Dubbed the year of revenge travel, 2021 saw a significant increase in Americans traveling by plane. U.S. airlines carried 674 million passengers in 2021, 82.5% more than in 2020 (369 million) but 27.3% less than in 2019 (927 million), according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).
With the summer travel season here, optimism for a rebound is high. In fact, 45% of Americans are planning to travel more in 2022 than last year, according to a recent ValuePenguin survey.
To get a glimpse into what travel trends may reemerge this summer, ValuePenguin analyzed 2021 BTS data from the 100 largest airports in the U.S. This study covers which airports saw the most significant increases in travelers during the summer compared to the rest of the year — and how often they saw delays.
- Across the 100 largest airports in the U.S., average passenger arrivals were 39% higher last summer compared to the rest of the year. Overall, 97 of the 100 airports analyzed saw stronger June, July and August 2021 arrivals than the other nine months.
- While generally expected, some popular summer destinations saw more than double the number of arrivals. Myrtle Beach, S.C. — known for its beaches and golf courses — registered a 147% increase in passenger arrivals in summer 2021 compared to the rest of the year, top among the 100 airports. Airports in Florida, Alaska and Maine also saw increases of at least 100%.
- Just three airports saw a summertime drop in arriving passengers. The Palm Springs, Calif., airport saw the biggest summertime dip in 2021, with a 32% decrease in arrivals compared to the rest of the year. Two Florida airports — in Fort Myers and West Palm Beach — joined Palm Springs as the others with summer slumps in 2021.
- Among the 10 airports with the biggest jumps in summertime arrivals, Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport in northwestern Florida had the highest percentage of flight delays during that time of year. An average of 32% of arrivals at the Florida airport — which neighbors Valparaiso — during summer 2021 were delayed at least 15 minutes.
Across most of the largest U.S. airports, travel boomed last summer
Using 2021 BTS data, ValuePenguin researchers determined the number of monthly arriving passengers for the 100 largest U.S. airports. We then compared average passenger arrivals during June, July and August to the average for the other nine months.
The summer season in the U.S. is unofficially considered to begin on Memorial Day weekend (the last weekend in May) and end on Labor Day (the first Monday in September). However, for this study, ValuePenguin researchers defined summer as June, July and August, aligning with the commonly held belief that summer is the season with the longest days of the year.
Among the 100 largest airports last year, airport arrivals jumped 39% in the summer months compared to the rest of the year. In fact, almost every airport analyzed — 97 out of 100 — experienced an increase in passenger arrivals last summer.
Historically, summer is the most popular season for travel. Sophia Mendel, ValuePenguin credit cards and travel rewards expert, says the reasons for this include school vacations, nice weather and lighter workloads.
Visitors flocked to popular destinations
Given that summer is the season of sunny skies and warm weather, it’s no surprise that seven of the 10 airports that saw the biggest summertime travel jumps were near popular beach destinations. Hawaii and Florida were particularly popular, taking six of the top 10 slots.
Ultimately, though, Myrtle Beach International Airport in South Carolina finished No. 1, with a 147% increase in arriving passengers.
Investments in tourism, combined with a lack of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, may have played a role in Myrtle Beach’s high ranking. The South Carolina city committed to renovations, new attractions and expanded events in 2021. Additionally, it eliminated capacity limits at city buildings in May before the summer travel season began.
Just three other airports saw more than double the number of arrivals in the summer compared to the rest of the year:
- Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport within Eglin Air Force Base in Florida (122%)
- Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska (114%)
- Portland International Jetport in Maine (104%)
While these three may not be the first that come to mind when thinking of summer vacations, their popularity might not be much of a surprise amid last year’s desire to avoid congested cities.
Smaller coastal cities like Portland, Maine, and Valparaiso, Fla. (the city that is closest to Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport) may have been particularly appealing alternatives for travelers looking to enjoy the beach while avoiding crowds. And because outdoor recreation was another popular alternative to city travel, Anchorage’s stunning wildlife and national parks likely attracted more attention.
The Anchorage airport appeared prominently in a January 2022 ValuePenguin study, ranking eighth among airports where airfare hadn’t yet caught up to pre-pandemic trends. The study examined where average airfare was lowest (or highest) in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, before the pandemic. However, the study also found Kahului Airport in Hawaii (No. 10 in this analysis) as one of only two airports with higher average fares.
Bozeman, Mont., known for its accessibility to Yellowstone National Park, was also a popular location for outdoor getaways last summer. With a 92% increase in passengers over the summer compared to the rest of the year, it came in fifth on the list.
Only 3 airports saw fewer summer arrivals
Not every airport had a summer boom. Of the three airports that dipped in popularity, Palm Springs International Airport in California ranked lowest, with a 32% decrease in arrivals last summer.
Location may have been a factor as Los Angeles — which saw a 44% increase in passengers — was likely a more popular choice for travelers. Los Angeles’ summers are typically milder than its desert neighbor.
Additionally, Palm Springs had a particularly hot and arid summer last year, experiencing record-high temperatures in July 2021, according to the National Weather Service.
