Leisure Summer Travel Report: CDC Updates its Travel Guidance & Airlines Add New Routes As Leisure Travel Demand Recovers

Following the CDC’s updated guidance announced on Friday, April 2nd, Hopper saw a 16% increase in searches for Summer 2021 domestic travel, and a 23% increase for international travel.

Adit Damodaran - Apr. 5, 2021

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated it’s guidance that fully vaccinated Americans can travel with low risk to themselves and without COVID testing or quarantine requirements, as long as COVID precautions including mask wearing are taken.

Following the CDC’s updated guidance announced on Friday, April 2nd, Hopper saw a 16% increase in searches for Summer 2021 domestic travel, and a 23% increase for international travel. With the latest guidance and increasing traveler confidence, what will this mean for travel’s recovery and what should travelers expect for the upcoming summer travel season? 

In recent weeks, there have been strong signals of travel’s recovery, particularly from the airlines. As more Americans are being vaccinated, many airlines have announced new flight routes for summer and are reviving old ones from before the pandemic, the latest sign that leisure travel demand is rebounding.

The research team at travel app, Hopper analyzed their database of flights searches and airfare prices and took a look at the latest trends in leisure travel demand, new routes being added by airlines for summer, and how these new routes will impact summer airfare pricing.

Where are airlines adding new routes and why?

Airlines are responding to two trends when deciding new routes to add. The first, where consumers are looking to travel in a post-pandemic world. At Hopper, we’re seeing leisure travelers are looking for outdoor trips this year and seeking out destinations close to national parks and beach towns. As a result, airlines are offering more and more service to airports that act as gateways to national parks in Montana, Maine and Alaska and beach destinations. For instance, several carriers in recent weeks have announced they’re adding new routes to South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. The second factor is where consumers are living. For instance, in recent months, Austin, Texas has become a popular city for millennials, with remote workers and startups moving to that area during the pandemic. As a result, many airlines have added flights out of Austin to better service that area. On Hopper, we’ve seen a 16% increase in flight searches to Austin in the past month.

Leisure summer travel shifts domestically 

Americans typically plan big bucket list vacations and trips to Europe over the summer months. However, this year we’re seeing travel demand shift domestically for summer. In the past month alone, we’ve seen searches for domestic summer travel increase 58%, showing positive signs that Americans are ready to get back out there in the coming months.

However, the majority of searches for summer are domestic. 66% of current searches for summer 2021 are domestic, and 34% are international. Whereas pre-pandemic, that split was much more even. We’d typically see 52% domestic and 48% international for summer travel.

As a result of this shift, we’ve seen carriers respond with new domestic routes to meet this new demand. 

Outdoor leisure destinations top of mind

Many carriers are adding new routes to outdoor leisure destinations. At Hopper, we’re seeing outdoor-focused destinations rise to the top of the list for domestic summer travel searches and airfare bookings. Destinations across the midwest have become popular this year, as Americans look to plan trips closer to home as well as warm-weather beach towns across the U.S.

Midwest & beach destinations

In recent weeks, United Airlines announced plans to add 26 new direct routes starting Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. These routes include point-to-point service to Charleston, Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, Pensacola, FL and Portland, Maine from seven cities including Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Indianapolis, Indiana. 

United will also resume 20 domestic flights to popular destinations and introduce three new domestic routes. This will include new nonstop service between Houston and Kalispell, Montana.; Washington, D.C. and Bozeman, Montana; and between Chicago and Nantucket. 

Delta also announced 20 new routes, including flights to national park destinations, Glacier Park, Montana, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Southwest Airlines announced plans to extend service for summer by adding more domestic flights to Myrtle Beach from Baltimore, Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Columbus and Indianapolis.

Where are Americans planning their summer vacations?

Domestic Trending
Top 10 Trending Domestic Destinations
  • Vacationland Maine - Maine topped our most recent search demand rankings, with both Portland (#1) and Bangor (#10) breaking into the Top 20. 

  • Beach destinations continued to fare well, with beach destinations such as Long Beach (#4), Hilton Head (#5), and Myrtle Beach (#16) also in the Top 20. 

  • Hawaii destinations like Hilo (#6), Lihue (#7), and Honolulu (#13) also seemed top of travelers’ minds. 

  • National Parks: Kalispell, Montana (the gateway airport to Glacier National Park) has continued to perform incredibly well -- holding on to the #2 spot. 

  • Big Cities Making a Come-Back: Finally, we’re also seeing the gradual return of big city destinations, led by Chicago (#8), followed by Seattle (#9), San Francisco (#13), Minneapolis (#18), and New York City (#20). 

  • Austin, TX: The capital city of Texas has seen a 16% increase in flight searches Month-over-Month.

  • Alaska: Although Alaska does not appear in our Top 10, searches to Juneau and Ketchikan are up 90% and 91% Month-over-Month. Summer is a peak travel season for Alaska given the warmer temperatures. At the southeastern tip of Alaska, Ketchikan is actually closer to Seattle than Anchorage.

