U.S. Travel Tracker September 2020: Onset of Fall Travel

by Haixia Wang + Skift Team - Oct 2020

Skift Research Take

Labor Day weekend didn’t provide a much-needed boost for the U.S travel sector. In September, 37% of Americans traveled, barely one percentage point higher than in August. The path of travel recovery ahead might be even rockier with summer vacation officially behind us.

Report Overview

The zigzag of the coronavirus outbreak continues. As many people feared, more relaxed opening-ups seem to be leading to another surge of new cases in many U.S. states. Before this happened, Labor Day weekend gave a tiny boost for the distressed travel sector. According to our September U.S. travel tracker survey, 37% of Americans traveled in September, just one percentage point higher than August.

With summer behind us, year-end holidays still some time away, and yet another round of rising coronavirus cases, the U.S. travel industry might face more setbacks in the next couple of months. As reflected in our survey, the number of consumers who are very concerned about the virus and expect to delay travel are on the rise again.

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

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Travel incidences, Jan – Sep 2020
  • September travel highlights
  • COVID-19 impacted travel, Feb – Sep 2020
  • Changing consumer sentiments on the economic outlook, Feb – Oct 2020
  • Changing consumer intent on future travel, Apr – Oct 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. 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 September U.S. Travel

Travel Rate Climbed Slightly

Labor Day generally marks the last golden week for the U.S. travel sector before summer travel season winds down. In September, 37% of Americans traveled, a slight climb from the 36% in August. We believe the number is likely boosted by the Labor Day weekend travel, but it was not the shot in the arm the industry was hoping for.

End of Summer Season Meant Fewer Vacation Trips

July and August travel recovery were led by resumed summer vacations, with vacationing accounting for 41% of all trips in July and 39% in August. As summer drew to an end, vacation made up only 35% of all trips in September. Visiting families and friends rose again as the leading travel purpose, accounting for 37% of all trips in September.

Air Travel Still in Single Digits

In September, 8% of personal trips taken by Americans included a flight. Although this is a three-percentage-point jump from August, it continued to paint a grim picture of the airline sector. With new COVID-19 cases rising again across many states, as we were preparing for this report, we don’t expect to see any significant improvement in the next few months.

Family Gathering Led to Increase in Small Town/Countryside Visits

After four months of rising popularity, national parks dropped for the first time in share of destination types in September, likely due to the end of summer season. On the other hand, Labor Day weekend travel seemed to be marked by spending time with families, which gave small town and countryside destinations a boost. Of all the trips taken by Americans in September, 32% were to small towns and countryside, the highest of all destination types. A survey of 966 American consumers in late August by cars.com on Labor Day weekend travel planning had similar results. For those who planned to travel during the Labor Day weekend, 42% said they would visit family or friends, 36% planned to go to the beach and 22% planned to visit a state or national park.

Private Residence Trended up as a Result of Family Visitation

Private residences accounted for 27% of all personal travel stays in September, a jump from 23% in August. Interestingly, hotel stays remained relatively unchanged, while the share of vacation rentals dropped from 15% in August to 11% in September. As we noted in our Skift Recovery Index August Highlights report, the overall strong performance of the vacation rental market tells a tale of two recovery paths. Rental markets in major urban centers are still struggling while vacation rentals in rural and secluded destinations have seen very high occupancy rates, some of which surpassed pre-COVID levels. We believe the drop in national park visits, which drew the highest demand in the short-term rental market, partly contributed to this decline in vacation rental share.

Travel Cancellation and Rearrangement Remained Relatively Stable

As the virus-led uncertainty continues, travel cancellation and rearrangement numbers are still high across all categories. This will continue to add challenges for travel players to accurately assess seats and rooms filled.

Highlights of September Consumer Sentiments

Outlook for the U.S. Economy Unchanged

Despite the potential threat of another peak of coronavirus cases and the political uncertainty tied to the upcoming election, many Americans are still betting on a strong economy. In early October, 39% of American consumers believed the U.S. economy would be better in the next 12 months, only slightly lower than the 43% who expected the economy to be worse.

Outlook for Personal Financial Health Also Unchanged

In early October, 34% of American consumers expected their personal financial condition would be better in the next 12 months, barely changed from September. On the other end, only 27% were concerned that they would be worse off financially.

Mixed Future Travel Spending Expectation

As we explained in our August tracker report, we believe that compared with the early summer months, more consumers are now seeing the pandemic as a longer-term battle and are pushing long-haul expensive trips further out. This led to a smaller number of consumers who expected to increase travel spending in the next 12 months than in earlier months of the pandemic, despite the pent-up demand. Specifically, in early October, 27% of surveyed Americans said they expected to increase travel spending in the next 12 months. By comparison, in May, after the first peak when there was higher hope that we would put COVID-19 behind us soon, 41% of American consumers expected to increase travel spending in the next 12 months.

Highlights of September Future Travel Intent

Consumers Concerns about COVID-19 Rose Again

When the President of your country has the virus, you will be more worried about the virus. On Friday morning, October 2, three days before we fielded the survey, President Trump tweeted that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Elsewhere, many states saw increases in new cases, yet again, and started to reinstate some restrictions. Fifty-four percent of Americans in our survey were very concerned about the coronavirus, up from 50% a month ago. However, this may not have translated into as much day-to-day impact, as people now seem more adapted to living in a pandemic world. Forty-three percent of consumers indicated their lives were very much impacted by the virus, not much changed from a month ago.
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More Consumers Saw COVID-19 a Long-Term Battle

For the first time since we started to ask the question in May, there was a sharp increase in the number of consumers who don’t see the coronavirus being brought under control until the second half of 2021 or later. In total, 56% of the October survey respondents estimated the virus to be contained in the second half of 2021 or 2022 and later, 13 percentage points higher than a month ago.

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.

Number of Consumers Expecting to Delay Travel Rose Again

Consumer sentiments and perceptions are very much tied to the current moment they live in. More cases demonstrate how hard the battle against the virus is, which in turn leads to more caution about future behavior. The number of people who expected to travel until 7 months or later after the pandemic is over increased again in October, corresponding to the soaring numbers of new cases across the country.

Drive-to Travel Preference Remained Stable

The numbers remained stable in terms of the expected first trip type for the last seven 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 Increased Slightly

After dropping for two months, the number of consumers who said they would likely change their accommodation type, transportation mode, and destination type rose again, all back to July levels.

Accommodation preference

Transportation Preference

Destination Preference

Other January – September 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