Americans who had to cancel getaways and get-togethers last year because of the pandemic are making up for lost time this holiday season. More than 109 million people — an almost 34% increase from 2020 — will travel 50 miles or more as they hit the road, board airplanes or take other transportation out of town between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2.
That dramatic bounce-back — 27.7 million more people traveling — will bring this year’s numbers to 92% of 2019 levels. Airlines will see a 184% increase from last year.
“Americans who canceled their vacations in 2020 want to gather with family and friends for the holidays this year, although they will still be mindful of the pandemic and the new omicron variant,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “With vaccines widely available, conditions are much different and many people feel a greater level of comfort with travel.”
Protect yourself — and your trip
AAA urges anyone considering gathering or traveling for the holidays to consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance. It’s essential to know requirements and recommendations based on your vaccination status, where you’re traveling from and your destination.
A trusted travel advisor can provide advice, serving as an advocate before, during and after a trip. Their extensive knowledge and expertise allow them to help travelers with questions related to travel insurance options, what destinations and attractions are open both domestically and internationally, destination-specific testing and vaccination requirements, what to do if last-minute changes to a trip are needed and much more.
AAA’s COVID-19 Travel Restrictions Map helps travelers understand closures, recommendations and requirements when traveling in the U.S. In addition, the CDC has an interactive map with recommendations and information about restrictions for international travel.
Masks are still required for everyone on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of U.S. public transportation and within transportation hubs such as airports and stations. The CDC also recommends everyone wear a mask indoors in public places in an area of substantial or high transmission.
Other things to consider:
- Travel insurance — AAA highly recommends travel insurance to cover unexpected delays or trip interruptions. It is best to consult the expertise of a travel advisor who can guide you on the coverage options available for your specific trip, including if your destination requires visitors to carry travel insurance.
- Clean accommodations — When booking a place to stay, look for accommodations that prioritize cleanliness and have implemented additional housekeeping standards since the start of the pandemic. Hotels that meet AAA standards for cleanliness earn AAA Diamond designations. Earlier this year, as part of the Diamond program, AAA enhanced its housekeeping evaluation, and inspections now include objective, scientific validation of the cleanliness of common surfaces throughout hotels. Hotels that have been inspected since that new testing started and now meet these new standards are recognized as Inspected Clean. A current list of AAA Diamond hotels, including those recognized as Inspected Clean, can be found here.
- Domestic and international travel guidelines — When traveling within the U.S., fully vaccinated travelers do not need a negative viral test or to self-quarantine. For international travel, all air passengers, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, must show a negative COVID-19 viral test result taken no more than one day before travel into the U.S. Refer to the CDC for more information.
More than 100 million on the roads and 6 million in the skies
Road trips remain the top mode of travel during the holidays, with over 100 million planning to head to their destinations in cars despite gas costing $1.25 per gallon more than a year ago. More than 6 million people are expected to travel by air, while 3 million people are booking buses, trains and cruises.
|2021 Year-end holiday travelers compared to previous years|
|Total||Automobile||Air||Other (bus, train, cruise)|
|2021 Forecast||109.5 M||100.1 M||6.4 M||2.9 M|
|2020 Actual||81.7 M||78.5 M||2.3 M||0.98 M|
|2019 Actual||119.3 M||108 M||7.33 M||3.89 M|
|Change (2019 to 2021)||−8.2%||−7.3%||−12.6%||−24.8%|
|Change (2020 to 2021)||33.9%||27.6%||184%||198.7%|
Theme parks, beaches and Vegas are popular destinations
AAA booking data through October shows that domestically, theme-park-heavy destinations like Orlando, Florida, and Anaheim, California, top the list of popular travel spots. Las Vegas, New York City and several other Florida cities also rank high.
|Las Vegas, NV|
|New York, NY; Kahului, Maui, HI (tie)|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL|
|San Diego, CA|
Higher prices this holiday season
With so many planning to travel, AAA suggests booking flights, car rentals, accommodations and other activities as early as possible.
Air — A recent analysis of AAA’s flight booking data revealed that ticket prices for Christmas week are up 5% from last year, with the average lowest round-trip fare of $154 for major U.S. destinations. For those flying around New Year’s, prices are up considerably more – 27% with the average lowest fare at $182. Those wanting to book last-minute travel will find the best fares about two weeks before their travel date but keep in mind availability may be limited.
Hotels — Mid-range hotel rates have increased 36% for AAA Approved hotels for Christmas travel, with an average nightly rate of $320. For New Year’s Eve, the average nightly rate is $267.
Car Rentals — For car rentals, the average rate has increased 20% for Christmas travel, with the average lowest daily rate of $130. It has increased 65% for New Year’s, for an average lowest daily rate of $103. Rental car companies have been re-building their inventory following a shortage over the summer, but with the increased demand expected around this time of the year, it’s important to book as early as possible.
Plan ahead for road trips
The over 100 million Americans planning to drive over the holidays need to be prepared for slowdowns and breakdowns. AAA expects to respond to as many as 917,000 calls for help. Vehicles that have been driven less during the pandemic should get an inspection to check key components like the battery, fuel system, tires, brakes and fluid levels to avoid an unnecessary breakdown. It’s important to do this as early as possible in case there is an issue that needs to be fixed.
Rushing home for the holidays
INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts only marginal delays overall throughout the holiday week. However, major metro areas across the U.S. could see more than double the delays versus typical drive times, with drivers in New York City likely to experience more than three times the delays.
“With kids out of school and many Americans taking extended time off for the holidays, drivers will experience incremental delays throughout the week. Although congestion will be overall lighter than normal, knowing when and where major delays will likely happen will help save time and reduce stress this holiday season,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX.
|Worst Corridors and Times to Travel|
|Metro Area||Corridor||Peak Congestion||% Over Normal|
|Atlanta||I-85 South; Clairmont Rd to MLK Jr Dr||1/2/22, 3:45–5:45pm||198%|
|Boston||I-93 North; Quincy Market to MA-28||12/23/21, 1:45–3:45pm||155%|
|Chicago||I-290 West; Morgan St to Wolf Rd||12/23/21, 3:30–5:30pm||240%|
|Detroit||US-23 North; 8 Mile Rd to I-96||12/23/21, 9:45–11:45am||209%|
|Houston||I-10 West; Sjolander to TX-330||1/2/22, 5:00–7:00pm||195%|
|Los Angeles||I-405 South; Sunset Blvd to I-105||1/2/22, 5:30–7:30pm||194%|
|New York||I-278 South; I-495 to 3rd Ave||12/27/21, 4:30–6:30pm||358%|
|San Francisco||I-80 North; I-580 to San Pablo Dam Rd||12/23/21, 5:30–7:30pm||166%|
|Seattle||I-5 South; WA-18 to WA-7||12/28/21, 4:45–6:45pm||215%|
|Washington DC||I-95 South; I-395 to VA-123||12/27/21, 9:30–11:30am||270%|
|Daily Worst and Best Times to Travel|
|Date||Worst travel time||Best travel time|
|12/25/21||Minimal congestion expected|
|12/31/21||2:00–4:00pm||Before 1:00pm, after 5:00pm|
|1/1/22||Minimal congestion expected|
Forecasted numbers may change
AAA notes that the actual number of travelers could fluctuate as we approach the holidays. Some people may decide to stay home if there is an increase in reported COVID-19 cases or because of concerns about the omicron variant, while others may note the progress in vaccinations and make last-minute decisions to travel. AAA recommends working with a travel advisor who can help you plan a vacation that meets your needs and comfort level this holiday season. To get started and to learn more, visit AAA.com/Travel.