The Resurgence Of The Great American Road Trip

The Resurgence Of The Great American Road Trip

Before 1980, the typical American vacation, no matter its destination, always began with a road trip. Sandwiches and cold drinks packed in a cooler, the maps spread out in the passenger seat and the license plate game were all basic staples of every family trip.

For the particularly well-prepared families, there was AAA – which, if you told them your ultimate destination, would send you “a little spiral-bound book that mapped the trip – with directions, places to stop to eat and hotel recommendations,” as one PYMNTS staff member fondly recalled of their childhood road trips.

In the early 1980s, that all changed when the deregulation of the U.S. airline industry brought prices down, and for the first time made air travel accessible to a much wider swath of middle- and working-class consumers. Between 1980 and the year 2000, the number of flights booked by Americans more than doubled, and America’s standard mode of vacationing changed profoundly. The station wagon was replaced by matching sets of rolling luggage easily pulled through an airport concourse, and the journey to reach a vacation destination was measured in a matter of hours instead of a matter of days.

And while the great American road trip never quite disappeared – our fondness for the open road is as much a part of our DNA as an inherent appreciation for apple pie, hot dogs and fireworks – the institution has changed somewhat over the decades, as Skift noted in its reporting on the subject about two years ago. The road trips of the early 21st century happen a few times a year instead of once a year, they cover shorter distances on average, and they are more likely to involve young, single consumers and unmarried couples than the traditional family-focused journeys of the mid-20th century.

But, of course, the world of 2020 is quite unexpectedly different than the one of 2018. And it seems that the great American road trip is poised to make a come-back as the early days of COVID-19 recovery will coincide with summer vacation season.

Because Americans, after having spent the last several weeks cooped up inside their homes, are ready to go out and do or see something different. After eight weeks, the cabin fever is undeniably setting in, and the rapidly improving weather (minus the polar vortex that appeared in May in the Northeast this year, apparently annoyed that COVID-19 stole all the attention in late winter) is making people even more eager to get out.

But wanting to go out and being ready to resume life as normal are two very different things – and PYMNTS now has weeks of survey data that shows consumers on the whole aren’t ready to simply resume life as they knew it before.

When asked directly, only 27.8 percent were “very” or “extremely” interested in going out more often, only slightly more than the 25.6 percent that reported having no interest in leaving their homes. The largest group is the soft middle – the 46 percent of consumers who report being “somewhat” or “slightly” interested in doing something outside their four walls.

As PYMNTS’ data confirmed, consumers are in this for the long haul, believing that “normal life” won’t restart for another seven months or so. Outside of a rather small cohort, the majority of consumers likely won’t be in much of a rush to jump on planes this summer and fly off to exotic new locales to stay in hotels with an international cast of strangers who will be touching the same elevator buttons. That sounds like several bridges too far for people who report being only “slightly” interested in leaving their homes.

But a road trip? Adam Sacks, president of the Tourism Economics research firm, believes that will probably align much better with slightly cabin-fevered consumers who prioritize their safety.

“People are going to be traveling and taking summer vacations this summer – it’s just going to be different,” Sacks told CNN Business. “Traveling is going to be weighted toward traveling within one’s driving region.”

And the early data seems to back that up, according to figures recently released by MMGY Travel Intelligence in partnership with the U.S. Travel Association. In a survey taken from April 17-22, 47 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to travel by car this summer, an increase from 35 percent of consumers in a survey taken the prior week. That data is supported by new findings from the data research co-op ADARA, which found that though flight bookings for Labor Day weekend are down 90 percent year over year at this point, lodging bookings are only down 23 percent during the same time period. That seems to suggest people are planning to travel this summer – they just aren’t planning on driving.

Where will those road trips happen, and what will they look like? That is still being defined – though we can assume that road trips to Disney World (which will likely remain closed through at least mid-June) and major U.S. cities will likely lose out to remote rental cabins in the woods, national parks, camping trips and, of course, the modern favorite, glamping.

AutoCamp, for example, allows vacationers to rent one of their custom-built, mid-century-modern Airstream trailers featuring walnut plank flooring, skylights and spa bathrooms, set on an outdoor living space with a designer firepit and handmade lounge furniture. Not only is it the most luxurious way to experience the great outdoors, Co-founder Ryan Miller told Forbes, it is the ideal vacation for the social distancing traveler who wants the spa experience – just far, far away from anyone they don’t know personally.

“Our Airstream suites are entirely self-contained units with their own bathrooms, air conditioning and private outdoor space, so they are well-equipped for self-isolation with your traveling companions,” Miller noted. “Additionally, due to AutoCamp’s proximity to iconic outdoor destinations, guests can easily access healthy outdoor activities nearby, such as hiking, biking and beach-combing.”

It is also worth noting that while renting from AutoCamp isn’t cheap, prices for those Airstreams range from $235-$500 a night, in line with high-quality hotel rooms with similar amenities (one can even purchase an all-inclusive gourmet meal plan) – all without the common problems associated with hotel stays in crowded cities.

Will customers seek out AutoCamp and other glamping entrepreneurs this summer? We imagine at least some will, though there are probably other people who will hear the word “glamping” and opt out with no further explanation. Will consumers convert to road trips? That seems very likely, based on the experts’ forecasts, our understanding of basic human psychology around boredom, and the fact that 19 years ago, in the wake of the 9-11 crisis, the number of road trips ticked up sharply.

And that was before the era of smartphones. Today’s consumers are not only gearing up to drive off in search of adventure, they are carrying app-enabled smartphones that are ready, willing and able to take the place of the little spiral notebooks AAA used to send out – while offering digital and monetizable functions.

And as the economy is looking to get on the road again this summer, hitching a ride with road-tripping consumers might not be a bad way to start the journey.

As long as you wear your PPE.