COVID-19: Travel Policies and US Domestic Travel Trends #65

September 2, 2020

With Sojern’s 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 take a look at the data to aid travel marketers in determining their strategy during the COVID-19 crisis. They can use these trends to inform their marketing strategies during this period as the situation stabilizes. 

These insights are based on data collected through Sunday, August 30, 2020. We review our data frequently to provide regular insights into consumer behavior trends and patterns. Sojern’s insights are based on over 350 million traveler profiles and billions of travel intent signals, however it does not capture one hundred percent of the travel market. 

Updates in Travel Policies 

Airlines are sharing good news for travelers, with the “Big 3” airlines–Delta, American, and United–all announcing they are eliminating change fees (sans basic economy tickets), similar to what Southwest has offered since inception. On the heels of this announcement, Alaska announced they would do the same, and we’ll likely see more airlines getting on board as the weeks go on. As we’ve seen since the pandemic began and travel slowly rebounds, a huge selling point to entice travelers to complete bookings is a sound change policy that enables travelers flexibility in incredibly uncertain times. As with any policy change, there are restrictions by country or region and travelers should be diligent in checking out the airline’s unique policy when booking. 

One of the big pain points that remains for airlines is the limited flight bookings on various flights. Even with reduced flight schedules, it’s nearly impossible for operators to predict which flights will fill up. Unfortunately, this could result in last minute cancellations on flights for travelers. United, for example, introduced a new program in mid-August that analyzes flight capacity and cancels flights when that number becomes too low, often with less than ideal notice to the traveler. The good news is that since this new policy was put in place, fewer than 1% of United’s flights have been cancelled. 

Airlines are also enacting forward thinking health and safety procedures to encourage safety conscious travelers to book flights. American Airlines says they will become the first airline to spray a new antiviral cleaning solution on the surface of their planes, claiming it kills nearly 100% of viruses, including coronaviruses. Delta announced they will be the first to install hand sanitizers on planes. However, the TSA says passenger levels are still down 70% when compared to this time last year, as leisure travel is lagging. Many experts believe that travel won’t touch pre-COVID-19 levels until there is a vaccine. The pandemic deeply impacted the travel industry, and these airlines, like many others, are responding day-by-day to ensure the health and safety of the passengers on their planes. 

US Domestic Flight Trends Show Increased Growth 

States like Texas, California, and Arizona are seeing a fall in the “summer surge” of COVID-19 cases, due in part to enforcing mask policies and closing bars. Other states are seeing increasing cases and experts believe it could correlate in part to universities across the nation opening up. The numbers are still staggering, with the US officially topping 6 million COVID-19 cases. However, the US infection numbers overall are slightly decreasing, with fewer cases on the last day of August than the first day of August (possibly due to changes in testing policies in the US), and hospitalization and death rates going down as well. 

Despite the volatility in searches and bookings the travel industry is experiencing across the globe and the ever-changing restrictions and policies, Sojern data shows the sixth straight week of improvement for US domestic flight searches and the fourth straight week of improvement for US domestic flight bookings.

US Domestic Flight Searches Show an Increase

Indexed to 1/5/20 (to give a sense of Pre-COVID-19) & Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US)

Source: Sojern Data

US Domestic Flight Bookings Show an Increase

Indexed to 1/5/20 (to give a sense of Pre-COVID-19) & Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US)

Source: Sojern Data

A Look at a Few US States

Tourists are officially returning to New York at a slow pace. While indoor dining is not an option for the foreseeable future and Broadway will remain shutdown until 2021, NYC & Company hopes to draw tourists from neighboring states and give them a less crowded NYC experience. In Florida, restrictions loosened across the state in various stages and counties, from indoor dining coming back, to tanning salons to tattoos shops reopening. The governor promised Florida would not see another lockdown. Travel is slowly picking up again in some parts of the state, with Jacksonville’s airport seeing more traffic. 

Hawaii, while likely not open for tourism until October, recently launched an app that collects traveler details 24 hours before their flight. The traveler would then receive a QR code to be scanned at the airport when they arrive at their destination. The governor said the launch of the app is a big step to reopening the state. As noted in the graph below, US domestic hotel searches to Hawaii are still down substantially when compared to searches for Texas and New York. 

US Domestic Hotel Searches to Florida, Hawaii, New York 

Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US)

Source: Sojern Data

States like Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia and several others have no restrictions upon arrival to the states, while other states have very specific requirements. Vermont, for example, stated that any traveler arriving in a personal vehicle from a Northeast county that has less than 400 active cases of coronavirus per million people does not need to quarantine upon arrival. Interestingly, as we see in the graph below, Vermont is showing the most domestic hotel search growth (the top green line) of any of these states. A reason for this is that people are more likely to visit places that are remote, even if they have a few more requirements to entry. 

US Domestic Hotel Searches to Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Vermont

Indexed to 4/5/20 (the low in the US)

Sojern will continue to share more US insights as we monitor the situation and find interesting trends to help travel marketers shape their strategies as the industry recovers from this outbreak. 

For the rest of the COVID-19 insights series and webinars 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.

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