The family travel sector is one of the brightest spots in the leisure travel market, with trends continuing to shift as the outlook and environment improves.
Family travel is helping to lead the way in leisure group travel this year. Prior to the current vaccine rollout, a January Travelocity survey found that parents were twice as likely to have traveled since the pandemic’s onset. In addition, the survey also showed that parents were likely to plan and reserve trips earlier than other travel groups.
Since that time, these family travel patterns have accelerated. The recent vaccine rollout has contributed to greater optimism and an even more positive shift in family travel behavior. Family travelers are more confident in making travel plans and are booking vacations for the summer months and beyond. Reconnecting with family members is also top of mind. As more grandparents are vaccinated, they’re making plans to reunite with family members at reunions and on family trips.
These travel trends are reminiscent of those after 9/11, when family travel boomed and the “togethering” term was created. It’s important to note that families won’t all move at the same pace, however. Family travelers who have always been cautious are likely to schedule “toe-dip trips” and carefully selected vacation options viewed as highly safe. More intrepid family travelers are booking domestic family adventures and planning vacations to international destinations that have opened their borders.
The outlook for travel appears to have reached a tipping point recently. As the country’s balance shifts from fear to FOMO – fear of missing out, family travel trends are changing weekly. Here are ten of today’s current trends in family and multigenerational leisure group travel:
Family Vacations Are On
While Americans were often dreaming of travel earlier this year, now they’re actively planning their trips. A recent Longwoods International study showed than 87% of U.S. travelers now have travel plans within the next six months and families are a big part of this trend. Vrbo’s 2021 family travel trend report showed similar levels of 2021 trip planning, with a third of families willing to spend more than usual on these vacations. In a survey of family travel suppliers and travel advisors conducted for this story, it appears that family travel bookings have been trending upwards since early to mid-February and are now accelerating. Some family-friendly travel suppliers like Austin Adventures are seeing strong growth in domestic family travel demand, with bookings up more than 30% over 2019. Summer travel dates are most popular, although certain resorts like Club Med are seeing growth in multigenerational and family reunion bookings for the December holiday season.
Road Trips Still Rule
Domestic vacations dominate travel plans for many families this year, since there’s more confidence in booking closer-to-home travel and many international borders continue to be closed to Americans. Road trips were most popular with families last year and that trend is continuing in 2021, as vacationers often consider this mode of travel to be safest. According to AAA, many are planning road trips within 6-8 hours from home this summer. RV travel is expected to surge in 2021 according to multiple studies, with roughly 75% of RVers planning to travel more this year and family vacationers opting for RV travel for the first time through companies like RVshare. Amidst all this, however, there are signs that travelers are becoming more willing to fly to destinations. American Airlines reported that their bookings are nearing pre-pandemic levels, with the strongest demand for domestic and short-haul international trips.
Multigenerational Travel Rebounds
Reuniting with family members is the leading driver for travel today. In a recent Expedia study, more than two-thirds of respondents said that vacation time is more valuable when spent with family and close to 85% of Airbnb survey respondents said the first people they will travel to will be immediate or extended family. This is particularly true for grandparents, who have been missing spending time with their children and grandchildren.
As more grandparents become fully vaccinated, they’re beginning to plan multigenerational trips to make up for lost time, reconnect and make memories with loved ones. All-inclusive resorts, vacation home rentals, dude ranches, private small group tours and destination family reunions are popular multigenerational travel options for 2021 and 2022. Austin Adventures and G Adventures are seeing the return to multigenerational travel and G Adventures reports “skip-gen” grandparent/grandchildren bookings as well.
Outdoor-Focused Vacations and National Parks Reign
America’s love of the great outdoors continues in 2021, particularly for families. National parks, mountain regions, beaches and lake destinations are some of this summer’s most popular family travel locations. Trending places include Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Hawaii, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and Cape Cod.
Outdoor-oriented resorts and vacation rentals, family-friendly tours, houseboat rentals, well-located campgrounds and dude ranches are particularly sought after by family travelers. Western dude ranches are seeing strong bookings and limited availability according to the Dude Ranchers’ Association, with some ranches expected to have their best year ever.
Small Group Travel Is Big
Families want to travel together – they just want to know that they can do so safely. Family-friendly tour operators are seeing unprecedented growth in small family group tour bookings. Some are small group departures with set itineraries designed exclusively for families. Others are private tours specially customized to meet the family’s interests. Austin Adventures, Adventures by Disney, G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Tauck Bridges, Trafalgar Tours and others are offering these trips and some have seen double-digit growth. National parks and domestic destinations including Alaska, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado are particularly popular – although destinations such as Costa Rica, the Galapagos, Iceland and South Africa are on the rise. Small-ship companies are also seeing growth in full-ship charters for family groups as well.
