COVID-19 Insights: Travel Intent and Confidence Improve in US

January 14, 2021

With our access to real-time traveler audiences and unmatched visibility into global travel demand, we’re in a unique position to share the current travel trends at the forefront of marketers’ minds. In this blog series, we look at the data to aid travel marketers in their assessment of this worldwide event. They can use these trends to inform their marketing strategies during this period, as the industry stabilizes. 

These insights are based on data collected on January 10, 2020. We are reviewing our data on a regular basis to provide an accurate view of trends and patterns in consumer behavior. Sojern’s insights are based on over 350 million traveler profiles and billions of travel intent signals, however, it does not capture 100% of the travel market.

US Restrictions and the Future of Travel

As case numbers continue to grow in the US due to the post-holiday surge, and new records are set for hospitalizations, travel restrictions are ever-changing. Experts believe January will be the worst month yet in terms of overall infections, but hope is on the horizon as the vaccine continues to roll out. Approximately 10 million Americans, out of a US population of around 332 million, have been vaccinated so far according to the CDC

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on January 12 that the US, Canada, and Mexico extended non-essential travel restrictions until February 21, 2021–the eighth time these restrictions have been extended by the DHS due to COVID-19. To limit the spread of the virus further, travel that is considered recreational is banned across the US-Canadian land border. This is nearing the one year mark, as original restrictions began on March 23, 2020. 

In December, the CDC reduced their recommended quarantine period for people with no symptoms from 14 to 10 days, yet states continue to implement different strategies for quarantining and travel restrictions. Colorado, Delaware, and California are among some US states advising residents to avoid leisure travel whereas nearly half of US states have no statewide travel restrictions. Internationally, a new restriction mandates that anyone entering the US beginning January 26 will be required to test negative for COVID-19 within three days of their flight. 

As pandemic fatigue wears on, many would-be travelers are at home dreaming of their next trip. STR and Tourism Economics predict that leisure travel will rebound quickly in the spring and summer due to pent up demand and the vaccine rollout, especially in higher income houses that were not as impacted financially. They predict travelers will still favor outdoor and drive markets, but the US should see urban travel rebound as well. A new global study by Hotels.com says spontaneity will be a major theme in 2021 travel. The study revealed 89% of US travelers will be more impulsive following 2020’s canceled trips and the “lost year of travel”. 

When we look at our own data, we see larger numbers of people showing intent to travel and making bookings in 2021 vs 2020 (after the pandemic began), as flight searches and bookings and hotel bookings show the second straight week of increase across the country. 

A Look at Sojern Hotel Search and Booking Data 

Sojern Hotel Search Data (US) 

Indexed to 1/19/20 (to give a sense of Pre-COVID-19) through 1/9/21

Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US) through 1/9/21 

While hotel search is the only area in which we see a decline this week, the data shows a sharp increase last week. As the vaccine is made available to more people, we should see travelers continue to plan trips for later in the year, taking advantage of lower than average room rates, which will likely remain below 2019 levels throughout 2021. Hotel rooms rates may have a faster recovery in higher-demand destinations, especially leisure destinations over weekends and summer months. 

Sojern Hotel Booking Data (US) 

Indexed to 1/19/20 (to give a sense of Pre-COVID-19) through 1/9/21

Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US) through 1/9/21 

Travel confidence continues to grow, with hotel bookings showing the second straight week of increase, likely because people feel more confident to book with vaccine news and a new year beginning. The differentiation between lower searches and an increase in bookings could be people making fewer searches before they decide to go ahead and book. They may have completed searches prior, and when they return to book, they are no longer dreaming but ready to act. 

Last month, hotel bookings immediately increased with the positive vaccine news. While many of the bookings had short lead times (within a few days of departure), there was a noticeable uptick in bookings for later in 2021, aligning with the above predictions. This is promising for the future of hospitality and travel, as they continue to be the most negatively impacted industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, and notably resulted in the loss of another half-million jobs in December. In the Hotels.com study, a quarter of the respondents said the thing they miss most about travel is the hotel perks, such as the hotel bars and restaurants, a room with a view, room service, and other amenities. Respondents also cited they would be open to upgrades to make the most out of their stay, a good thing for hotel marketers to keep in mind when advertising to new and loyal guests. 

The State of Air Travel 

The airline industry, also deeply impacted by the pandemic, is showing indications that air travel demand will recover at a faster pace than last year. With news of the vaccine came search and booking spikes for airlines, and experts expect leisure travel and flight bookings to ramp up quickly, especially for those desperate to take trips to see friends and family that they had to forgo due to restrictions. Airlines are also receiving a sizable amount of the new stimulus package, further supporting the industry and preventing many additional layoffs and furloughs.

The vaccine, in conjunction with historically low air fares, is predicted to drive the travel surge. The elimination of change and cancellation fees, may also increase traveler confidence to book now for later, and change flights if needed. However, it is still predicted that while leisure travel may rebound quickly, business travel is sure to lag, with some travel leaders saying it could take as much as a decade to reach pre-pandemic levels.

Sojern Flight Search Data (US) 

Indexed to 1/19/20 (to give a sense of Pre-COVID-19) through 1/9/21

Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US) through 1/9/21 

Sojern Flight Booking Data (US) 

Indexed to 1/5/20 (to give a sense of Pre-COVID-19) through 1/10/21

Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US) through 1/10/21

While the airline industry is likely looking at a slower recovery than lodging, Sojern data shows growth for both flight searches and bookings over the past two weeks. We’re confident we’ll see continued growth as the vaccine becomes more widely available and the weather warms across the US, allowing for outdoor activities to commence again. 

Your Key Takeaway as a Travel Marketer 

According to many industry experts, travel is poised to bounce back rapidly around the second half of the year. What does that mean for you as a travel marketer? Future travelers, myself included, are at home dreaming. They’re watching Connected TV (CTV), scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, and browsing the web daily while they’re riding the pandemic out inside. This is a crucial time to get your ads in front of potential travelers, showing your socially distanced local hiking trails or clean facilities. Inspire your target audience now. 

Stay Tuned 

We will continue to share more insights as we monitor the situation, to help travel marketers shape their strategies as the industry recovers. 

For the rest of the COVID-19 insights series click here.


About Christy Jobman

Christy is Sojern's Marketing Manager, US, Canada, & LATAM. She loves all things communications and she's so happy to be using the Communications/Journalism degree she earned at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When she's not building relationships and cross collaborating to build out collateral for the sales teams and account managers at Sojern, she's coaching at her gym, dabbling in the non-profits world, exploring, and cooking new dishes.

LinkedIn | Posts by: