Americans Are Traveling Again — Just Not Like They Used To

44% of U.S. adults plan to travel for the holidays this year, up from 35% last year. Hotels are rebounding slowly, but experts are feeling optimistic

Travelers make their way through the Miami International Airport before starting the Labor Day weekend on Sept. 3, 2021 in Miami. Thirty-eight percent of holiday travelers said they plan to take a trip this month, according to new Morning Consult data, up 12 points from the 26 percent who said the same when asked in October 2020. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
  • 38% of holiday travelers said they plan to take a trip in November, and 63% said they’ll venture away from home during December.

  • 52% of travelers will stay with friends or family, while 61% will stay at a hotel or home-sharing accommodation.

  • 21% of Americans said they preferred not to travel for the holidays pre-pandemic; 38% said the same of last year and 34% said they’d rather stay home this year.

Americans are more eager to travel this holiday season than they were last year, but pandemic-related hesitation lingers, according to Morning Consult trend data. And though many travelers will stay with friends or family as they reunite for the holidays, an even larger share are opting for the hotel or home-sharing experience over mom’s pull-out couch.

The share of U.S. adults who said they have plans to travel for the holidays is up 9 percentage points from 35 percent last year to 44 percent this year, according to the data. The bulk of that travel will take place in December, as is the case even during a typical year. 

The season should already be off to a fairly strong start in November: 38 percent of those who said they’ll travel for the holidays planned to do so this month, according to the Oct. 21-23 survey. That’s up 12 points from the 26 percent of holiday travelers who said the same when asked in October 2020 — a larger year-to-year increase than for December travel.

Holiday Travel Intent Is Up This Year

U.S. adults were asked if they plan to travel for the holidays. Those who said yes were asked to select the months they’ll take a trip

Polls conducted Oct. 6-8, 2020, and Oct. 21-23, 2021, among about 2,200 U.S. adults each, with margins of error of +/-2%.

Roughly half (52 percent) of holiday travelers said they’ll stay with friends or family. Sixty-one percent, meanwhile, said they plan to stay at a major hotel chain, a boutique hotel or an accommodation booked through a home-sharing platform such as Airbnb.

Major hotel chains have the power of legacy on their side, and they remain the most popular accommodation option among travelers this year. One-third of those with holiday travel plans said they’ll stay at a hotel, up 5 points from the 28 percent who said the same when Morning Consult asked last October. The shares of travelers who said they’re planning to stay at boutique hotels or home-sharing locations this year are roughly the same as last year.

The travel industry — hotels in particular — was among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic when it first took hold in the United States. It shuttered many hotels temporarily during the lockdowns, and others for good. McKinsey & Co. projected in June 2020 that revenue per available room in the United States would be down 20 percent by 2023. Hotels haven’t made a full recovery, but after a much-improved summer travel season, things are looking up.

“This is definitely a positive sign compared to where we were last year, and there’s a lot for travel brands to look forward to in the holiday season,” said Morning Consult travel and hospitality analyst Lindsey Roeschke. “But the harsh reality is that people are still concerned about the pandemic.”

Americans’ willingness to take trips, along with their comfort with several travel-related activities, is up significantly from November 2020, but Morning Consult data shows that the hospitality business still has a ways to go before it can expect consumers to return in full.

More Americans are traveling this year, but things look much closer to 2020 than 2019

When asked to reflect on their habits prior to the pandemic, 21 percent of Americans said they preferred not to travel for the holidays. Almost double that share (38 percent) said that was their preference last year, and 34 percent said they’d prefer not to travel this year, more closely matching preferences for 2020 than 2019.

Travel Preferences This Year More Closely Match Those of 2020 Than of Years Prior

U.S. adults were asked which of the following most closely matches their preferred accommodations for holiday travel prior to the pandemic, last year and this year:

Poll conducted Oct. 21-23, 2021, among 2,201 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of +/-2%.

