U.S. Travel Tracker January and February 2020: Onset of COVID-19 Impact

by Haixia Wang + Skift Team - Mar 2020

Skift Research Take

We are keeping track of if and how the U.S. population is traveling month by month and hope to detect signs of a rebound in the not too distant future.

Report Overview

We planned to launch a monthly travel tracking survey for the U.S. and China starting in January 2020. As we were working on the survey questions, China locked down the entire country in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 and it didn’t make sense to track travel there for the time being.

Our first survey was fielded on February 25-28, asking respondents to report their travel incidences and details in January, as well as their attitude on the economic outlook for the next 12 months. Forty-six percent of surveyed respondents taking at least one trip in January.

Our second survey was collected on March 12-16. This time in addition to questions on travel taken in February, we added COVID-related questions, including canceled and rescheduled trips and levels of COVID-19 impact. Travel incidence in February dropped to 41%. The number of people who feared they would be worse off financially in the next 12 months jumped from 21% three weeks before to 43%.

In this report, we present data findings for the January and February surveys. For the time being, we will only report the top-line data from the surveys, painting the broad picture of where the most important points stand and change. With the premise of the monthly tracking now changed to capture how deep the virus is impacting travel on a monthly basis and detecting early signs of recovery, we will drill down to sector and demographic specifics in future reports.

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. Our January survey was fielded on February 25-28, 2020 with a total sample of 1,002. Our February survey was fielded on March 12-16, 2020, with a total sample of 1,085. Both surveys were fielded online by a trusted third-party consumer panel provider.

In addition to travel related questions, we also asked respondents their perceptions on future economic 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.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Trip incidence, destination type, in-destination activities and trip planning for the U.S. population in January and February 2020
  • COVID-19 related travel changes in February 2020
  • Key traits of personal trips in January and February, including travel companion, packaged tours, booking method, accommodation, flight, hotel and airline loyalty memberships
  • Key traits of business trips in January and February, including booking and payment methods, out-of-pocket payment, accommodation, flight, hotel and airline loyalty memberships
  • Perception of U.S. economy and personal financial condition in February and March 2020

Introduction

Back in September 2019 when we were planning for 2020 report topics, we thought a monthly consumer travel tracking survey would provide a lot of value to our clients, by keeping track of travel seasonality, early signs of economic contraction or expansion, as well as long-term trends. We were planning to launch the new monthly tracking survey in January 2020, starting with the U.S. and China, two of the most crucial travel markets in the world.

As we were working on the survey questions in January 2020, a new virus first identified from a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei Province quickly spread throughout the entire country, escalating into a travel ban for 1.3 billion people. We decided to put surveying Chinese consumers on hold until people were allowed to move again.

Our first survey asking people’s January 2020 travel incidences and details was a little delayed and fielded on February 25 – February 28, when there were only about 60 cases and no reported deaths in the U.S. Despite the rising concerns about traveling due to coronavirus and the ongoing warnings of another recession, many Americans were still feeling optimistic about the U.S. economy and their personal economic condition. Thirty-two percent of respondents in our survey believed the economic condition in the U.S. would be better in the next 12 months, only slightly below the thirty-eight percent of those who believed it would be worse. And the positive outlook was even stronger when it came down to perception of their personal economic condition. About 43% of surveyed Americans predicted they would be better off financially in the next 12 months, more than double the number of those who believed they would be worse off financially.

We started to field our February travel tracker survey on March 12, thirteen days after we closed the January survey. By then, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had jumped to over 1,600 and the reported death toll attributed to COVID-19 was 41. By the time we closed the survey on March 16, there were over 4,400 confirmed cases and 87 deaths. The world turned upside down in less than three weeks. What did Americans feel? The numbers were completely flipped. Sixty-three percent of Americans surveyed expected the U.S. economic condition to be worse and 44% believed they would be worse off financially in the next 12 months.

The initial premise of this new travel tracker is not relevant anymore, at least for the next couple of months when we are deeply sunk in the crisis. But the timing couldn’t be better, as sad as it is. We will keep running the survey monthly to track what Americans are doing and thinking in the midst of the pandemic, and to detect early signs of recovery.

We will start to survey Chinese consumers on their traveling behavior and intention in April, as the country gradually lifted the lockdown ban for most of the population and activities. As we were publishing this report, Chinese government lifted nearly all the lockdown bans for Hubei Province, except Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and planned to lift the bans for Wuhan, the ground zero, on April 8. Various research on Chinese consumers has signaled uplifting recovery messages. For instance, a recent surveyof 15,000 Chinese consumers from close to 100 cities by the China Tourism Academy and Trip.com Group showed that close to half of respondents expect to travel before the end of June if the COVID-19 epidemic came to an end. If Europe and the U.S. could follow similar trajectories of China and its neighboring countries and have the outbreak under control in the next couple of months, there is some light for the free-falling travel industry.

Early signs of COVID-19 impact on travel

Travel Incidence

In January, nearly 46% of the U.S. population took at least one trip that included one or more overnight stay and was 50 miles or more away from home. The number dropped to 41% in February, due to rising concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.


Economic Outlook

Similarly, with uncertainty on the spread of the virus, and whether it would cripple the entire economy, the belief in a stable economic environment quickly tumbled. In less than three weeks between when we conducted the two surveys, the number of people who believed the greater economic environment would get worse almost doubled: nearly two-thirds of Americans we surveyed were concerned that they would be hit by a recession in the next 12 months. We are expecting to see a further dip in the number in our next survey.

When we closed the February survey on March 16, major cities in the U.S., including New York, hadn’t ordered business close-downs. Layoff announcements from major hotels, airlines, restaurants, etc., such as Marriott and Hyatt, hadn’t happened. Forty-four percent of respondents in our March survey already expected upcoming financial challenges, more than double of those who felt that way in February. The number will only get worse in the next couple of months.



