U.S. Travel Tracker August 2020: Consumer Confidence Holding Strong

by Haixia Wang + Skift Team - Sep 2020

Skift Research Take

Summer was near the end and while still high, the number of new COVID cases declined substantially from the peak of July. Yet, the travel rate did not go up along this track. In August, 36% of Americans traveled, only one percentage point higher than in July.

Report Overview

Another peak of coronavirus cases seemed to be behind us when we entered August in the U.S. Many universities opened for classes and sent a wave of parents delivering children to campuses. August seemed to be poised to be a minor travel boost from July. Yet the number didn’t change much.

According to our August U.S. travel tracker survey, 36% of Americans traveled in August, barely one percentage point increase from July. This is despite the fact that consumers were less fearful of the virus, with 50% of surveyed consumers saying they were very concerned about the coronavirus, dropping from 57% in July.

In this report, we highlight new trends in travel incidences, consumer sentiments and future travel intents distilled from our August Travel Tracker survey.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Travel incidences Jan – Aug 2020
  • August travel highlights
  • COVID-19 impacted travel Feb – Aug 2020
  • Changing consumer sentiments on the economic outlook Feb – Sep 2020
  • Changing consumer intent on future travel Apr – Sep 2020

Survey Methodology

Skift Research’s monthly U.S. travel tracking surveys are conducted to examine the travel penetration rates and detailed travel behavior of the U.S. population. The sample population represents the demographic breakdowns of age, gender, income, race/ethnicity, and residential location of the U.S. Census Bureau. Respondents are asked to report if they traveled in the previous month and recall travel-related details if they did. The January survey was fielded on February 25–28, 2020 with a total sample of 1,002. The February survey was fielded on March 12–16, 2020, with a total sample of 1,085. The March survey was fielded on April 8–13, 2020, with a total sample of 1,022. The April survey was fielded on May 7–11, 2020, with a total sample of 1,077. The May survey was fielded on June 1–3, with a total sample of 1,007. The June survey was fielded on July 6–7, with a total sample of 1,006. The July survey was fielded on August 3–5, with a total sample of 1,001. The August survey was fielded on September 3–4, with a total sample of 1,002. All surveys were fielded online by a trusted third-party consumer panel provider.

In addition to the factual travel occurrences, we also asked respondents their perceptions on the macro-level economic condition as well their personal financial and travel outlook. Given those questions reflect what respondents felt at the time of the survey, the date for those questions that we refer to in this report is the month when the survey was conducted, instead of the month when travel happened.

Highlights of August U.S. Travel

Travel Rate Increased Slightly

Lower new coronavirus cases and end-of-season motivation didn’t seem to move the needle of travel recovery much. In August, 36% of Americans travelled, compared to 35.1% in July.

Summer Vacation Still Main Driver of Travel Growth

As in July, vacation continued to be the leading driver of travel recovery in August. Out of all the trips taken in August, 39% were for the purpose of vacations. We might see this trend continue in September, driven by the Labor Day weekend. But it remains to be seen if the steady growth in summer will continue once the summer peak ends.

After a big drop in July, business travel rose again in August. General business travel increased to account for 12% of all trips taken in August, up from 9% in July, and the conference and trade show segment went from 3% of trip share in July to 5% in August.

Air Travel Still in Dire Situation

In August, only 5% of U.S. leisure travelers took a flight, a drop from 9% in July. This is the worst rate since the beginning of COVID-19. As we suggested in our July report, people are taking time off to enjoy the summer, but it’s not a typical summer vacation in any way. Travel is not an end in itself. People travel to go places to enjoy things, especially food, culture and entertainment. They are less likely to spend a lot of money flying to a place when they can’t do any of these things or if they need to do them with much restraint. Instead, they will opt to drive to a nearby place to have the much needed time off. The upcoming holiday season might give air travel a little boost when people go visit their families and friends. But without the opening of broader sectors and businesses, we believe the airline sector will continue to lag behind other sectors in the recovery.

