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COVID-19 Survey: American frequent travelers cautiously eye future travel

Jun 29, 2020

Our original research explores American sentiment around COVID-19 and travel, with significant implications for the travel industry.

Editor’s Note (6/29/2020): This article includes findings from ICF’s third wave of data collection that was fielded May 18 through May 20. The third wave collected 1,000 completes using a census-balanced, national non-probability sample. The new information, shared below, examines the impact of COVID-19 on the American public as well as their attitudes toward slowing the spread of COVID-19. Learn more about the ICF COVID-19 Monitor Survey of U.S. Adults.

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Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, ICF and ICF Next have fielded three waves of the COVID-19 Monitor Survey of U.S. Adults to the American public to seek a deeper understanding of how the pandemic is impacting Americans and their attitudes and behaviors around public health measures. As the pandemic crisis has evolved, so has the survey. Over the three initial waves of the survey, we have added questions to understand the impacts to individuals' personal finances and employment status, along with their media consumption habits, demographics, and adherence to evolving social distancing guidelines.

For the third wave of the survey, we added a series of questions regarding travel habits, modes of transportation, and willingness to travel. We specifically included a question that allows us to focus our analysis on “frequent travelers.” This universe of respondents included roughly 480 individuals who reported traveling out of state for business or pleasure, weekly, monthly, or a “few times per year” prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. The results have been illuminating:

America’s frequent travelers have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

America’s frequent travelers are an affluent and cosmopolitan group, but that does not mean they have been unaffected by the virus. In fact, quite to the contrary, the virus has hit the pocketbooks and plans of this group hard:

  • 48% had their or someone in their household’s employment hours reduced. This is a plurality of respondents.
  • 25% had lost their job or had someone in their household who had lost their job.
  • 74% had canceled or rescheduled travel since the outbreak or had someone in their household who had.
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America’s frequent travelers are strong believers in public health measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Our survey results indicate that frequent travelers believe and are following the public health advice they are being given. These results underscore the need for travel brands to implement and communicate sanitization procedures to make travelers feel comfortable traveling.

  • 69% are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to try to get the vaccine as soon as available. This significantly exceeds those in the general population polled by the Associated Press.
  • 86% believe that wearing a mask is “somewhat important” or “very important” to stopping the spread of coronavirus.
    • Individuals who believe face masks “should not be worn” or are “not too important” over-index in their willingness to travel in summer or fall 2020.
  • 88% believe that physical distancing (staying 3-6 feet apart from others) is important to stopping the virus’ spread.
  • 65% of frequent travelers believe that it is “very important” to stay 3-6 feet away from others to stop the spread of coronavirus.
    • These individuals significantly under-index in their willingness to travel domestically by air in 2020.
  • 84% believe that avoiding public transportation is “somewhat important” or “very important” to stopping the spread of coronavirus.
  • 94% believe that washing your hands when you leave a public place is “somewhat important” or “very important” to stopping the spread of coronavirus.
  • 94% believe that self-quarantining for 14 days if exposed to someone with COVID-19 is “somewhat important” or “very important” to stopping the spread of coronavirus.

Despite this, America’s frequent travelers don’t believe they will get sick.

68% of frequent travelers believe it is “not too likely” or “not likely at all” that they will get sick with COVID-19. These individuals also exhibit a high propensity for willingness to travel by air domestically in summer and fall 2020.

The age of respondents is highly predictive of their willingness to travel.

Age is very predictive of attitudes toward future travel, with younger travelers exhibiting more immediate desire to travel, and older travelers intending to delay travel for some time.

  • Individuals in the 18-24-year-old cohort over-index for interest in domestic air travel in summer and fall 2020.
  • Individuals in the 25-34 and 50-65 age cohorts over-index for summer 2020 domestic air travel.
  • Individuals in the 18-24 and 25-34 age cohorts significantly over-index in their willingness to travel internationally in summer 2020.
  • Conversely, individuals in the 50-64 and 65+ age cohorts also over-index for a desire to avoid domestic travel until later than summer 2021.
  • Individuals in the 50-64 and 65+ age cohorts over-index for a desire to avoid international travel until later than summer 2021.

The recovery of travel demand will be slow and stilted, with behaviors heavily altered.

We asked frequent travelers “even if there is no vaccine or widespread testing for coronavirus (COVID-19), when do you think you would be willing to start doing” various types of travel. The results illustrated that certain sectors, such as domestic air travel, will recover sooner while others will experience a lengthy recovery:

  • Frequent travelers are far more open to domestic air travel in 2020 than international air travel. 42% of respondents expect to resume traveling by air domestically this year, vs. 24% by air internationally.
  • 22% of frequent travelers do not expect to travel domestically by air until later than summer 2021, vs. 41% of respondents who do not expect to resume traveling by air internationally until later than summer 2021.
  • Travelers’ willingness to travel by bus and train seems to mirror a similar pattern to domestic air travel, but travelers across the board are slightly less willing to travel via these methods until later than summer 2021.
  • Cruise travel is in big trouble, with 51% of respondents sharing that they would not be willing to travel via cruise until later than summer 2021.

In addition, we asked frequent travelers about their desire to dine out at restaurants and they have proven to be reluctant to do so: even when allowed by their state, 41% of frequent travelers are not planning to visit a sit-down restaurant “until it is safer.”

Watch this space

How will American frequent travelers’ feelings and behaviors change as the summer season and the pandemic continues? We will report key findings from our data collection efforts over the coming months and share this information. Sign up to receive alerts as we roll out upcoming results and package our insights into reports.

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