By Cortney Fries
Over a year after the global pandemic was declared, many Americans are itching to get out of their homes and explore. As vaccines become more widely available and the nation progresses to our new normal, optimism and travel planning are increasing. According to the latest Longwoods International study tracking American travelers, 84 percent have plans to travel in the next six months. Travel industry experts and three Carolinas-based AAA Travel Agents provide insights on summer travel trends and beyond.
Vaxications on the Books
Americans who have received their shots, and those who plan to, are booking celebratory vacations, coined “vaxications.” With this light at the end of the tunnel, many are excited to book travel when and where possible. “Guests are hopeful to travel to Europe,” says Melissa da Silva, President of Trafalgar Tours USA, “with 64 percent of bookings set to depart in summer.” Countries with high interest include the UK, Ireland and Italy. The U.S. is the next big destination for Trafalgar clients, and September is the heaviest booked travel month this year.
Revenge Travel on the Rise
After a year of feeling pent-up, travel enthusiasts want to catch up on missed opportunities by scheduling bucket list trips. “Oceania’s 180-day world cruise for 2023 sold out in hours!” says Henry Dennis, AAA Travel Agent in Charlotte. “You never know if or when you’ll have the chance to go again, so now’s the time!” Several AAA Travel Agents in the Carolinas noted clients planning two or more trips, back-to-back vacations and increased spending more per trip.
Looking Forward to Cruising Again
While cruise schedules are gradually being pushed out while CDC guidance is awaited, cruise enthusiasts are anxious to get back out on the high seas. Canada has extended its ban on cruise ships through February 2022, putting popular summer Alaska cruises on hold for another year. However, Mary Nelson, AAA Travel Agent out of Myrtle Beach notes that river and ocean cruise openings for 2022 will soon be gone.
Domestic Drive Trips in Demand
Drives within 6-8 hours of home seem to be what most AAA clients from the Carolinas are planning for this summer. Dennis notes that many clients seem comfortable with long weekends in old standbys like Hilton Head, Charleston, Asheville, Savannah or Gatlinburg. “Greenville is popping up on a lot of people’s lists, as are Atlanta and Columbia,” he says.
Eating Up National Parks and Nature
With the increased desire to get outdoors, travelers continue to seek the national parks for relaxation and revitalization. Nelson says her clients are most interested in the national parks of the west. “Bryce Canyon and Zion in Utah, as well as Yellowstone in Wyoming are at the top of their lists,” she says.
“Travelers are also seeking unique outdoor recreation activities, such as horseback riding and aerial trams in Jackson Hole or the Yellowstone Circle of Fire Tour,” says Nancy Sample, Myrtle Beach-based AAA Drive Specialist. However, Sample warns that 2021 is not the year to wing it. “Make reservations in advance,” she says. “Don’t take chances, because you don’t want to get out to the national parks and not have a place to stay or not like the price.”
Social Distancing on the Beach
A week at the beach can be a coveted vacation, especially in this social distancing era. Trafalgar notes off-the-charts interest in Hawaii, which has very set COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing in place. Many resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean offer COVID testing on site. AAA travel agents from the Carolinas note Florida as a popular destination for week-long beach trips.
Dreaming of Theme Parks
Disney and Universal theme parks have gradually been able to successfully increase capacity, and park hopping was reintroduced in January 2021. However, dining plans are not yet available for summer. “People want to go,” says Dennis. “I can help clients understand how their experience would be affected and they can decide if it’s worth it for them to go at this time.”
Nelson notes the relative ease of getting to Disney with a direct flight or drive. However, she says it’s very important to book early as reservations fill up.
Educational and Historical Itineraries
As travelers have stayed closer to home and kids have learned remotely, da Silva notes an increased interest in adding educational or historical elements to itineraries. “Families are looking to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as the Wild West to learn about the Native American experience,” she says. Trafalgar’s Southwest Native Trails Small Group Adventure tours five Native American reservations and features local guides who explain the ways of life. “You get a peek into what those societies were like previously,” says da Silva. “It’s phenomenal how advanced some tribes were.”
Mixing It Up with Rental Cars and RVs
As driving trips increase in popularity, so do desires to rent different vehicles for comfort or a change of pace. Sample notes that many clients have expressed interest in renting cars from Hertz or RVs from Cruise America. “Harvest Hosts is a great way to see more of the country,” says Sample. ” You can park your RV at a winery for free and help pick grapes or at a farm and help pick strawberries.” Sounds like a great opportunity to get outdoors, meet new people and make some great memories.
Travel Agents More Important Than Ever
Navigating the new normal, figuring out restrictions and changing requirements can be stressful, especially when you’re seeking a vacation to relax. Travel agents can help you understand requirements, restrictions and cancellation policies, such as if you can get a refund versus a travel credit, when you can use it and how. “Don’t stop dreaming,” says Dennis. “Plan vacations but have patience and be flexible as situations can change and adjustments could need to be made.”
Focus on Well-Being
As we prepare for the return to travel, da Silva says guest well-being is at the forefront for Trafalgar. They have hired well-being directors, whose entire roll is to answer questions regarding protocols as they change from city to city and to ensure that hotels, restaurants and activities planned for the trip are in compliance. “We don’t want guests to be uncomfortable or to think about those extra steps. Their only worry should be about having a good time,” says da Silva.
Fall and 2022 Travel Even More Optimistic
Steve Perillo of Perillo Tours, which provides escorted, private and custom tours of Italy, Hawaii and Spain, plans for 2022 to be especially big as vaccines roll out and restrictions are removed. “Rest assured that cancellation policies will be very leisurely,” says Perillo. “If you cancel up to 30 days before your trip, you get every penny back. Otherwise, you can rebook.”
Perillo and other AAA travel partners are doing their best to innovatively respond to clients’ changing desires with ideas such as small group vacations so that you can travel in your own bubble. Perillo himself can’t wait for their summer departure to Hawaii. “When they open the plane doors and you get that first blast of warm, sweet, floral air,” he says, “It’s heaven.”