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Holiday Travel Up 43% From 2020, and Americans Are More Likely to Fly

Holiday Travel Up 43% From 2020, and Americans Are More Likely to Fly

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About 1 in 4 holiday travelers opened a new travel credit card to maximize rewards for their trip
Masked family walking thru airport
Masked family walking thru airport Source: Getty Images

More Americans are gearing up for holiday travel plans than last year — 43% more — including a higher percentage who will be flying, according to a Value Penguin survey of 2,050 consumers.

The survey also found that, with higher vaccination rates, people are venturing out to see friends and loved ones for the December holidays and are expecting to spend more than $2,100 on average to do so. The good news is that nearly 1 in 4 holiday travelers are offsetting their costs with a new travel credit card, while 1 in 5 are using a travel card they already hold.

See what other travel plans are in the works for Americans this year.

Key findings

  • Holiday travel is up 43% compared to last year, and consumers are more likely to fly. A third of Americans have December travel plans, compared with 23% in 2020. Of those traveling, 36% will fly, up from 32% last season.
  • More than half (52%) of holiday travelers think it’s at least somewhat likely they’ll incur debt from their trip. On average, those traveling for the December holidays will spend more than $2,100.
  • About 1 in 4 (24%) holiday travelers opened a new travel credit card to maximize rewards for their trip. A further 20% used an existing travel credit card to earn points or miles.
  • Fewer travelers purchased travel insurance for their December trip. This year, 29% bought insurance, down from 50% in 2020. An additional 22% say their credit card provides travel insurance.
  • Half of Americans (51%) say the coronavirus pandemic factored into this year’s holiday travel plans. Notably, 17% got vaccinated in order to travel and 14% received a booster shot to feel even safer.

Big jump in December holiday travel

Last year, just 23% of Americans had holiday travel plans amid the pandemic, but this year, 1 in 3 said they are heading out of town — a 43% increase. The groups most likely to be traveling include:

  • Gen Zers (48%) and millennials (49%)
  • Parents with kids under 18 (48%)
  • Those with higher income levels (53% of those in the $75,000 to $99,000 range and 51% of those making more than $100,000).

"It’s unsurprising that more people are flying this year than last year, as many people are vaccinated and feeling more comfortable traveling again," says Sophia Mendel, travel writer at ValuePenguin.

Since the largest factors affecting travel right now will be affordability and potential health risk, it makes sense that Gen Zers and millennials (who tend to be at a lower risk for COVID-19 complications) and higher income earners have made travel plans, says Mendel. The same is true for parents with kids under 18, now that younger children have been approved for the vaccine.

holiday travel 2021 2020

While the majority of people (54%) will be hitting the road in their own cars, there is an uptick in the number of people who plan to get to their destination by plane (36% this year, compared with 32% in 2020).

That makes sense, since 58% of travelers are heading out of state (up from 41% in 2020), and 6% are taking international trips. Just about half of travelers plan to stay with friends or family when they arrive, while 30% will stay in a hotel and 11% have chosen a vacation rental.

Pandemic remains a factor in holiday plans

More than half of Americans said the pandemic factored into their December holiday plans in some way. Among them, around 3 in 10 went for a jab (17% for the initial vaccine and 14% for a booster shot) to feel safer traveling. But 13% of Americans said they’re still not comfortable traveling, while about 7% are choosing to stay within driving distance for the same reason.

"While there has been much progress, the pandemic is still playing a significant role in travel," says Mendel, "especially with the appearance of new COVID variants."

Holiday travelers expect to spend $2,000+

December holiday travel doesn’t come cheap once you factor in transportation, lodging, food and any other money spent at or on the way to the destination. This year, Americans expect their trips to cost an average of $2,153. For parents with kids under 18, the price tag will come in higher — averaging $3,113 — most likely due to the cost of additional plane tickets.

holiday travel avg spend

To cover travel expenses, more than half of consumers (52%) said it’s at least somewhat likely they’ll incur some debt — and that percentage climbs to 63% for parents with kids under 18, who are spending more.

