2021 Holiday Travel Trends

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The 2020 holiday travel season was unlike any experience most individuals had ever encountered, and the 2021 holiday travel season is shaping up to be different as well. The pandemic is still impacting holiday travel in multiple ways. Unlike last year, this winter holiday season will include recent medical advancements, which makes it possible for more people to travel to see their families and friends.

The demand for travel has been bubbling over for the last several months and significantly more travelers are estimated to take road trips or flights to see their loved ones for the holidays this year versus 2020. “We’re already seeing significant momentum around international and domestic flight searches when compared to 2020, up 155% and 212%, respectively,” says Matt Clarke, the VP of marketing at online travel agency Kayak from Yahoo Life.

Demand may be increasing, but so are new rules regarding domestic and international travel. Before you make plans to see your loved ones this year, it may be helpful to review the latest surrounding holiday travel and what you might expect as you venture out.

Holiday Trend Statistics: this year vs. last year

The table below highlights the stark differences in travel from 2019 to 2020 for Thanksgiving and the holiday season, but it also illustrates how much higher the demand for travel is expected to be in 2021.

Expected this year 2020 2019
How many people are going to travel Four in 10 (42%) plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January, taking an average of two trips. The 17.8 million people screened by TSA last holiday season (-56% from the previous year) 40.3 million screened during the 2019 holiday season
Busiest travel day Dec. 22 Mar. 12 Dec. 1
How many people are flying for Thanksgiving* 4.2 M (estimated) 2.3 M 4.6 M
How many people are driving for Thanksgiving* 48.3 M (estimated) 44.5 M 49.9 M
Most popular holiday destination New York City Grand Canyon New York City

*Thanksgiving travel source: AAA Newsroom

In 2021, while more people are willing to travel, there may still be hesitancy among certain age groups. For example, seniors may be more likely to stay in versus the younger population. For those who are beginning to travel again, it’s likely that road trips will be popular as a transportation option. Then, as people grow more comfortable with travel, they will likely make more plans to fly.

Holiday road trips

Travelers can expect holiday road trip popularity to closely reflect pre-COVID-19 norms. Early estimates for Thanksgiving travel include over 48 million people hitting the roads in the U.S. Before heading out, it’s an ideal time to review your current auto insurance policy and familiarize yourself with what is and isn’t covered, including any roadside assistance coverage. Where you are driving matters too, with California, Louisiana, Maryland, Rhode Island and Colorado recently ranking as the worst states for driving, while Ohio, Iowa, Utah, Indiana and Idaho rank as the best.

More people are expected to travel by car this year versus last year for the holidays for a variety of reasons. Younger drivers, ages 18 to 24, display the most interest in traveling with 78% expressing comfortability taking a road trip to locations with a lower concentration of COVID-19. Comparatively, Baby Boomers showed the most hesitancy, with only 24% being likely to do the same.

Driving not only tends to be a more economical way to travel, but it also provides other advantages over flying. Driving gives travelers the option to stop along the way or take breaks to stretch their legs or get fresh air. There is also a possibility of it being safer health-wise due to people often traveling with family members versus with thousands of strangers at airports.

To make the most of the family road trip, preparation is key. Be sure to pack essentials to keep everyone safe and occupied, allowing the driver to fully concentrate on the road ahead. While each family’s needs are different, consider bringing along items to make the trip easier, such as:

  • Snacks
  • Headphones
  • Handheld and electronic games
  • Audiobooks
  • Water

In addition to packing the fundamental items and making sure you have the best insurance policy in place, road trips are also a great time to make sure your vehicle is ready for travel. This includes having an emergency kit packed full of supplies like jumper cables and ice scrapers, especially during the cold winter months.

Borders opening

Borders are opening up for U.S. travelers to several destinations, including Europe, Canada and Mexico. However, traveling does not operate the same as it did prior to the pandemic, with many countries adding new entrance requirements. For example, Canada is currently allowing foreign travelers to enter the country, but they must show proof of vaccination unless they meet the exemption rules.