The other two destinations that had a summer slump were in Florida. Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers experienced a 14% decrease, while Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach experienced a 4% decrease.
Both airports are in southern Florida, a region known for its year-round tropical weather, so these destinations likely see a more consistent number of travelers throughout the year.
Comparatively, three northwestern Florida airports ranked in the top 20. That particular region of Florida typically sees colder winters, so travelers may have been more attracted to the Florida destinations where the weather is warmest during the summer.
U.S. airports that saw the largest summertime increases in arrivals in 2021
Average number of monthly arriving passengers (summer)
Average number of monthly arriving passengers (rest of year)
% increase in summer
|1||Myrtle Beach International||Myrtle Beach, SC||241,848||98,071||147%|
|2||Destin-Fort Walton Beach||Eglin Air Force Base, FL||140,141||63,234||122%|
|3||Ted Stevens Anchorage International||Anchorage, AK||299,285||140,028||114%|
|4||Portland International Jetport||Portland, ME||114,812||56,378||104%|
|5||Bozeman Yellowstone International||Belgrade, MT||126,946||66,016||92%|
|7||Northwest Florida Beaches International||Panama City, FL||96,214||58,225||65%|
|8||Pensacola International||Pensacola, FL||137,827||84,779||63%|
|9||Daniel K. Inouye International||Honolulu, HI||669,045||416,086||61%|
|11||Seattle-Tacoma International||Seattle, WA||1,905,577||1,213,204||57%|
|12||Orlando Sanford International||Sanford, FL||133,533||87,083||53%|
Source: ValuePenguin analysis of 2021 U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data. Note: For spacing, airport was omitted in this chart when it was the last word.
Which airports with the biggest summertime jumps experienced the most delays?
If summer 2021 trends continue, you might want to get travel insurance if you’ve got a layover in the Florida destinations on the top 10 list.
All three Florida airports that experienced the biggest jump in summer arrivals — Destin-Fort Walton, Northwest Florida Beaches and Pensacola — ranked highest for delays among the top 10, averaging 30% for flights delayed at least 15 minutes. Breaking that down:
- Destin-Fort Walton Beach: 32% of flights last June, July and August had delays (tied for eighth among the 100 airports examined)
- Northwest Florida Beaches: 29% of flights had delays (tied for 21st)
- Pensacola: 27% of flights had delays (tied for 36th)
Hawaii, on the other hand, may be the best destination to fly into this summer. All three Hawaii airports on the top 10 list had the lowest percentage of flights with delays during summer 2021. Combined, their average delays (15%) were half that of the Florida airports listed above. Here’s a further breakdown:
- Lihui: 12% of flights had delays (100th among the 100 airports examined)
- Daniel K. Inouye: 14% of flights had delays (tied for 98th)
- Kahului: 19% of flights had delays (tied for 90th)
Myrtle Beach, S.C. — which saw the biggest jump in popularity last summer — was middle of the road among delays. It ranked fourth among the top 10 and tied for 50th overall for average delays over the summer (26% of its arriving flights).
Using the same list of 100 airports, here’s a look at where they ranked (from worst to best) by their average percentage of flights delayed by at least 15 minutes last June, July and August:
Airports where summertime delays were more common in 2021
Average percentage of flights delayed in summer months
|1||St. Pete-Clearwater International||45%|
|3||Orlando Sanford International||43%|
|5||El Paso International||34%|
|6||Dallas Love Field||33%|
|6||Luis Muñoz Marín International||33%|
|8||Destin-Fort Walton Beach||32%|
|8||Albuquerque International Sunport||32%|
Source: ValuePenguin analysis of 2021 BTS data. Note: For spacing, airport was omitted in this chart when it was the last word.
Tips for traveling this summer
If you’re worried about flying during this busy travel season, Mendel shares these tips to make your journey as worry-free as possible:
- Opt for direct flights. If that’s not possible, be generous with the time between your layovers. With more people traveling this summer than in the past two years and labor shortages across most airlines, Mendel expects long lines, flight delays and cancellations. The more flexible you can be with your travel plans, the better.
- Avoid checking bags. Carrying your luggage on board can help you adapt, Mendel advises, particularly if you experience a significant flight delay or cancellation.
- Check the benefits that your travel rewards credit cards offer. Depending on the card, Mendel says, you may be able to take advantage of airport perks like Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, making the travel process smoother. Many travel cards also come with varying amounts of travel insurance, offering peace of mind while traveling.
- Consider getting travel health insurance. "Proper travel health insurance can come in handy in case of emergency or illness while traveling and can save you thousands of dollars in medical expenses," Mendel says. And amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, she recommends checking that your chosen travel insurance plan explicitly covers pandemic complications.
ValuePenguin researchers analyzed 2021 U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data to determine the number of monthly arriving passengers for the 100 largest U.S. airports.
We then compared average passenger arrivals during June, July and August to the average for the other nine months. We ranked the airports from highest to lowest based on the percentage change between the summer and other months.
We also analyzed 2021 data on arrival delays — flights delayed by at least 15 minutes. We looked at the same June, July and August period.