11 minute read 25 May 2021

Keen but cautious

US leisure travel in the second summer of COVID-19

Peter Caputo

Peter Caputo

United States

Anthony J. Jackson

Anthony J. Jackson

United States

Ramya Murali

Ramya Murali

United States

Maggie Rauch

Maggie Rauch

United States

The US traveler is upbeat, yet cautious, about summer travel in 2021. Airlines, hotels, rentals, and other travel suppliers should address lingering health concerns to attract their share of leisure travel.

After more than a year living with the threat of a deadly virus and under various restrictions to their activities, Americans are looking to their summer vacations to offer a break, an adventure, an opportunity to connect. Americans of all ages and income levels are making plans to travel and opening their wallets to make the most of the summer season.

Our survey data reveals that four in 10 Americans intend to take at least one trip with flight and/or a stay in paid lodging between Memorial Day and the end of September (see sidebar, “Research methodology”). That’s less than half of Americans, but not far from prepandemic summer travel incidence: In summer 2019, 42% of Americans expected to travel for leisure.1 The need for a post-lockdown getaway, cited by nearly half of Americans planning leisure trips, is the top motivation for travel this summer. A smaller share, 41%, say they are regular summer travelers. Clearly, so-called “revenge travel,”2 a term first coined when China emerged from local lockdowns and saw a domestic travel surge, has come to America.

But Americans are not throwing caution to the wind—despite easing of local restrictions and increasing vaccination penetration, health remains top of mind. Among nontravelers, 41% say health concerns will keep them home, compared to nearly 30% citing financial concerns. At this time last year, Deloitte observed health-related travel concerns easing as financial worries loomed. Both remain significant, but COVID-19 still outstrips finances as a source of anxiety (figure 1). For most of those who will venture out, the pandemic has introduced new factors in decisions across their journeys: Where to go, how to get there, where to stay, and what to do in-destination. Travel providers looking to capture returning leisure demand should address these new needs.

Research methodology

This article relies on findings from a survey fielded between April 17 and 24. The survey reached 2,004 Americans who plan to take a trip that includes a flight and/or a stay in paid lodging between Memorial Day and the end of September. In order to capture the deepest possible data about the most significant trips, travelers were specifically asked about the longest trip they plan to take.

COVID-19 brings health considerations into travel decisions

As Americans take to the skies and roads this summer, they are taking into consideration a host of new pandemic-driven factors. Whether they plan to relax by their own private pool or enjoy a re-emerging dining scene, travelers are incorporating criteria they did not consider two years ago. Here are a few of the ways travelers are trying to mitigate their health risks this summer:

Vaccination: Among the Americans planning to travel, 71% say they expect at least half their travel party will be vaccinated at the time they travel. Travelers from the Northeast and West are the most vaccinated, and those from the South and Midwest least.

Flights: Travelers are opting for direct flights—only 11% of people flying are choosing a domestic itinerary that includes at least one connection. More than twice as many—27% of 2021 summer travelers—plan to fly internationally.

While price tops the airline selection criteria, travelers now also weigh new pandemic-driven factors. The ability to cancel or reschedule, availability of direct flights, and safety protocols all are in the top five airline selection criteria.

Destination selection: Some of the key factors in the destination decision include local COVID-19 restrictions, crowd avoidance, vaccination status, social distancing stringency, and COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In our survey, at least 75% of travelers took each of these health-/pandemic-related factors into consideration during destination selection.

Where exactly do Americans plan to travel? Beaches lead among all destination types, followed by cities and outdoor experiences (figure 2). A small share plan to visit national and state parks, or theme parks, for their longest trip of the summer, which does not mean they won’t visit these parks on shorter trips.

Lodging selection: Of the travelers choosing to stay in a hotel, 89% cited enhanced safety measures as a reason for choosing this type of lodging, while the choice of 86% of travelers staying in private rentals is influenced by an amplified sense of control over exposure and their own safety.

With plenty of trips still in play, suppliers are in the spotlight

While leisure travel intent for summer 2021 is healthy, at the time the survey was fielded (April 17–24), less than a third of travelers had solidified their plans by booking the full trip (figure 3). Uncertainty still abounds in several areas that would affect travel plans, from vaccine penetration and infection rates to local attractions and quarantine mandates. In the face of such confusion, 57% had not reserved any trip components, and another 12% had only booked either their lodging or transportation.

With plenty of trips still not fully booked, hotels/rentals can tweak their strategies to meet the criteria influencing travelers’ decisions.