"There are often unexpected expenses that arise, whether it be holiday gifts, travel souvenirs, expensive meals, or anything else, which can cause travelers to go into debt during their vacation — especially for families traveling with children," says Mendel. She recommends saving and budgeting more than you think you’ll need ahead of time, so you won’t still be paying off your holiday debt next summer.

Regardless of their travel plans, 40% of Americans say cost is the most important factor when determining their December plans.

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Travelers turn to rewards credit cards to maximize spend

To help offset some of their travel costs, Americans are either cashing in on travel rewards earned on their credit cards (29%) or using up their points and miles balances from loyalty programs (11%). About 1 in 5 are using a combination of both.

"I would 100% recommend using a travel rewards card, as well as points and miles, to fund your holiday travel," says Mendel. "Doing this can save you tons of money on your trip, from flights and hotels to rental cars, cruises and even travel insurance."

As for future earnings, 24% of respondents overall (and 31% of Gen Z) said they opened a new travel credit card specifically to earn points and miles on this year’s upcoming holiday travel. Another 20% of travelers will earn them by using a travel card they already have in their wallet for their trip, while 9% won’t use a travel-specific card, but will earn miles through a frequent flyer program.

Unfortunately, 47% of travelers are missing out on travel rewards by not paying for their trips with a travel credit card or using a frequent flyer number. Baby boomers (76%) and women (56%) are the groups most likely to leave potential rewards on the table.

"It’s never too late to sign up for a travel rewards program or open a rewards credit card," says Mendel. "The best part about joining a frequent flyer program and using a rewards card is that you earn points on the money you would be spending anyway, and in time, you’ll be able to use those points for a completely or mostly free trip."

holiday earn points miles

Travel insurance a key benefit for some credit cardholders

Fewer travelers (29%) purchased travel insurance for their December holiday trips this year, down from 50% in 2020. More younger travelers are insuring their trips than older ones: 35% each of Gen Zers and Millennials versus just 16% of Gen Xers and 11% of Boomers.

A good portion of travelers — 22% — said they get travel insurance through their credit cards (a key benefit of some cards) and therefore didn’t need to purchase an extra policy. Still, 29% of respondents said they didn’t purchase a policy despite being unsure if their credit card offers it.

"I would always recommend making sure you have some type of travel insurance to cover your trip, especially while the pandemic is still largely in effect," says Mendel. Just be sure to read the fine print if you’re relying on your card’s coverage and make sure to purchase your entire trip using that card.

holiday travel insurance

4 holiday travel tips

With more people heading out for the 2021 holiday season, remember that it’s still a complex travel year. Here are some strategies to enjoy and afford your trip.

  1. Build in extra travel time. With more people traveling and labor shortages, expect some delays. "It’s essential to arrive at the airport early and create a flexible schedule for your trip," says Mendel. Plus, she adds, in these uncertain times, it’s best to make sure your travel plans are insured and refundable, just in case.
  2. Book with rewards. If you have points and miles stockpiled from your airline credit cards or other travel programs, cash them in. "It can leave you some extra spending money for your vacation," says Mendel.
  3. Have a testing plan. "It’s imperative to do your research on the COVID-19 regulations in your destination and what’s required to return home," says Mendel, including what type of testing is required and when and how often you’ll need to be tested.
  4. Consider opening a travel rewards card and signing up for loyalty programs. "The sooner you open a travel rewards card and start spending on it, the quicker you will rack up points and miles to be used towards your next trip," says Mendel. As for airline and hotel loyalty programs, most are free to join, so take a moment to sign up so you can start racking up points and miles.

Methodology

ValuePenguin commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 2,050 U.S. consumers from Nov. 9 to Nov. 15, 2021. The survey was administered using a nonprobability-based sample, and quotas were used to ensure the sample base represented the overall population. All responses were reviewed by researchers for quality control.

We defined generations as the following ages in 2021:

  • Generation Z: 18 to 24
  • Millennial: 25 to 40
  • Generation X: 41 to 55
  • Baby boomer: 56 to 75

While the survey also included consumers from the silent generation (those 76 and older), the sample size was too small to include findings related to that group in the generational breakdowns.