Concerns Over Breakthrough Cases, Unvaccinated Family Members Are Complicating Holiday Travel Forecasting

Holiday travel will see an uptick from 2020, writes travel and hospitality analyst Lindsey Roeschke, but many travelers are ready to reconsider their plans if pandemic conditions change
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Natalie White
November 04, 2021 at 12:01 am UTC

Holiday travel is poised to rebound compared with last year, but even those who plan on traveling are prepared to shift or cancel their plans due to COVID-19-related factors, making travel predictions tricky.

Travel brands can look forward to a busier holiday season this year than in 2020, but — similar to the latest Thanksgiving outlook — there won’t be a return to pre-pandemic levels. More than half of Americans agree that they’ll be traveling less in 2021 than in a typical year. COVID-19 remains a major factor in planning, even among the fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 is still a concern for travelers, who are open to adjusting their plans as circumstances change

A decline in COVID-19 cases and the widespread availability of vaccines will make this holiday season look much different than 2020, but the pandemic is still impacting the way consumers will plan and act throughout the holidays. Concerns over breakthrough cases and tensions over mixed vaccination statuses among extended family members are shaping 2021’s holiday season.

While only 7 percent of people surveyed are going fully virtual for their celebrations, 28 percent of those planning to travel will wear a mask during in-person gatherings, and more than 1 in 5 travelers said they got vaccinated specifically to see family and friends this holiday season.

One-Third of Holiday Travelers Would Cancel Their Plans Over a Positive COVID-19 Test

Respondents who plan to travel over the holiday season were asked how their plans would change under the following circumstances:
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Poll conducted Oct. 21-24, 2021, among 2,200 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of +/-2%.

Notably for the travel industry, there are multiple scenarios consumers may face in 2021 that would result in a change in their travel plans, making forecasting particularly tricky. At least five different scenarios would trigger a change by at least two-thirds of holiday travelers. The most disruptive event is a positive COVID-19 test from someone a traveler is expecting to spend time with over the holidays, which would prompt nearly a third of respondents to completely abandon their plans.

Inoculated individuals are more likely than their unvaccinated counterparts to adjust their plans for almost all scenarios, suggesting that vaccination doesn’t automatically confer comfort for travelers.

The increased potential for disruption is prompting many to consider travel insurance. In a typical year, 38 percent of Americans buy travel insurance, but this year 52 percent have either purchased insurance or are considering it for their holiday travels.

Past holiday travel is the best predictor of 2021 plans

The strongest indicator of whether someone will travel over the holiday season this year is perhaps the most obvious: past behavior. There will be few new holiday travelers in 2021.

Among those who always traveled for Thanksgiving before the pandemic, 62 percent will do the same this year, and of those who always traveled over winter holidays in the past, 64 percent will in 2021.

The similarity in these findings suggests that Americans are not putting off Thanksgiving travel in favor of a December trip, as some might have hoped after seeing numbers predicting a Thanksgiving downturn. Rather, the cutback will impact travel across the entire holiday season. Moreover, the industry shouldn’t expect many first-time holiday travelers this year. Among those who never traveled for the holidays in the past, less than 5 percent say they will do so this year.

Who’s Traveling This Holiday Season?

Share of adults who say they will or might travel during the 2021 holiday season
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Poll conducted Oct. 21-24, 2021, among 2,200 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of +/-2%.

The decline in travel is mostly consistent across demographics. As in pre-pandemic years, millennials are the generation most likely to travel during the 2021 holiday season, followed by Gen Xers and baby boomers — but it’s worth noting that the decline is slightly higher for the latter group.

While a higher level of concern given the outsize impact of COVID-19 on older people may be one explanation for this, it’s also important to consider that, as boomers age, they may feel less inclined to travel at all, given potential physical impediments and general health concerns. In short, even with a full rebound in the 2022 holiday season, we may never see baby boomers traveling at the same rate they did in 2019.

As for this year, baby boomers are the generation least likely to be considering purchasing travel insurance, but they’re also the most likely to cancel a trip due to changing circumstances. A change of plans without insurance could result in consumer frustration and anger toward the travel provider. Offering a way to guarantee a traveler’s investment against these scenarios when booking might help companies avoid tension and demonstrate empathy for travelers — especially boomers, who are most likely to experience major disruptions without coverage.

Lindsey Roeschke is a travel & hospitality analyst. Lindsey’s work focuses on behavior and expectations in travel (among other categories), particularly through a generational and cultural lens. In addition to her research and advisory background, Lindsey has more than a decade of experience in the advertising world.
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