U.S. Travel Tracker November 2020: Travel’s Dark Winter

by Haixia Wang + Skift Team - Dec 2020

Skift Research Take

In November, 32% of Americans traveled, wiping out all the slow gains since May. With raging new COVID cases across the country, this bleak travel number might actually be too high to help control the virus spread.

Report Overview

The U.S. added 4.2 million new coronavirus cases in November, amounting to 32% of all the coronavirus cases in the country by the end of the month. The wildfire-like spread of the virus prompted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a number of other government agencies to issue warnings against travelling for Thanksgiving, the country’s biggest family travel holiday.

All these led to a sharp decrease in travel for the month. Despite the holiday, only 32% of Americans traveled in November, a decrease from 38% in October. This marks the lowest travel incidence rate since May. However, of those Americans that did choose to travel, a far greater share took flights than has been typical for the pandemic.

With case counts continuing to hit record highs, we believe this is just the beginning of a dark winter for the travel industry.

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

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Travel incidences, Jan–Nov 2020
  • November travel highlights
  • COVID-19 impacted travel, Jul–Nov 2020
  • Changing consumer sentiments on the economic outlook, Jul–Dec 2020
  • Changing consumer intent on future travel, Jul–Dec 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. The September survey was fielded on October 5–7, with a total sample size of 1,007. The October survey was fielded on November 2–4, with a total sample size of 1,002. The November survey was fielded on December 2–4, with a total sample size of 1,007. 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 November U.S. Travel

Travel Rate Dropped to Pre-Summer Level

As many experts feared, the coronavirus has been spreading like wildfire in the U.S. as we move into the winter months. As of November 30, 13 million Americans were infected with the virus, increasing from 8.9 million the month before, and the death toll of the virus reached 250,000. The week before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations for Americans to avoid holiday travel. As a result, the U.S. travel rate in November dropped to 32%, from 38% in the previous month, making it the lowest rate since May.

Thanksgiving Family Visitation Main Driver

Despite the travel warnings, family gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday made up the largest share of November travel. Of all the trips taken by Americans in November, 45% were for visiting families, a seven percentage points increase from October. On the other hand, the decline of vacation share continued, dropping from 31% in October to 25% in November. Business travel rates remained low.

Air Travel Had a Sizable Boost

Trips that involved flights went up for both personal and business travel. For personal travel, 9% of all trips taken in November included a flight, up from 6% in October. For business travel, the number is 27%, a four percentage point increase from October. The holiday air travel boost is supported by other data as well. According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data, the number of travelers screened at U.S. airport security checkpoints surpassed 1 million for four days in November. For the past six months since March 17, there was only one day in October when the air passenger number exceeded 1 million.

Vacation Destinations Continued the Decline

With family visitation being the main driver of travel, destination shifts continued. Beach and national parks, two of the most popular destinations in the summer months, continued the decline in popularity. On the other hand, small towns and countryside accounted for the largest share of destination types, with over a third of all trips taken in November going to small towns and countryside.

Hotel Stays Lost Share to Private Residency

With family holiday celebrations, it’s no surprise that the share of staying with families goes up. In November, 28% of all personal travel were spent in private residency, increasing from 25% in October. This increase is purely at the loss of hotel stays, which went from 56% in October to 52% in November. Data from STR painted an even more dire picture for the U.S. hospitality industry. According to STR, the U.S. hotel occupancy for the week of November 22-28 fell to 36.2%, the lowest level since late May.

The share of vacation rentals continued to drop, down from 15%, the highest point, in July, to 8% in November. While the pandemic is partly the reason for this decline, the seasonality of the entire vacation rental market sans the pandemic plays a bigger role. As laid out in our analysis of Airbnb’s S-1 filings, Airbnb has consistently generated its full year of profits in the third quarter alone. Its biggest competitor Vrbo has similar huge swings in its revenues and profits as well.

Travel Cancellation and Rearrangement Rose

Many Americans planned to travel to spend time with families for the holiday but had to cancel the trip either for fear of the virus spread, or due to reinstituted travel restrictions in places they planned to travel to and from. Travel cancellation and rearrangement rates all increased as a result. More than a quarter of Americans surveyed said they had cancelled a pre-booked November trip and an equal number of them said they had postponed a pre-booked November trip to a later date.

Highlights of December Consumer Sentiments

Outlook for the U.S. Economy More Polarized

As we mentioned in our October Report, we fielded the October survey on November 2–4, before the election result was revealed, so we could take another pulse of consumer sentiment pre-election and compare it to the November survey and see if there were any major differences. Interestingly, we saw that Americans’ economic outlook became more polarized again, as with the months leading to the November election. Only 16% of Americans believed the U.S. economy would remain unchanged in the next 12 months. On the two ends, 39% expected the economy to be better, vs. 45% expecting the economy to be worse.

Outlook for Personal Financial Health Changed Little

At the personal level, 35% of American consumers expected their financial condition would be better in the next 12 months and 30% were concerned that they would be worse off financially.

Number of Consumers Expecting to Increase Travel Spending Rose

In early December, 35% of surveyed Americans said they expected to increase travel spending in the next 12 months, up from 32% in October. On the other hand, 25% expected to decrease travel spending, unchanged from November. Looking back, beginning in September, for the first during the pandemic, more Americans plan to increase rather than decrease their travel spend over the next 12 months. The positive spread continues to widen.

Highlights of December Future Travel Intent

Consumers Concerns about COVID-19 Rose Again

Americans’ fear of the pandemic continued to follow the ups and downs of the case counts. Fifty-six percent of Americans in our early December survey were very concerned about the virus, up from 52% in November. And 46% of consumers indicated their lives were very much impacted by the virus, increasing from 40% a month ago.

Expectation of COVID-19 Containment Unchanged

In total, 44% of the November survey respondents believed the virus to be contained by the first half of 2021, little change from the previous month. On Friday December 1, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the first emergency-use authorization (EUA) for Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 Vaccine to be distributed in the U.S. Following that, millions of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been prepared for shipment across the country over the weekend. This extremely encouraging news might bring hope to ending the pandemic in the next few months.

Consistently for the past four months, 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 over.

Travel Timing Expectation Remained Stable

While relatively stable for the past few months, the number of consumers expecting to delay travel until a year or more after travel restrictions are lifted rose slightly, with a quarter of Americans saying so in early December.

Expected Long Road Trip Rose Significantly

In terms of post-COVID trip planning, November saw a significant switch from preferring to drive to preferring to fly for trips that are more than 100 miles away from home. The November figure appears to have been an anomaly driven by Thanksgiving as the December data shows a return to the prior trend of consumers preferring to drive. Twenty-seven percent of surveyed American consumers indicated their expected first trip would be 100 or more miles away from home by car, increasing from 20% in November and similar to the earlier months. On the other hand, 16% of consumers expected their first trip to be 100 or more miles away from home by flight, down from 20% in November.

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

The number of consumers who said they would likely change their accommodation type, transportation mode, and destination type remained relatively stable for the past few months.

Accommodation preference

Transportation Preference

Destination Preference

Other January – November 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