Preference for staying with family and friends did not fluctuate much between 2019, 2020 and 2021. Still, hotel chains took a hit during the pandemic that will be difficult to recover from: 29 percent of adults said they preferred to stay at major hotels prior to the pandemic, but that number dropped to 17 percent when respondents were asked to think about last year and only crept up 2 points to 19 percent for this year.

“The people who were more likely to travel before the pandemic are more likely to travel now,” Roeschke said, “but there’s still a pretty significant downturn there compared to pre-COVID levels.”

Hotels, Homes of Friends and Family Are Most Popular Holiday Travel Accommodations

U.S. adults with holiday travel plans were asked which of the following most closely matches their intended accommodations:

Polls conducted Oct. 6-8, 2020, and Oct. 21-23, 2021, among 763 U.S. adults who had holiday travel plans last year and 970 U.S. adults who plan to travel this holiday season, with margins of error of +/-4% and +/-3%, respectively.

As was the case before the pandemic, travelers from high-income households are much more likely to travel this year than the general population and those from mid- to lower-income households, according to the Oct. 21-23 survey. However, this year they reported the most significant decline in travel intent for Thanksgiving compared to an average year. Demand is also strongest among younger consumers.

“Folks over 55 are still relatively cautious this holiday season,” said Mike Daher, vice chairman and U.S. transportation, hospitality and services leader at Deloitte. “They might be looking to have people come and visit with them, but they’re a little more cautious about traveling.” 

Deloitte found that 42 percent of Americans plan to travel from Thanksgiving to mid-January, and that 30 percent of those trips are planned for Thanksgiving, reflecting a similar finding from the Morning Consult survey.

Hotels bounce back, but “recovery has been very uneven,” said AHLA CEO

Major hotel chains fared well through the summer despite the rise of the delta variant during that time, said Chip Rogers, president and chief executive of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

“The summer leisure season was even better than we expected, and the really good news is that it has lasted longer than we expected,” Rogers said. Demand for resorts was so strong, he said, that some people pushed their summer plans to the fall, therefore extending the season. 

But business travel didn’t return around that time as previously anticipated, dealing a blow to the hotel industry, which usually makes about 60 percent of its revenue from business trips and meetings, according to Rogers. He now expects business travel to start to make its recovery in early 2022. 

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said the full recovery likely won’t happen until late 2023 or early 2024. 

“We are starting to see some strong optimism improve, especially as we’ve seen the downward slide of the delta variant,” Barnes said. “This is a very economically important part of the travel economy, so we really have been trying to communicate to business leaders across all segments that it is safe to travel.” 

Convincing employees might be more difficult, though. While almost half (46 percent) of companies said they plan to resume domestic business travel within the next three months, according to an Oct. 21 survey from the Global Business Travel Association, roughly 2 in 5 pre-pandemic business travelers said they’ll never travel for work again, according to a recent report from Roeschke.

And hotels in some areas — particularly warm climates conducive to outdoor activities — are still attracting more travelers than those in big cities, which many people sought to avoid during the height of the pandemic. Travel to cities has generally resumed, according to Steven Paganelli, director of destinations, hotels and OTAs for the Americas at Tripadvisor Inc.

“One change we have seen from fall to winter is the seaside destinations that have been trending all year are out, as more cities are surging in popularity once again,” Paganelli said.

In fact, New York City is the most popular winter travel destination for Americans, according to a recent Tripadvisor study. But it appears that fears surrounding cities may be lingering with regard to hotels in particular.

“The recovery has been very uneven, so I would not be surprised to see that places like Southern California, Texas and Florida are among the most desired locations this winter,” Rogers said. “Urban city centers are going to continue to struggle” due to the lack of business travel and the smaller number of international travelers, he added.

Rogers remains optimistic, though, thanks to the recent reopening of U.S. borders to vaccinated people from dozens of countries. If international travel starts to rebound before the end of the year, “that would be a nice bonus,” he said.

Known for smaller, more intimate settings than major chains, boutique hotels across the country are adding to the optimism headed into the holiday season.