Mexico is requiring U.S. citizens to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test from three days prior to entering the country. If someone is not fully vaccinated, they must show a negative COVID-19 test one day prior to the flight.

Another popular destination for the holidays is Hawaii. Hawaii is now allowing all fully-vaccinated U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens to travel to the islands, as long as they also present a negative COVID-19 test within three days of their flight.

Another sign that the holidays will be different in 2021 is the fact the U.S. is now allowing  international travelers who are vaccinated into the country again. This means many families who are in other countries are finally able to spend the holidays together. For some families, this could be the first time in a couple of years.

Because the pandemic continues to change course, it’s critical to review all requirements and information before you plan to travel. While borders are opening up, many are requiring both proof of vaccination and negative COVID-19 test results, so you will need to allow time to make proper arrangements.

Borders reopening signals a shift in the fight against COVID-19, but it also means travelers need to be aware of the changes in place in 2021 versus last year. Because these travel requirements were not necessarily in place in 2019 or even 2020, travelers this year might not be used to many of the changes recently announced.

What to expect with plane travel

With borders opening and increased demand, you can expect the holiday travel season to be in full force. Unfortunately, with such high numbers, it also means an increase of potential obstacles heading through airports.

Vaccination cards and testing for travelers by plane continues to evolve and the entry requirements differ from country to country. Those who are traveling into the U.S. must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, but the timing of the test depends on the traveler’s vaccination status. Before traveling anywhere by plane, be sure to check the vaccine and testing requirements of your destination since they are ever-changing.

Recent headlines have illustrated the impact recent demand has had on airlines. American Airlines recently experienced major flight disruptions when it had to cancel over 1,700 flights in a weekend due to staff shortages. This comes on the heels of another substantial number of cancellations from Southwest Airlines, which also gained national attention.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has ramped up hiring for the 2021 holiday season to meet demand, but travelers should expect delays both with flights and during the security check-in process. Social distancing has increased the time it takes for checking baggage and getting through the airport. Extra documentation is also required, which means a longer process for international travelers. As such, the TSA will not only need to hire more workers, but travelers will need to pack their patience and allow extra time.

Travel experts are now recommending you add an additional hour to the time you usually need for check-in. For international travelers, this could mean as much as three hours in advance, but longer may be necessary.

Travelers should also keep in mind that there is a federal mask mandate for airports. The mandate is in place as soon as you walk through the airport door and is to be followed through until the time you leave the airport at your destination.

2022 travel trends

  1. Lonely Planet’s list of top travel destinations in 2022 includes plenty of sun and sand. The Cook Islands, Norway, Mauritius, Belize, Slovenia, Anguilla, Oman, Nepal, Malawi, and Egypt all top the list of popular spots.
  2. Pet travel is expected to be bigger than ever. Because people have spent more time with their pets during quarantine and more families adopted pets in 2020, it is expected that pet travel will also follow the upward trend. Not only are airlines offering accommodations for furbabies, but more hotels and restaurants are offering options for pet lovers.
  3. Services may continue to be somewhat limited. Although more people are making travel plans, not all services at hotels and restaurants will be in full swing. This can be attributed to both COVID-19 and the labor shortage. This also includes a shortage of rental cars.
  4. Micro-brand, lifestyle and boutique hotels continue to grow. Although boutique hotels declined in growth during recent years, they are now projected to grow at least 18% in 2021 and beyond.
  5. Staycations will likely remain popular. Although many people had plenty of time in their homes in 2020, there are people who choose to stay within their own city to avoid flying or being in crowded spaces.

The 2021 holiday season will be a monumental experience for many families, since some family members haven’t been able to see each other or host a gathering for almost two years. Reuniting is now at the top of many family’s lists and as a result, you can expect to see more people on the road and in the air. Whether heading out by car, bus or plane, travelers can expect this year to be one of the busiest in recent memory as more people are finally able to safely visit loved ones.

Written by
Sara Coleman
Insurance Contributor
Sara Coleman has three years of experience in writing for insurance domains such as Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, Reviews.com, Coverage.com and numerous other personal finance sites. She writes about insurance products such as auto, homeowners, renters and disability.
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