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Hitting the road: What do Americans’ vacation plans tell us about consumer life today?

Though the U.S. is often known for taking less vacation time than it is due, its estimated that nearly eight in ten Americans will travel this summer.  Recent results from GfK Consumer Life research tell us a lot about what vacations may look like over this time period, particularly as a reflection of larger consumer trends.

Americans are eager to spend

Though consumers may never stop scanning travel deal sites or accumulating airline miles, the travel market should benefit from a strong financial outlook.  One in three (33%) Americans today agree that now is a good time to buy – this penchant for spending represents a full 8-point increase from last fall.  Furthermore, nearly one in five report that they have fewer debts and other financial obligations today than they did a year ago.

Experience is king

Though Americans seem eager to spend, they’ll be less likely to buy things (material purchases) and more likely to cash in on ‘the experience’.  Almost half of those surveyed say that “experiences are more important than possessions”.  So it should not be surprising that the second most popular reason to use virtual or augmented reality would be to visit other places remotely (video has proven a valuable tool in travel marketing).  It seems that this year’s travelers will value the experience of simply being in a new place – note the recent evolution of Airbnb’s marketing that encourages users to “Live There” and feel more like a local than a tourist.

Households and families are taking new shapes

The changing demographics of the U.S. – from the rapid growth of both the aging population and urban areas to greater cultural and ethnic diversity – have an impact on every industry.  Households are also changing significantly, as solo, single-parent, childless and same-sex homes are on the rise.

How is this reflected in travel behaviors?  Fewer than half of Americans today take frequent vacations as a family unit (at least one parent and child) – this has gone down 7 points since 2014.  And overall, Americans are more likely to vacation with just a spouse or partner.  As the average group of travelers becomes smaller and more likely to be composed of adults, brands can tailor products and services to meet more flexible and mature needs.

Spontaneity is part of the plan

Our society as a whole is becoming more uprooted by the day, with new ways of living and working that are more flexible, in the moment and less fixed to place.  It follows, then, that we’re more spontaneous in our travel.  Forty-five percent of Americans plan their vacations within three months of taking them – this percentage has risen 12 points since 2005.  We’re also taking shorter trips – four in ten travelers are planning a trip in the next six months of three nights or less, which is a 5-point jump in just the last two years.

Safety matters – maybe more than ever

Given the overall concern for safety, Americans are keenly aware of the health and environmental risks at play when choosing their destinations this summer travel season.  Nearly three in four Americans consider the environment when vacation planning – a 14-point increase since 2009.  And concerns about viruses, pollution, water quality and more are evident in the fact that medicine is the #1 item after clothes and toiletries that we’re apt to pack when we travel.

Summary

Americans want to spend, and they are buying experiences over material possessions.  With a change in how households and families are taking shape and an enhanced value being placed on spontaneity, as well as safety, the travel industry reflects larger trends for American consumers.

Rachel Bonsignore is a Senior Consultant in the Consumer Life division of GfK. Please email rachel.bonsignore@gfk.com to share your thoughts.

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