As a result, the travel industry appears to be gearing up for a big summer season.
Kyle Potter, editor of Thrifty Traveler, says signs like Delta telling employees that customers are finally booking flights one to two months out, instead of days or weeks ahead, or the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) hiring more than 6,000 security officer positions before summer, shows travel is on the mend.
“It says at this point there’s some certainty that people are going to be able to travel and do fun things again at some point in 2021,” Potter said. “It also shows that airlines and the travel industry as a whole has kind of given up on the idea that travel is going to come back before vaccinations have become widespread.”
Domestic travel will continue to dominate trip plans
Elizabeth Blount McCormick, president at international travel management company Uniglobe Travel Designers, says a silver lining of the pandemic is that after a year at home, we have a new respect for travel within the United States.
“There are so many off-the-beaten-path places and experiences that you can have,” she says. “And I think that people are more appreciative, and really love the dynamic country that we live in and how different it is from the South to the Pacific Northwest.”
It’s not just that Americans fell back in love with U.S. travel; it’s also a logistics issue. Much of the world remains closed to Americans, and the new executive order requiring travelers show a negative coronavirus test result before reentry into the United States may be giving Americans pause about flying internationally.
“We’re certainly hearing from travelers, and seeing it in the data, that people aren’t quite ready to make the leap to going to Europe yet in general in terms of booking their travel,” says Brian Znotins, vice president of network planning for American Airlines. “But they are certainly more confident about booking a domestic itinerary.”
Social-distance-friendly destinations will remain popular
Based on that data Znotins mentioned, American Airlines has been adding new flights to accommodate customers’ interest in destinations that became much more popular during the pandemic.
“We do see more demand for domestic flying to mountains and beaches — Gulf Coast, Montana, Wyoming — and we’ve been adding flights accordingly,” Znotins says, adding that interest in Hawaii, U.S. territories (which are exempt from the new in-bound testing requirement) and Alaska is also on the rise.
Summer travel search data from the travel booking app Hopper also shows similar results. While perennially popular places such as Miami, Honolulu and Las Vegas were the top booked domestic trips, Anchorage was the fourth, which surprised Hopper economist Adit Damodaran.
“Summer in Alaska is probably the nicest time to travel to Alaska, but it’s also doing a great job with its vaccination rollout,” Damodaran says. “Some travelers might be expecting that the situation in Alaska will be really good by summer 2021.” The state also just dropped its testing requirement for visitors.
Damodaran says he believes outdoorsy destinations such as Anchorage, Denver and Phoenix are so popular for summer because they may feel safer to people easing their way back into travel. Blount McCormick agrees.
“There are great resorts in Montana where social distancing just happens, but you can also have a great experience,” she says.
More predictably, trips to destinations like Cancún and Cabo in Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean will continue to be in high demand.
Blount McCormick says some of those destinations are attractive because consumers know they already have coronavirus precautions in place since they have been open longer than other destinations. Travelers may feel more comfortable going to a resort in St. Lucia knowing their hotel can arrange their coronavirus test and can help them navigate travel restrictions from experience.
Flying will increase, but so will road, train and RV trips
Ambitious overland trips, or ones close to home, appear on track to remain popular in 2021, even with more people flying again.
“Both the local AAA and National Club expects that road trips will be extremely popular again this year, and will continue to be popular this summer, especially for outdoor destinations that allow for social distancing,” says John B. Townsend II, a manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Blount McCormick thinks the pandemic encouraged people to think about the ways they travel and to try new experiences that may have been intimidating before, like renting RVs.
Travelers who don’t own an RV may want to lock in rentals early to guarantee their ride for a summer trip. According to Jon Gray, the chief executive operator of RVshare, the RV rental and listing company is expecting a huge summer. So far, this year’s bookings are up 114 percent compared to 2019, and they’re growing as spring approaches. More than 80 percent of renters in 2020 were new to the platform.
Blount McCormick also says clients became more interested in domestic train travel during the pandemic, and she expects that interest to continue.
At this time, Amtrak is only at about 25 percent of its normal ridership level, and the railroad service anticipates that increasing to 35 percent by September. And the railroad service hopes to attract more than just commuters.
“This summer, we expect customers will focus on taking scenic routes and going on getaways that offer outdoor experiences,” Doug Duvall, an Amtrak spokesman, said in an email. “Many of our 500 destinations are near national parks, and Amtrak customers can pick an outdoor adventure of their choice.”
Vaccines may open doors for more international travel
Even though the pandemic remains unpredictable, American Airlines is betting on country-specific, vaccine-driven tourism opportunities to drive traffic.
For example, Israel’s vaccine rollout is the fastest in the world, and its new “green pass” program will allow fully vaccinated residents to travel abroad again, among other freedoms. American Airlines is launching new JFK and Miami flights to Tel Aviv, "based on the fact that if you’re vaccinated, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to go to Tel Aviv and visit friends, or family vacation if you want to,” Znotins of American Airlines says.
Travelers planning international trips this summer should watch how vaccine distribution and local coronavirus restrictions are playing out in the destination they hope to visit. Australia may be off the table, but Iceland should be viable.
Read more on travel during the pandemic: