Uncharted territory: Here’s what travel looked like in 2020

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Now that 2020 is almost squarely in the rearview mirror, we can all take a deep breath and ask ourselves what the heck just happened.

This was a year unlike any other, and it resulted in a few surprising travel trends that will probably stay with us long after the pandemic has officially ended.

After sheltering in place, many travelers took to the great outdoors to explore national and state parks, beaches and other natural landscapes. Others piled into the car (or tried out RV life for the first time) for close-to-home getaways and classic road trips. Many people turned to camping and glamping, or opted for vacation rentals instead of hotels.

But there’s a lot more we can learn about how travelers behaved during this most unusual year, according to hotel, flight and car rental data from Priceline.

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It was the year of spontaneity

Despite all the hurdles (getting COVID-19 tests, researching travel requirements, quarantines and more) travelers largely turned to last-minute getaways. More than 76% of flights were booked within seven days of departure this year according to Priceline and, on average, travelers booked hotels six or seven days before arrival.

Even rental cars are being booked at the last minute. Priceline saw a significant leap in same-day and prior-day reservations in 2020, compared to the year before.

Travelers stayed closer to home

The average distance of round-trip flights decreased by 20% this year. It’s possible to infer the same thing for travelers who decided to drive this year.

The most popular one-way car rental itineraries between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 4, 2020, were trips from Orlando to Tampa and from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, followed by drives from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back. Only six of the top 20 itineraries were from one state to the next, and all of the itineraries were under six hours, with most closer to three or four hours.

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Travelers flocked to the coasts

Rental car, flight and hotel booking data from Priceline suggests travelers prioritized coastal, warm-weather destinations this year. One-way rental car itineraries were dominated by trips along the West Coast and Southeast.

The top four most popular round-trip flight routes saw travelers leaving the cities (New York and Dallas) and flying to Orlando and Los Angeles. And travelers searching for hotels are largely dreaming of warm getaways, including Orlando, Miami, Los Angeles and San Diego, among others.

But Sin City still took the top spot

Of course, no matter how crazy the world gets, some things never change. Despite all the changes — the cancellation of shows and pool parties, the closure of self-service buffets — Las Vegas took the top spot for the most popular destination for hotel bookings this year. It’s the second year in the row Sin City has claimed the No. 1 spot.

And even people who aren’t traveling to Las Vegas are dreaming of their next trip. Las Vegas was also the most-searched destination for hotels this year, followed by Orlando and Miami.

Cars overtook airplanes

We all know road trips dominated the travel industry this year, and even wintry weather can’t slow down the trend. A holiday travel report from Travelocity said 80% of respondents would drive for the November and December holidays, while only one in five would fly.

Data from Priceline underscores the shift. Americans flew about 4 billion miles less this year than they did in 2019.

Bottom line

It will surprise absolutely no one to hear that travel took a big hit this year. But as travelers have sought ways to cope with the new restrictions and challenges of 2020, they’ve also discovered new ways to satisfy their wanderlust.

What Priceline’s data may show us, above all, is that travelers were quick to adapt to the changes by exploring their own state and staying close to home, trading their boarding passes for driver’s licenses and continuing to dream about travel’s comeback in the months and years to come.

Feature photo by Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd / Getty Images

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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