As travelers research and book their summer trips, a troubling trend is emerging for online travel agencies (OTAs): Travelers going directly to suppliers to research and make reservations. More travelers plan to use airline sites and apps to compare options rather than shop and book with intermediaries. And in the more fragmented lodging sector, where OTAs usually play a bigger role, 54% say they will book direct. Less than one in five (17%) plan to reserve via OTAs.

Online travel agencies have historically benefited at times of leisure-led deal seeking. But they appear to be losing ground to suppliers at a time when travelers rank pursuit of better deals as their No. 1 driver of booking channel choice. Travelers seem to feel they will find comparable or better deals by booking directly with suppliers. Another factor that could be favoring suppliers, especially in the hotel space: OTAs made big cuts to their marketing spend in 2020.3 Additionally, travelers rate loyalty memberships as one of their biggest booking channel influences, another point in favor of hotels over intermediaries. As summer gets underway, though, OTAs have an opportunity to attract last-minute deal seekers looking for a one-stop shop. A platform with a great UX can enable the traveler to quickly sort, filter, and map their way to the property that suits them.

The shift in favor of direct booking is a trend that hoteliers will likely look to capitalize on and extend beyond the pandemic. Every opportunity should be taken to provide and remind travelers of any benefits of booking direct, from fenced rates or upgrade eligibility, to dining coupons or special access to amenities. Hotels also should make meaningful ongoing engagement via loyalty programs a strategic priority to encourage future direct bookings.

Trip budgets similar to 2019 levels potentially offer big payback to suppliers

The fallout of COVID-19 has brought financial strain to many American households. According to Deloitte’s State of the Consumer Tracker, in the same week that the survey for this article was fielded, a quarter of Americans were concerned about making upcoming payments. And among consumers under 55, more than a third expressed such concerns. For some, this means travel is off the table this summer—financial considerations were cited by 30% of Americans not planning a summer leisure trip. But budget pressure came in second to health threats: 41% of nontravelers are staying home out of concern for the health of themselves and others, and 32% say they will wait until the pandemic is over to travel.

For those who will travel this summer, financial concerns are not a major drag on their plans, at least not for their longest trip of the season. Most say they will keep budgets about the same as in 2019 (62%), while 22% say they will increase budgets and only 13% say they will make significant cuts (figure 4).

Significant differences can be seen in the reasons travelers are cutting back or ratcheting up. Lower-income households are more likely to say that they are funneling some of the savings they accumulated from a prolonged period without travel into more expensive trips. The widely reported nest egg growth many higher-income families have experienced during the pandemic also factors into those families’ decision to spend more—26% are funneling some of their accumulated savings into a bigger-budget trip. But for middle and high-income households that are spending more, the top reason is more emotionally driven—35% in these groups say their bigger trip budgets reflect a value shift in favor of spending on experiences.

Air demand is returning: Airlines offering flexibility, safety protocols, and direct flights well-poised to gain wallet share

Concerns about the safety of flying have persisted throughout the pandemic. In Deloitte’s Global State of the Consumer Tracker, consumers consistently report more comfort staying in hotels than taking flights. But air demand is returning. More than half (55%) of American travelers say their longest summer 2021 trip will include a flight. Recent behavior indicates demand is returning: On May 8, 2021, passenger volume at Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) checkpoints surpassed 70% of 2019 levels for the first time since the TSA began publishing its data in March 2020.4

Air travelers are looking for the best deals, as ever, but are also taking into account a few new factors when choosing an airline. Among this summer’s airline selection criteria are flexibility, safety protocols, and availability of a direct flight (figure 5). The lure of visiting an international destination appears resilient, even as travelers look to mitigate health risks.

Rentals surge on strength of first-timers

Hotels remain the most popular type of lodging by a wide margin—85% of summer vacations that include lodging will include a hotel, compared to 23% that will involve a private rental. But the pandemic has been a boon to interest in private rentals. The surge in demand has the two biggest private rental players in a pitched battle to attract hosts to their platforms.5

A significant amount of the demand is coming from travelers new to private rentals. More than a quarter (28%) of travelers planning to stay in a rental for their 2021 summer vacation say that their first rental stay will be summer 2021 or was at another time during the pandemic. And the opportunity to convert those first-timers to regular renters is big—68% of these pandemic-minted renters say they expect to be regular rental travelers in the future. Overall, eight in 10 who are choosing a rental for their 2021 summer vacation say they expect to stay in rentals for at least half of future trips.

Rental travelers are more likely to cross-shop (figure 6)—53% say they are also considering hotels, compared to just 15% of hotel travelers considering rentals. For rental travelers considering hotels, supply is the primary issue. But many also seek a luxurious experience and loyalty rewards that could be easier to find in the hotel category.