National Parks Continued the Rise in Popularity

As we highlighted in our July report, the new normal of vacationing this summer is characterized by staycations, day trips, and road trips. Destinations that are close to vacation-goers’ home, and safe to travel to, all saw increases in visitations, including urban centers and beaches. What’s worth mentioning is the rising popularity of national parks. In August, 22% of all trips taken by Americans were to national parks. By comparison, park visitation only accounted for 12% of all trips in January, pre-COVID. The appeal of remote open spaces might have already attracted too many people to some popular national park destinations. As reported by NPR, since July, the number of cars entering Yellowstone National Park had surpassed last year’s count for the same period. In addition to becoming an unexpected high-risk area for COVID-19 infections, some parks are facing rising challenges caused by overcrowding, such as waste pollution and endangerment of natural habitats

Vacation Rentals, Campgrounds and RVs Continued to Trend up in Parallel with Outdoor Travel

As people seek outdoor access and getaways from being stuck at home, short-term vacation rentals, campgrounds, and RVs are unsurprising winners in their accommodation choices. Since June, campgrounds, RVs, or cabins have consistently accounted for over 10% of all travel stays. The same holds true for vacation rental stays. The number was especially high in August, with 15% of travel stays involving vacation rentals.

Travel Cancellation and Rearrangement Showed Deeper Decline

The number of consumers who had made travel rearrangement in August declined across all rearrangement types. Part of the reason might be the number of people who booked future travel during the pre-COVID or early COVID stage were getting smaller. Another factor might be the shortened booking window that people adopt now in making travel decisions, in response to the uncertainties ahead. As Accor reported in its first half 2020 earnings, 60% of bookings made in its hotels in Europe were for stays within five days in making booking decisions. While this shortened booking window adds a big challenge for travel companies to predict what might come up, it might also lower the risk of cancellations.

Highlights of August Consumer Sentiments

Optimism about the U.S. Economy Rose Again

After a chaotic July, consumer confidence seemed to crawl back again. In early September, the number of consumers who believed the U.S. economy would be much better in the next 12 months jumped from 8% in early August to 11% and those who expected the economy to be slightly better jumped from 24% in August to 29%.

Consumers Outlook for Personal Financial Health Followed the Same Route

The percentage of consumers who expected their personal financial situation to get better in the next 12 months grew to 35% in early September, compared to 30% in August.

More Consumers Expected to Increase Travel Spending

In line with the strong confidence in the economy, more consumers planned to increase their travel spending in the next 12 months in September than in August. For the first time since the pandemic, more consumers expected to increase travel spending than decrease. We have been talking about the pent-up demand and believe it would drive up travel demand once the pandemic is under control.

Highlights of August Future Travel Intent

Consumers Concerns about COVID-19 Lessened

Lower new coronavirus cases in August seems to have had a positive effect on consumer sentiment about the virus. Fifty-seven percent of Americans surveyed in early September were very concerned about the coronavirus, down from 57% a month ago. The number of consumers who indicated their lives were very much impacted by the virus dropped from 44% to 42%.

Consumer Sentiment on When COVID-19 Would be Under Control Remained Stable

The number of consumers who expect a fast end to the COVID-19 crisis changed little in early September compared to a month ago. The largest cluster of consumers, 39%, expected to have the virus cured or contained in the first half of 2021.

More than a quarter of Americans surveyed indicated that life wouldn’t be back to normal until at least a year after the pandemic is under control.

Number of Consumers Expecting to Travel Soon Rose Again

The number of people who planned to travel immediately after travel restrictions are lifted jumped to 12% in early September. While we are unable to track the number of Americans who haven’t traveled at all since the pandemic started, we believe the number is significant. Once it’s proven to be absolutely safe to travel again, this group will venture out and contribute to the travel recovery.

Road Trips Remained the Most Desired Trip Type

The numbers remained stable in terms of the expected first trip type for the last five months. Nearly 60% of consumers planned to take a local trip by car when they start to travel again.

Number of Consumers Who Said They Would Change Their Travel Preference for at Least One Part of Travel Post-COVID-19 Changed Little

In September, the number of consumers who said they would likely change their accommodation type, transportation mode and destination type all remained unchanged from August.

Accommodation preference

Transportation Preference

Destination Preference

Other January – August Data

General Travel Behavior

Trip Frequency

Trip Purpose

Domestic vs. Outbound

Type of Destination

Trip Planning

Personal Trip

Accommodation

Transportation

Business Trip

Accommodation

Transportation

Demographics