- Industry surveys and bookings data show that many Americans are at least as eager as in past years, or even more, to get away for the Labor Day weekend.
- With pandemic news and health recommendations changing daily, some travelers tell industry suppliers they feel this might be their last chance for a real getaway before more lockdowns.
- Beaches, national parks and other outdoor attractions continue to be big draws.
A surge in Covid-19 infections due to the delta variant may be slowing the rebound from the pandemic, but Labor Day travelers looking for a last summer hurrah — and with the shadow of possible future lockdowns on their minds — are eager to hit the road.
That's despite ongoing concerns about Covid-19 and related restrictions such as destination and venue masking and vaccination requirements, recent studies have shown.
To that point, 75% of people queried by travel site The Vacationer and SurveyMonkey on Aug. 1 said coronavirus remained a "slight" or "large" concern, according to co-founder Eric Jones. Still, Jones said he thinks Labor Day travel is up "because people want to make sure they get something in."
"There is talk about new quarantine rules or lockdowns … so some are worried they're not going to get to travel again," added Jones, noting that in an earlier survey this summer.
The Vacationer found 25% of Americans are planning so-called revenge travel. "That's traveling more than they usually do, just because they were bottled up at home," Jones said. "So, I'm guessing that, for Labor Day, this is one of the last opportunities they're going have for that for this summer."
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In fact, The Vacationer's latest survey found more than 53% of 571 people asked plan to travel for the Labor Day holiday, with 4.03% using public transit, 12.08% flying and 36.95% driving. The finding would mean — if extrapolated to the total U.S. population — that 137 million American adults will travel this weekend, according to the site, an increase from July 4 and more than 10% more than the total for Easter and Memorial Day weekends combined.
For its part, Tripadvisor found that just 31% of Americans it surveyed plan to go away this weekend, on par with levels in 2020 (32%) and even 2019 (35%).
Elizabeth Monahan, senior communications manager and U.S. travel expert at the site, said that "in terms of a long weekend, this is pretty consistent." Tripadvisor found that 86% of travelers will stay within the U.S., with 45% traveling locally by car or train and 41% taking domestic flights. Just 14% plan to travel abroad.
Among age cohorts, millennials are the most eager to travel, at 38%, followed by Gen X at 32% and Gen Z at 31%. Older Americans are far less apt to head out this week, with only 13% of baby boomers taking trips.
Millennials, often thought to now be in their 30s and 40s, are more likely to be parents of children who've been schooling at home the past year — perhaps accounting for the demographic's eagerness to get out of the house, noted Monahan.
"This group, in particular, has really been missing out on some of the great memories that you can get through travel and experiencing different parts of the world with those closest to you," she said.
It's not just surveys that show increasing interest in Labor Day travel — it's showing up in hard sales data, too. TripIt from Concur's data analysis showed bookings for domestic flights, car rentals, lodging and vacation rentals were at 53%, 75%, 62% and 46%, respectively, compared to Labor Day 2019. That's up from Memorial Day weekend, when flights were only at 33% of 2019 levels; car rentals and lodgings reservations have also significantly risen since the end of May.
Jen Moyse, senior director of product for TripIt, said the analysis results aren't "a terrific surprise."
"What we have seen in our studies so far is that people are feeling more comfortable traveling and that's reflected in the bookings," she said. "As soon as the vaccines came out, we saw the comfort level grow."
In terms of spending, 39.4% of those asked said they're laying out zero cash this weekend for travel, The Vacationer found. But of those taking a trip, most travelers will spend less than $500, at 37.13%, while 12.08% will spend $501 to $1,000, The Vacationer survey found. Some 11.38%, meanwhile, will spend $1,001 or more. That means nearly 1 in 4 adults will spend in excess of $500 this weekend.
TripIt found travelers are staying longer once away, with lodging reservations for both 8- to 13-day trips and trips of more than 14 days up by a factor of 10 since 2019. Moyse attributes that to people tacking leisure stays onto business trips as well just wanting to stay away longer once they do decide to travel. "If I'm going to get out, I'm going to travel like I mean it," she said.
According to Tripadvisor, flexibility remains important to travelers; filters such as "free cancellation," "pay at stay" and "travel safe" are among the most currently clicked at the site.
"The biggest perk people are looking for is cleanliness but flexibility is also a priority right now," said Monahan. "The more flexibility different hospitality sectors can offer to guests, those are the suppliers that will be winning more business."
They also booked Labor Day weekend flights later this year, with TripIt finding 51% reserving in July, compared to just 18% who did so in 2020. Tripadvisor has also noted a trend toward last-minute booking. The site found 70% of trips booked in the first week of August were for travel within three weeks.
Moyse at TripIt attributed this behavior to people being aware conditions are changing day to day.
"Some of that is about looking at the current conditions, thinking about, 'Am I ready to go? What's it going to be like in that destination?'" said Moyse, pointing as an example to Hawaii, which eased entry restrictions earlier in the summer only to tighten them again.
No getting away from Covid
Three out of 4 of those surveyed by The Vacationer said Covid-19 is a "slight" or "big" concern for Labor Day. Nearly half worry they (at 46.06% ) or a family member or friend (46.76%) might contract Covid, and 37.83% worry they might spread it unknowingly. Mask (28.55%) and testing or vaccine (20.32%) requirements were also matters of concern, whether respondents were for or against such mandates. Only 16.99% had no concerns at all.
Moyse at TripIt said "there's still some nervousness there [and] they're still being careful."
However, that may be due to the surprise rise of the delta variant. "Once the delta variant's been with us a while, it's possible we'll see other answers from people," she added.
"But right now people are learning how to mask, they're learning how to take precautions, they're learning how to plan ahead, and that's some of the advice that we've been giving out frequently," Moyse added. "Think about how to plan your trip a little differently than you did in 2019."
To wit, Tripadvisor has found that beaches and national parks — largely outdoor spaces that became popular amid pandemic lockdowns last year — remain the top searched attractions in August.
"When people are looking to get out and travel, they want to do it safely in places like the outdoors or beaches, or hiking — we even see a lot of interest in even campgrounds," said Monahan. "Places where you can enjoy a beautiful view but also practice social distancing have remained really strong trends and we're seeing that now for the Labor Day weekend, too."
The trend is reflected in how Tripadvisor's top destinations for this Labor Day compare to those in 2019, when more urban spots were popular. This year, Ocean City, Maryland, took top spot, bumping former No. 1 destination Las Vegas to third, and 10 of the top 15 destinations are warm-weather or seaside destinations. Two years ago, by contrast, 10 of 15 top spots were large cities.
That said, don't count the city stay out for good.
"We're starting to see some places like New York and even Chicago start to re-emerge," Monahan said.
The Big Apple, No. 2 in 2019, managed to hang on to fifth place this year, and the Windy City, once sixth-most-popular, retains some appeal at No. 14.