2020 was a year like no other. The first whispers of the coronavirus were heard in the US in mid-January. By March, travel all but came to a halt.
While the pandemic is certainly not over, the development of several vaccines means that we could return to some version of pre-pandemic travel before we get too far into 2021—a possibility giving hope to every traveler who’s itching to get back on the road ASAP.
There are still a lot of unknowns as to when and how travel will rebound over the next several months and years. To get a better idea of what travel could look like in 2021, we surveyed more than 5,800 Scott's Cheap Flights members—and dove deep into our own data—to find out how consumers are traveling (or not) now and how things may change in the coming year.
In this, our second annual Report on the State of Cheap Flights (read the 2020 report here), we’ll look at how consumers are spending on travel, how they choose flights, where they’re going, how much they’re spending to get there, and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their plans both in the past year and for 2021.
Over the spring and summer and into the fall, we began to live with the new normal of coronavirus. Some countries, like Mexico, Turkey, and Costa Rica, began welcoming US citizens again and slowly US passenger numbers began to climb. Scott’s Cheap Flights launched domestic deal alerts and we know many of our members took socially distanced trips within the US.
However, many people opted out of travel entirely.
In last year’s report, 96% of members predicted they would travel internationally in 2020. But the coronavirus upended those predictions and as it turns out, only 32% actually did.
Domestic travel fared a little better, with 79% of respondents taking at least one trip within the US in 2020.
The vast majority (72%) of respondents had at least one 2020 flight canceled due to Covid-19.
Early on, we heard reports that the airlines were not providing cash refunds as required under federal law, and were instead offering vouchers. But, as Scott’s Cheap Flights and other organizations helped inform travelers of their rights, many were able to get cash refunds.
In fact, 45% of respondents took a trip by plane between March and November of 2020, with Delta, Southwest, and American the most commonly flown airlines. Respondents were pretty happy with the experience, too. More than three-quarters (80%) of respondents gave the experience four or five (out of five) stars.
Leading the pack in satisfaction were Delta and Southwest, with 92% of passengers rating the experience four or five stars, followed by Alaska and JetBlue.
As one respondent put it:
“Honestly, the flights I’ve taken with Delta during this pandemic have been the best. So much space, way fewer people, and they actually clean the plane.”
Passengers were most dissatisfied with Spirit, with 47% rating the experience three stars or less, followed by American and Frontier.
The airlines ranked the highest were the ones who implemented safety measures across the board, including mask mandates, blocked seats and capacity limits, and increased sanitization.
We sent 1,640 international deals this year, which is a decrease of about 12% compared to the number of deals we sent to members in 2019. However, early in the pandemic, we made the decision to focus on deals that were at least 3-4 months out and on airlines waiving change fees. There were hundreds of deals that normally would have passed our Bestie Test, but that didn’t meet these requirements and therefore weren’t sent to members.
We said in our 2020 report that we've been in the Golden Age of Cheap Flights for several years now, and that's still true.
The pandemic certainly did affect prices, but it didn’t simply decrease prices across the board. For example, flights to Latin America, the Caribbean, and domestic destinations were, overall, cheaper this past year. On the other hand, deals to Europe were generally more expensive and less prevalent in 2020.
Instead, the pandemic resulted in a big increase in rare, valuable deals (namely, Mistake Fares, when an airline accidentally sells tickets at a huge discount) and deals for peak summer and holiday travel, which are normally the most expensive times to travel. A few examples: $23 roundtrip to Puerto Rico, less than $100 roundtrip nonstop to the Caribbean, and $63 roundtrip nonstop to Chile.
When we look at specific routes, we see that there was no consistent effect on prices. On some routes, we found lower prices in 2020 vs 2019, while on others, the lowest price we found in 2020 was actually higher than the previous year. In short, while prices continue to fluctuate based on a number of factors, overall, 2020's fares proved the Golden Age of Cheap Flights continues.
Last year was a lot of bad news on top of bad news, but as we look towards 2021, travelers are feeling very optimistic, and they have good reason to do so. Here’s how people are thinking about and planning for travel in the coming year.
The majority (84%) of respondents are planning to travel internationally in 2021, and even more (93%) plan to travel domestically.
More than half (61%) said they’re feeling hopeful about travel, and they definitely plan to make up lost time, with 83% of respondents planning to take at least two domestic trips and 44% planning two or more international journeys in 2021. That excitement for travel came through loud and clear in comments from respondents, too.
“I'm more hopeful knowing that vaccines are on the horizon.”
“Even if I'm not on the list for an early dose, knowing that this will change attitudes for travel makes me hopeful.”
“I have a feeling that I'm going to want to plan too many trips for 2021 to both ‘make up’ for missing out on our adventures in 2020, but also because I'm tired of being ‘stuck’ at home and will want to get away.”
Many respondents are looking to travel sooner rather than later in the year, with 42% expecting to take an international trip before the end of May and 67% planning a domestic trip in the same time frame.
While 16% of respondents said they are more interested in international trips in 2021 than domestic, 45% said domestic is of more interest this coming year, and a relatable 39% said they’re excited about both equally.
As in previous years, Europe and Asia top the list of international destinations with 68% (Europe) and 30% (Asia) of respondents indicating plans to visit in 2021. However, many travelers are also eyeing international spots that are less far-flung. Roughly one-quarter of respondents said they plan to visit Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean.
More than two-thirds of respondents say their 2021 international trips will be 7-14 days long and their domestic trips will last 4-8 days. With multiple trips planned for most people, that adds up to a fair chunk of vacation time, but travelers won’t be stressed about pulling it off.
