Travel trends 2021
Americans are ready to hit the road
How do Americans feel about traveling for pleasure and work in 2021? We were curious, so we asked.
In early July 2021, Progressive surveyed 2,482 people to gauge their sentiments on travel.* Were they optimistic and planning trips in the next six months, or did they dread the idea? Would they commute to the office and take business trips again? The survey provided a snapshot of a particular moment in time, when it seemed like the pandemic was fading and the world was opening back up to life without restrictions. We know what happened next. A summer surge caused by the Delta variant of the coronavirus challenged us again.
But there's hope. On August 1, New York magazine reported that the Delta variant surge in the U.K. started in mid-May and peaked in mid-July. They predicted a similar fate for the U.S., with the surge peaking in September, and we're looking forward to a time when variant surges have faded.
Because this survey was conducted when many Americans may have felt the pandemic was nearly over, the data provides some insight about what's to come when we truly put COVID-19 in the rearview. We expect Americans will soon be feeling much the same as they did in early July — hopeful, optimistic, and ready to hit the road.
The survey showed that 82% of Americans planned to travel for personal reasons between July and December 2021, and they intended to take more vacation days and longer trips to relax and visit with others than they did in 2019.
Business travelers were also expecting to take more trips per month than they did in 2019, with nearly 48% planning to travel for work, close to the 2019 rate of 52%. While remote working increased during 2020, many people were ready to get back to the office full time, with 63% even looking forward to their daily commute.
We reached out to travel industry expert and wellness travel coach Sahara Rose De Vore to get her read on our survey results. She wasn't surprised by the optimism toward getting back to travel and in-person work. But she thinks they may be more hopeful than realistic. "I think what people are referring to is the desire to travel…," she said, without pandemic-related fears or limitations.
By July 2021, Americans were planning to take more trips and use more vacations days from July to December 2021 than in 2019, while also anticipating returning to the office and resuming business trips. Although the virus surge may have changed those plans, that optimism speaks to how Americans will feel about travel once we've emerged from the pandemic.
Personal travel trends
Americans are optimistic about traveling in 2021
Our July survey showed a nation that's ready to travel, with a vast majority (82%) planning trips for the last six months of 2021. Despite stories in the news of rental car shortages, angry airline passengers, and rising airfares, only 48% anticipated travel would be more difficult in the next six months. An optimistic cohort (24%) felt travel would actually be easier than it was in 2019.
De Vore said that optimism could be related to how the travel industry has changed in the last year. "They might be thinking about how many affordable options there are for vacations since destinations and companies are hungry for tourists," she said. "They might also be thinking about the flexibility they have now within their jobs since there's been a surge in remote work opportunities."
Travel had already started rebounding at the beginning of summer 2021. Sojern's travel industry dashboard showed hotel bookings within the U.S. were starting to exceed 2019 levels. TSA numbers were close to 2019 levels at the airports, even with international travel still limited.
Survey respondents were not only beginning to travel but also planning to travel more in the latter half of 2021 than they did in an average year. Among those with travel plans, 94% were planning between one and five trips, up from 87% in 2019.
In July 2021, Vered Raviv Schwarz, COO and president of property management platform Guesty, was projecting the 2021 holiday season (Dec. 23-27) would be the biggest travel weekend this year. As of August 2021, Guesty's reservation volume for the holiday season projections showed reservation volume was up 100% from 2020 and 42% from 2019.
Regional differences in levels of optimism
While those surveyed, overall, were optimistic about traveling again, there were some distinct regional differences. Respondents in the Northeast (12%) were dreading the idea of traveling more than those in other regions. Only 6% of those living in the West were dreading travel, with 23% anticipating travel would be easier in 2021 than in the past.
Respondents in the South proved the most optimistic, with the highest percentage (79%) looking forward to traveling again, followed closely by those in the West (78%). Westerners were also anticipating taking more trips overall, with 83% planning two or more trips from July to December 2021.
Northeasterners' hesitance was also reflected in the difficulty with which they expected to be able to travel. Most Northeasterners (54%) anticipated traveling would be more difficult than in the past, with fewer trips planned than people living in other regions, on average.
Travel trends for Americans: Where will we go, and how will we get there?
People were planning to travel with the goal of visiting others and relaxing, but not many were going to be camping or taking an RV. While KOA reports that five times more Americans tried out camping in 2020, and 1.7 million became RVers, those who responded to our survey said they would not be taking to the great outdoors more often in 2021. Indeed, the survey respondents who would be outdoor adventuring in 2021 showed a decrease from 36% in 2019 to 32% in July to December 2021. And only 1% reported an RV being their primary mode of travel on vacation in both 2019 and 2021.
Instead, traveling by car was the most popular option for those surveyed, with 59% opting for road trips. Some might still be wondering if it's safe to fly right now, though 34% planned to fly to their destination — consistent with how they traveled in 2019.
Respondents were planning to use their trips to head to the beach (28%) and cities (31%). At Guesty, Schwarz said they were seeing dramatic increases in visitors to big metropolitan areas after a lull in 2020, with Philadelphia, Chicago, and Phoenix among their top destinations.
Reasons for personal travel were essentially the same as they were in 2019, with 33% looking to relax and 32% wanting to spend time with others.