Celebration Vacations Are Trending
Many family vacations to celebrate milestone events such as birthdays, graduations and anniversaries were cancelled last year due to the pandemic. Now, families and multigenerational groups are seeking a do-over and are planning vacations to celebrate these events in a big way. AmaWaterways named celebration travel as one of the key trends driving record river cruise demand, citing an increase in multigenerational and multi-family bookings.
All-inclusive resorts such as Pennsylvania’s Woodloch Resort are also seeing more bookings for family and multigenerational celebration vacations in 2021 and 2022. Walt Disney World is traditionally a popular choice for family celebration vacations. Travel advisors are reporting increased interest in family celebrations at Walt Disney World, which is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year. Travel advisors indicate celebrating families are booking all-inclusive vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico as well.
Vacation Rentals Remain Popular
Families have flocked to vacation rentals when traveling during the pandemic and that trend is continuing through 2021 as well. Vacation rentals in outdoor-oriented destinations are viewed as a one of the safer ways to travel and reconnect with family and friends. Airbnb, Vrbo and HomeToGo surveys all indicate a surge in vacation rental bookings, with HomeToGo already seeing close to a 30% increase in summer vacation rental bookings compared with last year.
Popular spots include Florida locations such Destin and Orlando, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Jersey shore, Cape Cod, Maine, Arizona, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and locations near America’s iconic national parks. Some tour operators are also utilizing luxury vacation homes as private lodges for customized family homestays with special perks and personalized hub-and-spoke itineraries as well.
Family Workations and Learning Trips Continue
The pandemic ushered in a new approach to work and school settings, with many parents and children working and learning from home. Families increasingly adapted to this shift by working and schooling remotely in vacation locations, launching the “workation” and “schoolcation” trends. Resorts and hotels have catered to families with special programs and packages to meet their remote working and learning needs. For example, families can work and play on extended stays of five nights or more at 90 different Hyatt properties ranging from Arizona, Hawaii and Colorado to Aruba, Mexico and Costa Rica. Select Four Seasons properties and other resorts have special “stay and learn” programs, too. It’s projected that this remote working and learning trend will continue in some form, even as conditions change. The strong interest in combining learning with family vacations, as noted by Trafalgar Tours and others, is likely to remain. Hotels and all-inclusive resorts are now offering a wide array of family enrichment programming and activities.
Summer Family Cruising Returns
Cruises have been popular choices for family vacations, multigenerational trips and family reunions, but the pandemic and the no-sail order enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shattered all that last year. Now, family-friendly cruising in Alaska will be resuming in the late spring and summer on small U.S.-based ships carrying less than 250 people. 2021 will be an extraordinary year to cruise Alaska without the crowds, since it currently appears that large cruise ships will not be able to journey to Alaska until 2022. Alaska received 1.3 million cruise visitors in 2019 and close to 1.6 million are expected in 2022.
In contrast, only about 15,000 cruise guests are anticipated to sail Alaska on small ship cruise lines such as UnCruise Adventures this year. UnCruise Adventures’ expedition-style voyages of discovery connect families with nature, wildlife, and Alaska’s extraordinary places. Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean recently announced summer cruises from the Bahamas, Bermuda, St. Maarten, Cyprus and Greece, providing large ship family cruise enthusiasts with alluring choices as well. With Iceland relaxing its travel restrictions, Iceland ProCruises’ memorable sailings around Iceland are exciting summer cruise options for families and multigenerational groups, too.
Vaccines Shape Family Travel Options
The vaccine rollout has been a game-changer for leisure travel, particularly for multigenerational travel’s return. International travel is on the rise, but vaccinations are becoming a travel passport for some forms of family travel. While vaccines are available for kids ages 16 and older, experts believe most younger children will not be vaccinated until later this year or even 2022. This is causing issues for families wishing to travel to international destinations requiring quarantining or other restrictions for unvaccinated travelers, regardless of age. Families with unvaccinated children are often concerned about safety and mask wearing on flights as well. Some cruise lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line and Crystal Cruises are also making vaccinations mandatory for their cruises this year, thus eliminating families with unvaccinated children. Mexico and Costa Rica do not have testing or vaccination entry requirements, making them appealing to some families seeking international travel experiences. Vrbo’s travel trends report also showed nearly 55% of families are more likely to plan a bucket list trip, but they will need to keep vaccination requirements and border openings in mind. Suppliers and travel advisors say future safaris, international destinations and multigenerational heritage trips are popular choices.
Nancy Schretter has been a leader in family and multigenerational travel for more than 20 years, covering these topics for her own publications as well as for leading magazines, newspapers, television and radio programs, and online travel sites. She is also a consultant and frequent speaker at travel industry conferences and events.
*Header Photo Credit: Flathead Lake Lodge