In fact, 59% of respondents say they are carrying over at least one vacation day, with 41% carrying over more than one work week. For three-quarters of respondents, that means they’ll have more than three weeks of vacation time available for 2021 and more than half (66%) intend to use it all.
Travelers have saved their money too, with 54% estimating they saved at least $2,000 by not taking their planned trips in 2020. Of those who saved in 2020, more than two-thirds of people (66%) said they plan to use that money for travel in 2021; 74% will spend more than $2,500 on international trips and 41% expect to spend at least the same on domestic trips in 2021.
Over the summer of 2020, interest in national parks trips, camping, and road trips surged and while there’s still interest in those types of trips for 2021, more than half of respondents plan to visit large cities—both in the US and abroad.
Domestically, people are understandably most interested in visiting family and friends IRL after a year of doing so only via Zoom. Trips to large cities, national parks, beaches, and road trips ranked close behind. “Going to be doing a lot of road trips,” one respondent told us.
“Bought a new car for this reason. Still very interested in flying as #1 mode for transportation, but there are a lot of 2021 domestic road trips planned.”
While fewer than half (44%) of respondents reported feeling a great deal or extremely worried about Covid impacting their future travel plans, many aren’t ready to book just yet. Only 15% of respondents have purchased tickets for domestic travel in 2021 since the pandemic began and even fewer (10%) have purchased flights for international trips.
That hasn’t stopped people from dreaming and researching, though, as comments from respondents made clear.
“Being unable to travel has made me start planning my bucket list for the future (2022 and beyond)”
“We're going to start planning, because we find the planning about as much fun as the trip itself.”
While respondents certainly haven’t lost their love of travel, their approach to travel has shifted due to the coronavirus. Here’s how people are adjusting their travel plans as a result of the pandemic.
More than one-third (35%) of respondents said that as a result of the pandemic they feel travel is more important to their happiness.
“I didn't realize how frustrated and angry I'd get as each trip got canceled. I also didn't realize how depressed I'd get without knowing I had a trip to look forward to,” said one respondent. Another expressed,
“While I’ve always valued international travel, it has never been more evident how critical it is to my happiness. I deeply hope we’ll be able to interact with the rest of the world in 2021.”
Surprisingly, 6% of people said travel is now less important to their happiness—perhaps they discovered a love of baking or puzzling that makes them just as happy. Overall, travel remains very important to most, with 83% of respondents saying it’s critical or highly important, and only 2% saying travel is unimportant to their happiness.
Respondents indicated that Covid will impact not only where they go, but how they get there, where they stay, what they do on their trip, and who they travel with.
More than half (56%) of respondents said price is the determining factor when choosing flights, but 10% indicated that Covid safety and travel flexibility are now the most important factor. Among those who said Covid-19 safety protocols where the top consideration, mask requirements and free changes are the priority.
When it comes to choosing where to go, flight deals are the main deciding factor, but Covid will play a role here as well. One-fifth (20%) of respondents said they’ll pick places with low Covid numbers and good safety measures and 17% said they’ll choose places that make it easy to social distance.
Respondents showed a preference for outdoor activities, with nearly double the amount of travelers planning to engage in outdoor dining or cultural events versus indoor ones.
There’s a slight preference for more socially distant accommodations, too, with 34% of respondents opting mostly for Airbnbs, cabins, and home rentals compared to 31% preferring mostly hotels and resorts.
Finally, while a little more than half (57%) of respondents with kids said Covid-19 hasn’t changed the way they think about traveling with their children, 43% plan to make modifications to their usual travel style in 2021, and 13% even said they are less likely to travel with their kids this year.
“I'm more likely to stay at a high-end hotel with strict cleanliness guidelines and conveniences than I was before COVID.”
“I'm not as adventure-seeking with my child as I was before. Now I just want things to be reliable, predictable, and easy.”
Almost all (95%) of respondents will take precautions to stop the spread of Covid on their 2021 travels, with 82% planning to wear a mask, and more than half getting tested for coronavirus before and/or after their trip.
One respondent said,
”I want to be safe and not spread Covid, so I'll be taking as many precautions as possible, and will move my trips if necessary.”
Only 5% of respondents said they would not visit a country that required a negative coronavirus test before entry, and 13% said they would not visit a country that required proof of vaccination to enter.
The same amount (13%) said they do not plan to get vaccinated against Covid in 2021, while 74% said they will definitely take the vaccine, when available.
2021 will be a big year for travel—so long as it’s safe.
Travel may have taken a backseat in 2020, but travelers’ collective wanderlust is still front and center. People are excited to get back out there in 2021, and they’re hopeful they’ll be able to do so safely. The vast majority expect to travel both domestically and internationally in 2021.
Covid’s impact extends to travelers’ choices.
Many travelers are making small adjustments to their travel plans in 2021 and some are choosing locations with Covid safety in mind. But not everything has changed. Price still plays the biggest factor in where people go and why they choose flights, along with recommendations from family and friends.
The deals will keep on coming.
While the pandemic did bring about a decrease in prices on many flights, it didn’t lower prices on all flights or for all routes or destinations. The real story is much more complex. We saw prices fall for some routes and travel times (summer, the holidays), we saw more Mistake Fares, and for some destinations, we even saw prices go up. Despite those fluctuations, we’re still living in the Golden Age of Cheap Flights—and we don’t expect that to change anytime soon. In fact, in the first few weeks of 2021 we've already sent some incredible deals to our 2+ million members.
Since 2015, Scott's Cheap Flights has helped members make their travel dreams come true. Our Flight Experts search thousands of flights every day to discover flight deals and Mistake Fares and email them to our 2+ million members, saving them $550 per ticket on average.