Workers are ready to use their vacation days
Back in 2019, The Atlantic examined the gospel of work and how workism — when work is the centerpiece of one's identity and purpose — was making Americans miserable. One statistic noted that the U.S. averages more work hours per year than other industrialized countries.
"There was a big workplace burnout occurring pre-pandemic," said De Vore. "Studies showed that U.S. employees didn't use all or most of their vacation days for various reasons. Some of that was lack of vacation encouragement in company culture, along with fear of being fired or looked down upon."
Our data shows the trend of not taking vacation days might be on the wane. In 2019, 40% of survey respondents took vacations shorter than five days. But in the second half of this year, 54% planned to take trips longer than five days.
De Vore thinks this is a result of not only employees taking time off but also employers realizing the value of happy, less-stressed employees. "There are more work options than ever before for people who can now work anywhere in the world," she said. "The pandemic opened companies' eyes to the importance of a few things, including the value of travel to our well-being and performance."
Business travel trends
For many, business trips will resume
The pandemic disrupted business, sending meetings, conferences, and selling to virtual formats. But a rebound is on the horizon, with event planners reporting a looming crunch for meeting and convention spaces in late 2021 and 2022.
Of those surveyed, nearly 48% expected to return to business travel in late 2021 and beyond — close to the 52% who reported traveling for work in 2019.
Those traveling for business in 2021 said they'd be doing so for the same reasons they did in 2019: to meet with clients or customers, meet with colleagues and coworkers, attend conferences, hold meetings with vendors, and provide onsite consultation.
For Randi Weinstein, in-person events that attract business travelers can't return soon enough. She organizes FAB, an annual workshop in Charleston, South Carolina for women in hospitality, which is attended by mostly out-of-towners. Weinstein appreciates the "collective brainpower that comes from being together," but she pivoted to virtual events in 2020 and is planning her upcoming pop-up events in cities she can drive to, in case air travel is a challenge.
Trends in commuting
Workers looking forward to their commute
While some companies embraced a work-from-home culture, others adopted a hybrid model that lets workers come into the office a few days a week and work remotely the rest of the time. Some traditional corporations, like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, were ordering people back to the office full-time, while rivals like Citigroup touted a hybrid model they hoped would give them an edge in attracting top talent. While the summer surge postponed many companies' plans to return to the office, work-from-home policies will continue to be a matter of interest for both workers and employers.
Flynn Zaiger, CEO of Online Optimism with offices in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., said in an interview that his company has adapted to a hybrid model. Before, they had a strict policy that allowed only senior staffers to work from home. "Nearly all of our employees were in agreement," he said. "They didn't want to come 100% back into the office, but they didn't want to stay 100% remote either."
That desire to not be 100% remote could explain why a whopping 83% of those who responded to our survey were OK with or looking forward to commuting again.
Zaiger was shocked that people reported looking forward to commuting. But he chalked it up to the bright spots of returning to work — "camaraderie with their coworkers and watercooler talk" — and not the reality of traffic jams and crowded subways.
Commuting habits shift due to remote work options
Less than half of those surveyed will have the same commute in 2021 as they did in 2019. About one third will be commuting less, but another third planned to commute more.
Since implementing a hybrid policy, Zaiger said he has employees who prefer working in the office. "But they're mostly our younger staff with short commutes," he said. "There are definitely a few who prefer staying home. This is particularly common for anyone who started at our agency after COVID-19 began."
People moved — some closer to work and some farther away
Most of our survey respondents remained with the same employer from 2019 to 2021, and most expected to have about the same distance to commute in 2021 as they did in 2019.
But a segment of people left crowded cities in 2020 and headed to the spacious suburbs, heating up the housing market and raising questions about how this would change life. About 16% reported moving farther away from their workplace, but 15% moved closer to their office.
Differences among occupations in commuting and remote work
The people who are the most optimistic and excited to get back on the road work in business and financial operations, computer and math occupations, and creative jobs like arts, design, and entertainment. These workers also reported that they planned to commute more than they did in 2019.
IT workers were the least excited about commuting again, with 25% dreading the idea. Only 15% in this occupation are fully remote, but nearly 37% were working remotely more frequently than in 2019.
Computer and mathematical occupations were the most likely to have 100% remote workers, with 27% reporting a full-time work-from-home schedule. About 60% said their companies' policies changed and required less commuting.
Cars are still the preferred method of commuting
During 2020, cities closed streets, added more bike lanes, and looked forward to shifting sensibilities. But in New York, many more people bought cars instead of relying on public transportation and rideshares. Cars also provided a much-needed escape from the city.
When it's time to get back to the office, those surveyed will continue to drive their cars, the preferred method of commuting for 76%. Other planned methods of commuting, as of July 2021 and in order of popularity, included carpooling (6%), public transportation (5%), rideshares (5%), walking (4%), and bicycling (1%). It's not the dramatic shift some city planners might have hoped for, but it's in keeping with Americans' love of their cars.
Interestingly, when it comes to planned modes of commuting, creatives were more likely to plan to carpool (21%), rideshare (10%), and take public transportation (10%), with only 57% planning to drive alone. In contrast, 89% of those in sales jobs planned to drive alone in their car.
Survey takeaways: The future of travel
Americans adapted during 2020 — we went on camping trips, set up home offices, and generally made the best of it. And when the pandemic is over, we'll be ready to get back on the road and resume life. Our survey overall reflects an optimistic bunch, people who are hopeful about the future and ready to hit the road.