Travel Spending Outlook

Down to travel, only 18% of surveyed U.S. consumers in March said they would increase travel spending in the next 12 months, down from 34% in February. Conversely, 39% stated they would decrease travel spending in March, up from 16% in February.

Concerns and Impact of COVID-19

As COVID-19 quickly developed into a real concern in the U.S., we added a few questions related to COVID impact in our March survey of February trips. In Mid-March, about 76% of survey respondents said they were concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., with one third of them saying they were extremely concerned.
A similar number of people stated the concern had already impacted their daily life routines such as travel, eating out, going to crowded public space, etc.

Impact of COVID-19 on Travel

COVID-19 concerns only started to trickle down to travel decisions in February in the U.S., especially for domestic trips, which accounts for the lion’s share of trips taken by the U.S. travelers.


Cancellation of previously booked February trips

  • Nearly 10% of respondents cancelled at least one previously booked trip scheduled to take place in February due to concerns about COVID-19.
  • Even though the travel restrictions were largely imposed on certain international destinations, 85% of cancelled trips were domestic ones.
  • About 21% of the cancelled February trips were business trips.



Rescheduling of previously booked February trips

  • On top of cancellations, 8% of respondents rescheduled previously booked February trips to a later date due to concerns about the virus.
  • Nearly half the rescheduled trips were scheduled for 4-6 months from now.
  • Similar to canceled trips, about 22% of rescheduled trips were business related.



Postponement of February trip bookings

  • Over 12% of respondents said they postponed at least one trip that they were planning to take but hadn’t booked in February.
  • A large majority of the postponed trips, 89%, were domestic trips.



Booking of trips due to deeper discount in February

There was still some good news, on the other hand. While many people were putting travel on halt, some were taking advantage of the deeper discounts that travel companies offered to keep flights and room occupancies full. At Skift, we keep close eyes on Google search terms around travel for our own SEO strategy. While doing that, we noticed a surge of searches for “travel” “+deals”, almost equal to the spike for “travel” “+refunds”. Our survey result confirms the trend.

  • Nearly 8% of respondents booked at least one unplanned trip in February due to deeper travel discounts.
  • About 15% of the unplanned trips booked in February were for international trips, much higher than the actual international trip rates in January and February.




Cancellation of upcoming trips in February

  • In February, 18% of respondents said they canceled upcoming trips due to concerns over the virus. compared to 10% who canceled February trips.
  • Trip cancellations for upcoming international trips were much higher than the average international trip penetration rate for the U.S. population.


General Travel Behavior

Trip Frequency

  • About three quarters of travelers took one trip in a month. Yet 6-7% took 3 or more trips in a month.



Trip Purpose

  • Vacation and visiting family/friends take up the largest shares of trip purposes.
  • Business related travel accounted for 15% of total trips in January, but went up to 23% in February.



Domestic vs. Outbound

  • Only 8% of U.S. consumers traveled abroad in January. The number decreased slightly to 7% in February.



Type of Destination

  • Interestingly, in addition to urban centers and beaches, another similarly popular destination type is small towns and countryside. Family visit is likely a big factor for this.



Trip Planning

  • Consistent with our previous research, search, family/friend recommendations and online review sites are the top three sources for travel planning.



Trip Activities

  • shopping, fine dining and general sightseeing are the top three in-trip activities.

Personal Trip

Travel Companion

  • Nearly 60% of travels are taken with spouses or significant others.
  • Overall, family travel, including travelling with spouses, kids, parents, siblings, etc. account for a large majority of all travels.



Trip Spend Responsibility

  • Nearly 90% of travelers are responsible for at least part of travel expenses.



Packaged Tours

  • About 19% of all personal trips in January were booked as a packaged tour. The number jumped to 26% in February.
  • Approximately 70% of packaged tour trips were booked directly with the company that offers the tour package, while only 18% were booked through a third-party aggregator site.
  • Mobile bookings accounted for about one third of total bookings with the tour companies.



Accommodation

  • Hotel stays accounted for about 60% of all the trips.
  • Vacation rental stays accounted for 5.7% of the January trips and 4.4% of the February trips.



Hotel Stay

  • Direct booking is the most prevalent for travelers with hotel stays. Traditional travel agent usage is very scarce.
  • In January, 33% of travelers who stayed in a hotel said they were a loyalty member of the hotel they stayed in. Among them, 34% used loyalty points for their stays. The numbers for February travelers were 43% and 39%, respectively.





Alternative accommodation

  • Only 17 respondents in the January survey and only 9 respondents in the February survey said they stayed in a short-term rental. Airbnb and Verbo were the top selected sites for the small sample.



Flight

  • Only 28% of January trips and 30% of February trips involved flights.
  • Similar to hotel bookings, flight bookings are mostly done directly with the airlines.
  • Bookings through online travel agency (OTA) sites with bundle jumped from 7% in January to 12% in February.
  • Loyalty memberships with airlines are much higher than loyalty memberships with hotels, but point redemption rates are lower than those with hotels.

Business Trip

Out-Of-Pocket Payment

  • Over 50% of business travelers spent on travel expenses that were not reimbursed by their companies.



Booking Method

  • About 44% of business trips were at least partially booked through a booking tool or agency approved by the company.

Corporate Travel Tool/Agency



Payment Method



Accommodation

  • Hotels and all-inclusive resort hotels accounted for 90% of January business trips and 93% of February business trips.



Hotel Stay

  • Nearly 60% of business travelers in January were Loyalty members of the hotels they stayed, 20 percentage points higher than personal travelers in January.



Flight

  • Business trips are much more likely to include flights than personal trips.

Demographics