Domestic destinations rising in popularity compared to pre-pandemic summer travel

The following cities have seen the highest increase in search demand compared to summer 2019:

  1. Key West, FL (246% increase compared to summer 2019)

  2. Sarasota, FL (207% increase compared to summer 2019)

  3. Hilton Head Island, SC (172% increase compared to summer 2019)

  4. Panama City Beach, FL (151% increase compared to summer 2019)

  5. Fort Myers, FL (150% increase compared to summer 2019)

  6. Jackson Hole, WY (131% increase compared to summer 2019)

  7. Destin-Ft. Walton Beach, FL (128% increase compared to summer 2019)

  8. Daytona Beach, FL (103% increase compared to summer 2019)

The following states have seen the highest increase in search demand compared to summer 2019:

  1. Wyoming: 133% increase compared to summer 2019

  2. Florida: 109%  increase compared to summer 2019

  3. Maine: 97%  increase compared to summer 2019

  4. South Carolina: 83% increase compared to summer 2019

  5. South Dakota: 71% increase compared to summer 2019

International Travel for Summer Remains Up in the Air

Rise in Demand for Caribbean & Mexico

Destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico are seeing the highest demand for international travel for summer 2021. We’re seeing airlines meeting this demand with additional services to this region. United said it planned to offer more flights to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America in May than it did in May 2019.

With the latest CDC travel guidance, Hopper expects it may lead to a spike in international travel demand in the coming weeks. Hopper has already seen a 23% spike in international searches following the CDC's update on Friday April 2nd. While many European countries are still close to American tourists, travelers are hopeful they might be able to plan that long-awaited summer vacation abroad.

Portugal, Greece, and Iceland are on our radar as the hottest European travel destinations for Summer 2021. 

Last month, when Iceland announced it would fully reopen to all vaccinated travelers (including U.S. travelers) in mid-March, Hopper saw a 93% spike in overall searches, the biggest one we’ve seen to-date in 2021 for reopening international search traffic from the U.S.

Similarly, Portugal saw a massive 77% spike following an announcement in the first week of March that it hoped to welcome back tourists from the UK starting in mid-May. 

Additionally, searches from the U.S to Athens, Greece shot up 75% in the same time period, following Greece’s May-opening announcement.

What to expect for summer airfare pricing?

According to Hopper’s latest data, the current average domestic airfare price for summer 2021 is $273 round-trip. The current average international price is $780 for summer. 

Hopper is forecasting that prices will increase 8% between April and May, and a 7% increase between May and June. We expect prices to increase 15% into summer and top out at about $296 on average for a round-trip domestic flight in July. Since the CDC announcement on Friday, Hopper has already seen airfare for July 2nd (the Friday before July 4th) jump $12 from $322 to $334 round-trip.

Hopper anticipates airlines will keep round-trip prices steady around $250 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. 

What do the new routes mean for summer airfares?

We expect prices on these new routes to drop approximately 15%, in cases where a Low Cost Carrier, such as Southwest or Spirit is entering the market. Otherwise, prices will remain stable, eventually increasing with growing demand.

For example, Southwest announced Feb 25th it would start service from Denver to Bozeman on May 27th. Prices dropped 46% from $280 to $152, and then remained 23% below prior levels.

Round-Trip Prices Denver to Bozeman
Round-Trip Prices Denver to Bozeman

However, take New York (JFK) to Bozeman. Prices on this route haven’t changed, even though Delta announced March 19th new daily service starting May 28th. They even spiked briefly 52% from $278 to $423 before coming back down to prior levels.

JFK to Bozeman
Round-Trip Prices JFK to Bozemand

In another example, we saw Spirit announce new service from St. Louis to Ft. Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Pensacola beginning in late May / early June. Prices on those routes dropped 13%, 9%, 12%, and 14% respectively. 

St. Louis Leisure
Daily Round-Trip Prices from St. Louis to Various Leisure Destinations

When to book for summer travel?

  • Hopper recommends that travelers book summer travel no later than the first week in May. Domestic prices are expected to climb up to 8% between April and May, and another 7% between May and June. We expect prices to see a 15% spike heading into the summer months, topping out at about $296 for a round-trip domestic flight in July. Travelers can start monitoring prices now by setting a “watch” on Hopper to get alerted when good deals become available for this summer.

  • For international trips, we recommend travelers booking their travel now as prices will only increase from here. 

  • For those looking to book trips to a popular outdoor leisure destination such as Bozeman or Jackson Hole for the summer, Hopper recommends checking to see if a Low Cost Carrier like Southwest or Spirit is beginning service from a nearby airport. For example, if you’re in Denver planning to fly to Bozeman in late May, you might find deals (as much as 23% off) if you depart in early June instead, after Southwest launches service along this route. 

  • If you can be flexible with your departure dates, we recommend flying out on a Tuesday, where you can save $35 on average compared to departing on a Friday. For leisure destinations, we find that Tuesday is the cheapest day to fly. 

  • If you’re not ready to book that summer trip yet, but see a great deal and don’t want to miss out, consider using the Price Freeze feature available on the Hopper app. With Price Freeze, you can lock in a good flight or hotel price and book later, so you don’t miss out on the great deals happening now. Travelers have saved up to $200 per ticket using Hopper’s Price Freeze feature.

  • We also recommend booking flexible fares in case plans change. Take advantage of trip protection options, such as Hopper’s Flexible Dates Plan. With this 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 for the summer are using flexible booking options (either the Refundable Ticket Plan or Flexible Dates Plan).

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