On a road trip through Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, with the Grand Tetons in the rearview mirror. Road trips, which offer many American travelers more flexibility, are gaining in popularity.
The Great American Road Trip
Shorter and More Popular Than Ever By Stephanie Rosenbloom – New York Times
Seeking convenience and adventure (while avoiding airport security, baggage fees and the hassle of flying with Fido), more travelers are hitting the road.
If ever there was any doubt about the state of the American road trip, the latest research seems to squash it, finding that more travelers are driving hundreds of miles to explore unfamiliar places, even if they have only four or five days to do it.
“They’re not taking the two-week road trip of the past,” said Steve Cohen, the senior vice president for Travel Insights at MMGY Global, one of the largest travel and hospitality marketing firms.
Road trips represented some 22 percent of vacations taken by United States travelers in 2015, but a year later that number jumped to 39 percent, according to MMGY Global’s 2017-18 Portrait of American Travelers, a report compiled from nearly 3,000 interviews with leisure travelers. The spike came as the travel industry roared back from the recession, hitting record levels of vacation spending, and as travelers stayed within the country. Nearly 14 million more vacations were taken within the United States during the past year compared with outside the country, MMGY Global found. Today, most American vacations — some 85 percent — are domestic. And while it may be tempting to attribute interest in road-tripping to nostalgia (and there is certainly some of that), it seems the top reasons people are hitting the road are matters of practicality.
The leading two reasons, according to the research report, are the flexibility of being able to stop along the way, and of being able to pack whatever and however much people want to take in the car. Lower vacation costs ranked third, and have been of particular importance to millennials. Additionally, there’s the airport pain factor. Many travelers prefer to avoid the security lines and hefty baggage fees at legacy carriers, not to mention the 30 to 40 minutes spent waiting at baggage claim. For those traveling with pets, driving is easier, especially as airlines begin to tighten rules regarding service animals. (It’s worth noting that MMGY’s qualitative research focuses on the traveling public; people making at least $50,000 a year, which Mr. Cohen said essentially eliminates half the United States population.) Speaking of easier, inexperienced travelers have also contributed to the spike in domestic travel, Mr. Cohen said, as they tend to shy away from international travel amid political instability and concerns about safety.
Though some Americans may fly to another state and begin their road trip there, Mr. Cohen and his colleagues are seeing many more people simply driving from home. It’s typically less expensive, and a road trip offers more flexibility in terms of schedule.Travelers can relax, leave at the last minute, and discover historical sites, local cuisine, museums, shopping, hiking, festivals and theme parks along the way.
Despite taking shorter trips, people nonetheless want to roam as far away as possible. “They don’t want to spend the night any closer than eight hours from home,” Mr. Cohen said. And the trip has to have multiple overnight stops with activities and attractions, “not just Grandma’s house,” he said. For example, Mr. Cohen said retirees typically visit family during their road trips, but most of the time they stay elsewhere.
From the inception of the vacation, to the miles logged along the way, social media is a comparatively new aspect of the road trip. In the last four years MMGY has observed the role of social media in recording and sharing travel experiences explode, mainly among millennials. The percentage of people who say they post vacation photos on social media to make friends and family jealous has doubled over the last four years — “we believe that one’s grossly understated,” Mr. Cohen added — as has the number of people who use social media to record their travel experiences.
Instagram and the like aside, road-tripping is among the few travel trends today not being, er, driven by millennials. Boomers are the largest group of road-trippers (followed by Generation Xers), and for them, it seems there’s some element of nostalgia. For millennials, the appeal of the road trip is often economical, though for many, and for a number of Generation Xers, life experiences like road trips matter more than shiny new things, according to MMGY. How people choose where to travel was something of a surprise to Mr. Cohen, who reasonably figured that the first thing most people do when planning a vacation is to decide where to go. Turns out, less than half the people he studied do that. Instead, he said, people tend to say “Here’s what I want to do, now where can I do it?” For millennials it may be, “I have this much money, where can I best spend it?” There isn’t just one type of road-tripper with a single set of goals. And road-tripping is unlikely to experience another dramatic rise.
“It can’t just keep skyrocketing,” Mr. Cohen said. But he expects to see modest growth this year as Americans — retirees, young families, millennials, Generation Xers without children — continue rolling on.