Safe escapes: How consumers are traveling during the pandemic

Susie Vowinkel / September 2020

Trying to plan a trip this year has felt like its own journey.

As the pandemic continues to challenge the U.S. and other regions, consumer confidence in travel remains low. Searches for “can I travel” have grown more than 800% year over year,1 while queries asking if it’s “safe to fly” are up more than 500%.2 Air travel is down 85% globally from a year ago, and a new wave of rising COVID-19 cases is leading to a reimposition of restrictions and quarantines, especially in popular destinations like Europe.

Still, after months of sheltering in place, people are eager for a change of scenery — and they’re seeking safe and creative ways to get away. In particular, three summer travel trends have emerged that seem poised to stick around: local destinations, outdoor adventures, and the return of the great American road trip. Here’s what travel marketers need to know about each.

3 line drawings represent “keeping it local,” “the great outdoors,” and the “return of the road trip.”

Keeping travel local

Between conflicting messages about mask wearing and safety protocols that vary by region, many travelers are opting to stick to destinations close to home. Global searches for “staycations” are up 100% over last year,3 and searches for “beach open” have grown by more than 3,000%.4

A yellow line traces 64% of a circle’s circumference. Inside is a map pinpoint. Text reads: 64% of U.S. adults who currently work from home said that they are likely to book a nearby vacation rental between now and the end of the year.

Rentals in particular are in high demand. In one survey, 64% of U.S. adults who currently work from home said that they are likely to book a nearby vacation rental between now and the end of the year.5 Similarly, 30% of U.S. parents with kids under 18 said they too would be likely to book a vacation rental for their families before the end of the year.6 As people balance pandemic precautions with the need for time off, we’re seeing an increase in searches like “beach rental” (over 100% year over year),7 “cabins for rent” (more than 100% year over year),8 and “lake house rental” (over 200% year over year)9 — places where travelers can get away while still enjoying the comforts and security of home.

The great outdoors

More people are seeking out nature for escape, rejuvenation, and maximum social distancing. Compared to last year, searches for “state park near” and “hike near me” are up more than 80%10 and 100%,11 respectfully.

More people are seeking out nature for escape, rejuvenation, and maximum social distancing.

Paired with the rise in nature-related searches is evidence that camping has reemerged as a popular pastime, offering more space per party and thus safety from coronavirus exposure. “Campsites are often already tens of feet apart and owners are even reducing capacity further,” Dan Yates, founder of outdoor accommodation booking website Pitchup, told Forbes recently. “Campgrounds are spread over tens of hundreds of acres. Travelers are also not confined to enclosed indoor spaces, reducing the risk of transmission by touch and ventilation system,” Yates added. Searches for “camping near me” are up more than 60%;12 “campgrounds in” searches have risen more than 70%;13 and “glamping near me” searches are up 200% year over year.14

Return of the road trip

Road trips have also become more appealing during the pandemic. Not only does traveling via personal vehicle limit contact with others, it offers people a sense of independence and control. In a recent survey, more than 43% of U.S. residents who have taken a road trip this year said their main reason for doing so was either to meet friends and family safely, or simply as a safe way to travel.15

A yellow line traces 97% of a circle’s circumference. Inside is a car and a map pinpoint. Text reads: 97% of all trips this summer will be by car.

AAA estimates that in the U.S., 97% of all trips this summer will be by car (683 million out of 707 million total trips). We continue to see this reflected in search behavior, as searches for road trip vehicles and accessories have grown globally, including “rv for sale” (over 80% year over year),16 “camper vans” (more than 90% year over year),17 and “rack for car” (over 200% year over year).18 Even Google Maps searches for “gas station open” have grown by more than 1000% year over year,19 suggesting the open road is perhaps the hottest vacation spot of 2020.

With consumer travel behavior shifting, it is important for marketers to pay attention to new signals and remain agile.

  • Increase search coverage. Align with shifting demand patterns by increasing search coverage to include activities and destinations spiking right now. Lean into automation tools to help capture unanticipated rising queries.
  • Bid strategically and with confidence. Double down on areas of stronger demand (for example, vacation rentals, road trips, national parks) by bidding up and more aggressively. Bid down on areas seeing declining/low demand (like major cities and heavily populated destinations) to minimise cancellations.
  • Diversify creative and messaging. Pivot creative and messaging to align with changing traveler intent toward “local,” “near me,” and “socially distant.” Highlight segments of your business currently in high demand, such as convenient roadside accommodations or campsite rentals to ensure your brand is relevant to the moment.

People are adjusting to a world where everything we do, and how we do it, has changed — and travel is no exception. We’re still venturing out; it may just look a little different for a while.

My safe escape this summer? A nine-hour car trip with a family of five to the great outdoors.

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