Hotel stayers are more secure in their lodging choice, and the main differentiator for choosing a hotel is trust in safety measures. But the hotel-stayers considering rentals seem to have lingering doubts. Their top reasons to cross-shop involve having more control over their contact with strangers.

The top criteria for cross-shoppers from both groups indicate some product-market misalignment and miscommunication in the lodging space. Few products in either the hotel or rental category tick all the boxes. On the one hand, travelers like knowing someone is looking after their health and safety, and associate that caretaking more with hotels. On the other hand, travelers want control over their environment, and associate that with rentals—typically stand-alone properties, affording minimal contact with strangers. There are opportunities for both hotels and rentals to bridge their respective gaps. Hotels should seek to create and promote, where appropriate for the property: touchless technology, capacity caps in public spaces, and options to reserve shared amenities ahead of time. Rentals and the platforms that distribute them can provide and clarify their cleaning and service standards. 

Opportunity for lodging suppliers

Lodging suppliers should continue their efforts to reshape offerings to meet shifting consumer demand. Hotels could do well to offer touchless check-in and clarify how they plan to manage guest traffic in shared spaces. Rental platforms should increase supply in high-demand locales and instill greater confidence regarding cleanliness. Better amenities can also benefit vacation properties—custom-stocked refrigerators, turnkey equipment rentals, and sanitized home gyms could help to provide hotel-like convenience in the context of home-like privacy and control.

WFH: Work From Hotel? Ability to work remotely has some planning longer trips with bigger budgets

The need for social distancing due to the pandemic pushed an unprecedented share of workers out of offices into new remote work scenarios. After so many spent significantly more time in their homes for a prolonged period, some are now parlaying that new flexibility into a little more time in their vacation destination of choice.

These work-from-home travelers are a compelling segment (figure 7). Over half of travelers who regularly work from home are adding three days or more to their trips due to this added flexibility. They are twice as likely as other travelers to be planning to increase trip budgets over 2019, and 1.7 times as likely to be planning to travel internationally. Travelers who regularly work from home are more likely to have already completed their reservations compared to the rest of the traveling population. But more than six in 10 have yet to fully book their trips. Opportunities still remain to attract these high-spending travelers with messages that speak to the hybrid work/play nature of their summer vacation dreams.

In-destination experience: Travelers plan to enjoy attractions and activities, but seek health precautions

The in-destination experience plays a unique role in the travel life cycle. Attractions and activities are important trip motivators and destination selection criteria, but they are usually the last part of the trip to be booked, with travelers often waiting until they arrive to walk up to a museum or reserve a surf lesson.

This summer, travelers definitely have plans to take health risk into account when choosing in-destination activities. After dining in restaurants, the most popular experience category is adventure/outdoor experiences—half of travelers plan to partake. Among the 42% who say they will visit a major attraction, many plan to screen for health precautions. But there is no consensus about what is most important (figure 8).


Silver linings: There’s cause for optimism

Travel providers have plenty of reason to be optimistic about domestic US leisure travel over the next few months. Summer travel intent is near prepandemic levels, and most travelers plan to spend at least as much as they did on their 2019 trips. Many clearly desire a change of scene after staying so close to home for so long.

But travelers are proceeding with caution, incorporating into their decision-making health factors that did not appear among their criteria two years ago.

Airlines cannot count on leisure travelers to book complex, multicity itineraries to save a few dollars. Hotels face the challenge of providing the services and amenities many travelers still crave while allowing guests maximum control over their exposure to others. Rentals offer an isolated experience that puts many at ease. But most are booked through platforms that play a limited (if any) role in caring for guests in-destination.

In addition to adjusting to health concerns, travel providers should also consider the ways the pandemic has reordered lifestyles. Summer travel in 2021 will be shaped in part by remote work, interest in private rentals, reticence to fly, and the expectation of flexibility. The durability of these shifts will vary, but none seem likely to disappear as quickly as they emerged. Travel suppliers have spent much of the past year adapting products and optimizing messaging to account for new needs, and such efforts should continue. A return to travel will not be a simple return to normal. This pent-up demand comes with new needs, presenting new opportunities across the travel journey.

The authors would like to thank Stephen Rogers, Upasana Naik, Satish Nelanuthula, Srinivasarao Oguri, Navya Vantakala, Krista Catalano-Pietrafeso, Kavita Saini for their contributions to this article.

Cover image by: Victoria Lee 

Transportation, Hospitality & Services

The Deloitte Transportation, Hospitality & Services team helps companies drive growth in the technology-driven, rapidly evolving hospitality and leisure industry. Travel and hospitality industry trends include changing customer expectations, technology modernization, risk mitigation, and more.

Peter Caputo

Peter Caputo

Principal, DTBA


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