COVID-19 Insights: The Return of US Travel

March 24, 2021

These insights are based on data through March 21, 2021. We continue to review our data on a regular basis to provide a 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 one hundred percent of the travel market.

US Travel is Coming Back

In March, “When can I travel?” hit a 5-year high on Google Search Trends worldwide. A survey conducted by the World Travel & Tourism Council revealed that 99% of Americans and Canadians are “eager to travel again.” And an Airbnb survey found travel for pleasure is the out-of-home activity Americans have missed most–over going to restaurants and bars, and attending sporting and other events. 

For many Americans, March marks one year of working from home. As they receive vaccinations (as of March 17, 13% of Americans were fully vaccinated), COVID-19 case numbers have trended downward, and loosening restrictions have increased traveler intent (searches) and confidence (bookings).

Breaking Down US Hotel Search & Booking Data 

This graph shows an 85% increase in US hotel searches from the week beginning January 3, 2021–the biggest increase across all of the regions, followed closely by the Caribbean at 79%. 

In the next few graphs, we’ll look at week-over-week trends. Of note, in each chart, the orange line illustrates 2020 data and the red line illustrates 2021 data. The y-axis is the percentage of total events over both periods. 

In March 2020, the pandemic caused dramatic shifts in travel intent as lockdowns went into effect. We continue to see 2021 hotel search data improve as vaccinations in the US progress. Travelers are likely dreaming and planning for summer and holiday trips, and for some destinations, we see travelers already booking summer trips. 

We may also see a shift in the locations travelers choose. The 2021 American Express Travel: Global Travel Trends Report revealed that travelers are interested in visiting lesser-known locations, with 69% of respondents saying they are looking at “second-city” destinations such as Dallas, Texas or Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Traveler confidence continues to improve in the US, with six weeks of steady incline in hotel bookings. Hotel bookings are very close to 2019 pre-pandemic levels, showing a big increase in the second week of March. The American Express survey discovered that travelers are so ready to travel that they’re willing to book immediately and risk needing to cancel at a later date. This is a good reminder for travel marketers to always be in front of those dreamers and planners, as they have a higher propensity to make bookings right away now than they have been throughout the pandemic. 

Flight Search & Booking Growth Not Far Behind 

Airlines would typically be planning for summer 2022 travel (usually setting schedules for a year out), but the pandemic has called for more flexibility, leading the industry to implement a short-term planning model. Airlines are currently looking just three months out, planning for 2021 summer travel. However, good news is on the horizon for several US airlines. Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines are looking to either break even or generate positive cash flow this month after a year of consistent losses–pointing again to a decrease in COVID-19 cases and an increasing number of Americans having received the vaccine.

Passengers at US airports reached the busiest levels in over a year last week. On March 18, 2021, more than 1.4 million people were screened at TSA security checkpoints, the highest daily number since March 15, 2020. However, this is still 45% below 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels.  

This graph shows a 64% increase in US flight searches from the week beginning January 3, 2021. Again, we see the Caribbean trailing just below the US and Canada at 54%. 

US flight searches continue to increase from all origins, indicating strong traveler intent. The increase in flight searches (especially in early March) could be in part due to President Biden’s promise that he plans to have enough vaccines for all Americans by the end of May (two months ahead of schedule). 

While flight bookings show the slowest growth, at just one week of incline, it’s important to note that flight bookings have seen overall consistent growth in recent weeks with minimal declines. With some leaders in the airline industry calling for completely unrestricted travel with proof of vaccination, we should see continued growth in bookings. 

Key Takeaways 

  • US travel is coming back–both hotel and flight searches and bookings show week-over-week increases, with hotel recovery leading the way. 
  • Travelers are willing to book with more immediacy, even for trips further out, and risk cancellation in the future. Some destinations are already seeing improved summer demand indicating this confidence.  
  • As a travel marketer, now is the time to start activating multichannel advertising campaigns. If you can capture the attention of a traveler with engaging ads across a variety of channels, they are more likely to click your ads, go to your website, and book directly with you. 

For the rest of the COVID-19 insights series click here. View more real-time insights on our custom COVID-19 dashboard


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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