How 2021 Travel is Shaping Up and a 2020 Look Back

February 18, 2021

Combining search, booking, and location data provides a unique view into the travel market. By layering these data pieces, we see a better picture of travel behavior, and how it’s changing. Below we’ll share some of the changes we saw in travel in 2020 and some of the trends we’re seeing as we kick off 2021. 

A Snapshot of Shifts in Travel Behavior in 2020 

In the US, as to be expected, with the pandemic beginning in early 2020 and social distancing efforts enacted across the nation, we saw a big decline in travel to larger cities like Chicago, Seattle, and New York, and growth year-over-year (YoY) in remote and rural areas, like Omaha, Nebraska and Billings, Montana, in addition to Florida’s larger metros which were not as deeply impacted as others in the US. 

Recovery across the states was unpredictable over 2020 as restrictions were ever-changing. While far fewer people traveled, trends shifted to longer trips with shorter planning windows, and staying closer to home. 

With travelers staying closer to home, they’re choosing driving over flying. When looking at domestic hotel bookings vs domestic flight bookings and how they’re recovering, hotels have recovered 40%, where flights are still 60% down since one year ago. 

Christmas (the red line shown above) shows a large dip in bookings, as people are less likely to book travel on holidays. While national holidays, like the gray lines above indicating the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, do have an impact, it’s never as great as global holidays. 

When we break lodging bookings down into a daily view, we see some exciting growth. We can see early signs of continued recovery–2021 travel booking data is trending upward. Summer travel had a similar season in 2020 vs 2019 with bookings beginning to decline 1st week in October. The steeper drop in 2020 could be explained by rising COVID-19 cases and additional lockdowns. Experts began to advise US residents against travel for the holidays in the beginning of October, which likely also contributed to the drop in bookings.  

Another interesting trend in this graph is that more people were booking on the weekends in 2020 vs 2019. This could be a result of the shift to work from home and people spending more time on their computers than ever before across the globe. Remote workers have more access to computers over the weekend to book a trip right away when they think of it, where pre-COVID-19 they may have been out and about on the weekends and waited until Monday to book when back to a computer.

As we see above, the US fell the least and recovered the fastest in summer, declined in fall, and continues to show upward movement in 2021. Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) fell a bit further than the US, but did show a strong recovery in the beginning of summer. Unfortunately, many of the countries started going into lockdowns mid-summer and bookings fell, and they remain low while much of EMEA is still in lockdown. Latin America and the Caribbean endured lockdowns that started late and lasted longer, thus, their recovery began later. 

A Look Forward at Travel Trends in 2021 

Booking windows remain short–as this chart shows that in 2021, people searching for January travel during the month of January grew across every region vs what we saw last year. There are a few exceptions where we are seeing a burst of summer bookings, for example, in Asia Pacific (APAC) travelers are already booking for summer trips to Singapore and the Maldives. In EMEA, travelers are heading on summer trips to Cyprus, Ireland, Poland, and Spain. In the US, Maine shows a good bump in summer bookings. This could be that Maine is a reasonably remote state loaded with outdoor activities and has the best weather for visiting June through August.

Learn more about European summer travel trends, Middle East and Africa key market updates, or APAC travel trends. 

Growing Lead Times in 2021 Spells Good News for Travel Marketers 

We’re seeing that lead times are increasing in the three plus month category, in line with seasonal trends, indicated by the dark blue line. In the beginning of March 2020, this line shows a huge bump, likely because travelers were planning far out with the assumption that the pandemic would not last as long as it has. After this peak, travelers became short-term planners–but the good news is, we see this line grow again in 2021. 

Given the current situation, longer lead times are positive news. They prove traveler confidence, indicate that more risk-averse travelers could be preparing to travel again, and they allow for additional trip complexity. As a travel marketer, this is a big opportunity, as it gives you more time to get your messaging out to travelers who are open to a destination but who are still planning their trip prior to departure. 

A Takeaway From PlaceIQ 

PlaceIQ looks at where people go using mobile phones on opted-in devices throughout the US. With the information collected from these devices, they can get a sense of where people live, visit, and travel.  

The graph above shows a YoY index comparing 2020 foot traffic to 2019. The black dotted line indicates “normal” or 2019 data. Travel was slower to come back than other segments and recovered at less than 80% of 2019 levels. However, PlaceIQ data shows that budget hotels had a good year in comparison to other segments in travel, which is in line with Sojern lodging data. Budget hotels recovered over a four-month span to about 90% of the normal. These hotels are often located along road trip routes and nature/outdoor destinations, and travelers were more budget-conscious over 2020. Blue collar business travel may also have contributed to this. Luxury hotels struggled most out of the hotel segment. 

What We Learned & How it Will Affect 2021 Travel Webinar

PlaceIQ’s VP of Strategy joined Sojern’s Data Insights team to look at 2021 travel search and booking data, with a look back at 2020 travel trends to share what we learned, analyze how COVID-19 continues to impact search and booking trends, and look at future intent. Gain an understanding of current travel behavior, demand, and when travel is likely to return, to better plan 2021 marketing campaigns. View our webinar to learn more. 


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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