airlines likely will be hit harder than any other U.S airline because 6.2 percent of its fleet touches the United Kingdom, and the airline offers 25 daily departures to London, along with flights to Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. By comparison, 5.3 percent of United Airlines’ flights touch the United Kingdom, as do just 2.7 percent of Delta’s flights.

Among European carriers, a drop in the value of the British pound actually could result in higher airfares. A blog post from Intrepid Travel explains this well. It notes that carriers such as British Airways and easyJet have benefitted from the Single European Sky legislation, which grants any carrier based in the EU the guaranteed right to operate freely throughout the continent. When the U.K. formally leaves the EU, British airline carriers may be forced to renegotiate those bilateral agreements to continue flying into Europe. The result could be fare spikes across the board.

Long-term effects could be even worse; in a report this April, The Economist predicted that exiting the EU could cause the British economy to be between 3.8 and 7.5 percent smaller by 2030.

But more important—and more insidious, really—are the interconnected (and admittedly longer-term) issues of passports and immigration.

One of the best things about the EU was the principle of free movement among EU countries. This applied both to tourists and to citizens of other EU nations. Now, however, with Britain pulling out, there’s no telling what this might mean for movement between the U.K. and other EU nations. For travelers, this could mean tighter restrictions, more visas, and the increased planning that comes in dealing with both. 

For more permanent visitors, the situation is direr. An article from Vox.com notes that, at a minimum, Brexit could mean that people moving to or from Britain would need to worry about passports and residency rules. It goes on to say that some British immigrants may lose their rights to continue living and working in the U.K. and be deported—a fact that also could impact the travel industry because many workers in this industry are foreign nationals. It’s worth noting here that resentment of EU immigrants, especially from economically struggling countries such as Poland and Lithuania, was a key factor driving support for Brexit.

This rundown could continue, but like many news outlets around the world, AFAR doesn’t have many definitive answers this soon after the vote. We do know the vote itself was historic in every sense of the word, and we hope the Britain we know and love survives this crisis relatively unscathed. 

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlinesand more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.