The Deer Path Inn in Lake Forest, Ill., is sold out for Thanksgiving weekend, and was already 40 percent booked for the December holidays as of the second week in November.

In Bristol, Va., the 65-room Bristol Hotel said occupancy on the books for November through January is up 250 percent compared to the same time period last year. The boutique’s average daily rates are also up 11 percent during that period, and it has booked almost seven times the number of group rooms. 

The Spectator Hotel in Charleston, S.C., reported a 94 percent increase in occupancy during Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-27) and a 47 percent increase from Dec. 24-31. Thanksgiving occupancy at the city’s French Quarter Inn is up 19 percent for Thanksgiving and 121 percent for Christmas week.

Across the industry, experts agree that recent trends, including working from home and businesses adopting hybrid-work approaches, will continue to bolster leisure travel, especially around the holiday season as many people can now take longer trips since they’re no longer tethered to their offices.

“We’ve seen domestic leisure rebound. The international rebound is going to be significant, and if we can get business travel back up and running,” Barnes said, “I think we can really shorten the timeline for recovery for the industry as a whole.”

Home-sharing, rental platforms continue to see growing demand

While home-sharing isn’t as popular of an accommodation method as traditional hotels, companies in the industry managed to lure — and retain — a substantial number of consumers over the past couple of years, especially early in the pandemic, when most hotels were closed entirely. 

“What you’re seeing is the continuation of a market shift that predated the pandemic,” said Chris Lehane, senior vice president for global policy and communications at Airbnb Inc., which reported record-high revenue in the third quarter this year. “The pandemic has really just accelerated it.” 

Over the summer, more than 1 billion people used the Airbnb platform, Lehane said, and projections from the company as of early November show Thanksgiving bookings are up about 40 percent from recent years.

Heading into this holiday season, the home-sharing industry might be thriving because it’s capitalizing on demographics with needs that span beyond what hotel rooms can provide. For Airbnb, that’s mostly families and remote workers who want space to spread out while they’re on vacation. 

Among those who said they plan to travel with family members under the age of 18 for the holidays, the share who said they’re booking a stay through a home-sharing platform is 7 points higher (22 percent) compared to holiday travelers in general (15 percent), according to last month’s Morning Consult poll.

Home-Sharing, Boutique Hotels More Popular Among Families With Kids

Shares of holiday travelers with family members under 18 in their group staying at the following:

Poll conducted Oct. 21-23, 2021, among 970 U.S. adults who plan to travel this holiday season, including 280 respondents who plan to travel with family members under the age of 18, with margins of error of +/-3% and +/-6%, respectively.

Guesty Inc., a short-term rental property management platform, also noticed an uptick in interest among families and digital nomads, according to the company’s president and chief operating officer, Vered Schwarz. That interest hasn’t waned since it started last year.

“It’s a bit like e-commerce,” Schwarz said. “People who never tried it before but were forced to by circumstance have now actually found it’s quite nice. There are newcomers to this space that have remained with us.”

Guesty’s reservation volume for Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 24-28) is up by 302 percent compared to 2020, and 93 percent compared to 2019. For Christmas weekend (Dec. 23-27), reservation volume is up 469 percent and 157 percent, compared to 2020 and 2019, respectively.

The company is also performing well among high-income travelers, Schwarz said, with reservation value for luxury properties (those that cost over $1,000 per night) up 32 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 and up 22 percent compared to 2019.

Schwarz said many luxury travelers could be those who used to spend big on hotels such as the Four Seasons. If they found those options were unavailable to them at any point during the pandemic, they might have turned to rentals and not looked back, she said.

Another sign the industry is on its way back: Skiers are taking to the slopes again. Natalia Sutin, vice president of revenue management at the vacation rental management company Vacasa, said skiers are back with a vengeance this year.

“One thing that’s helping us right now is that we had unexpected snowfall in some areas, and we do have a good amount of ski inventory,” Sutin said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of people making up ski trips.”

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