How will Summer 2021 Stack Up to Years Past? - When to Book, What to Expect for Airfare Prices & Trending Destinations

With the promise of enough vaccines available by end of May, Americans are hopeful they’ll be able to take that long awaited summer vacation they’ve been dreaming of.

Adit Damodaran - Mar. 16, 2021

With the promise of enough vaccines available to inoculate all U.S adults by the end of May and President Biden aiming for July 4th to be back to “normal”, Americans are hopeful they’ll be able to take that long awaited summer vacation they’ve been dreaming of.

When it comes to summer travel, what can consumers expect in the coming months as vaccinations ramp up this spring -- and for those planning to get away, what will airfare and hotel prices look like and when should travelers book?

The research team at travel booking app, Hopper analyzed their database of over 30 billion daily airfare price quotes from flight searches happening all across the web to forecast airfare pricing trends for summer 2021 and what to expect for travel demand.

Summer travel is already heating up

Domestic flight searches surged 58% for summer 2021 over the past month, surpassing 2019 levels. 

Domestic searches for flights departing between June 1st and August 31st (Summer Travel), broken out by year

The rate of increase in search demand for summer 2021 flights between February 20th and March 2nd was comparable to something we last saw in January 2020. Searches for domestic summer flights surpassed 2019 volume on February 25th, and have since risen an additional 22%.

International searches for summer 2021 have increased 51% since Feb. 20th, but still lag behind 2019 levels.

International searches for flights departing between June 1st and August 31st (Summer Travel), broken out by year

Searches for international summer flights still lag 2019 levels and 2020 pre-pandemic levels. Search traffic for international summer departures was about 45% of 2019 levels as we entered March 2021, which was an improvement from 36% in February 2021, but still well below the pre-pandemic baseline.

This suggests while sentiment around international summer travel is improving, we likely will see a much longer recovery time horizon relative to domestic travel. 

Americans Eyeing the July 4th Holiday

Domestic searches for July 4th weekend specifically increased 63% following Biden’s announcement in early March that there would be enough vaccine supply by May for all adult Americans. Likewise, international flight searches for July 4th weekend have increased 39% since the announcement.

Flight searches for July 4th Weekend, broken out by Domestic/International

Domestic searches account for 66% of current summer 2021 search traffic

Hopper expects domestic flights to make up the majority of summer 2021 travel. In January 2020, pre-pandemic, domestic and international search traffic were approximately even, at about 52% and 48% respectively. However, currently domestic searches make up 66% of summer search traffic and international travel only represents 34%.

Figure 5: The share of domestic and international searches in overall search traffic, by month since Jan 2020.

Which destinations are trending for Summer 2021?

Outdoor-focused destinations rise to the top of the list for domestic travel

Early search traffic signals suggest the cities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to economies centered around tourism may also be the ones leading the recovery. Orlando, Las Vegas, and Miami led the country in major metro areas seeing the steepest declines in nightly hotel prices (-41%, -51%, and -65%) respectively. These cities also all appear on the Top 10 list of cities that trended up the most in searches in the past two weeks.

Aside from the former tourist hubs, warm sunny beaches seem to be on travelers’ minds, whether in Florida, South Carolina, or Hawaii. Kalispell, Montana also breaks into the Top 10. Kalispell is a gateway airport to nearby Glacier National Park, where the Going to the Sun Road opens up for the summer, but is often otherwise closed due to wintry conditions.

Top trending domestic destinations for summer 2021

The Caribbean and Mexico lead international searches for summer 2021

With COVID-19 travel restrictions still in place across much of Europe and Canada, it’s the beach towns in the Caribbean and Mexico that have attracted most of the interest in summer 2021 travel. They account for 9 of the 10 destinations on this list.

Top trending international destinations for summer 2021

What will airfare prices look like for summer 2021? 

Domestic airfare will rise in early May, increasing 12% leading into summer months.

According to Hopper’s latest data, the current average good deal price for domestic flights is $230 round-trip. Prices have already spiked 8% in the first week of March from $213 to $230 upon higher demand for domestic flights. $230 is down 21% from March 2019 domestic airfare ($291/roundtrip).

Hopper anticipates airlines will keep prices steady around this level going into mid-April to early May, as they try to rebuild traveller’s confidence and get grounded planes in their fleet back in operation. Low cost carriers are also increasing competition to a number of leisure destinations growing in popularity, which will further moderate increases in prices. 

We’re forecasting a 5% increase in price between April and May, and a 7% increase between May and June. We expect prices to increase 12% into summer and top out at about $257 for a round-trip domestic flight in June/July. 

A good deal on round-trip domestic airfare, based on the date of booking + our forecast into Summer 2021

International airfare will only moderately increase leading up to summer.

The current “good deal price” for international round-trip airfare is $690, which is historically low. Hopper forecasts that prices will rise 3% between April and May, and another 5% between May and June, topping out at about $780 for a round-trip ticket in late June with an increase in international demand.

International airfare is heavily dependent on region-by-region travel restrictions. Tightening travel restrictions tends to result in fewer flights to that country, which correspondingly increases airfare.

A good deal on round-trip international airfare, based on the date of booking + our forecast into Summer 2021

How will domestic summer airfare prices compare to years past?

Airfare pricing comparison year over year

When and how to book summer travel?

  • Buy no later than early May - The experts at travel app Hopper recommend booking summer travel no later than early May, while prices are still relatively low. Typically we see a gradual rise from mid-April to July, where flights are steadily more expensive the closer they are to summer. Airlines may be using lower prices to gradually rebuild traveler confidence while gearing up for a strong domestic summer travel season.

  • Lock in low prices now, and book later - If you’re not ready to book, but see a great deal and don’t want to miss out, consider using the Price Freeze feature on the Hopper app. With Price Freeze, you can lock in a good price and have the flexibility to book at a later date.

  • Book with flexibility -  If you're nervous about booking this early and plans changing, take advantage of flexible options, such as Hopper’s Flexible Dates Plan. Travelers can instantly change the date, time, and even airline of their flight for any reason up to 24 hours prior to departure with just a few taps directly in the app. In fact, over 25% of Hopper users booking summer trips now are using flexible or refundable booking options.

  • Research before you book - It is more important than ever to research your destination before booking a trip. With new COVID testing protocols in place, be sure you understand the travel guidelines before choosing a destination and have a plan in place to meet those requirements.

  • Consider a staycation - Many nearby hotels are offering geo-fenced rates and special promotions for nearby residents. Be sure to check out local vacation spots for reduced rates and travel options closer to home.

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