Road Trips Reign Supreme for Labor Day Travel

Americans are getting behind the wheel and scoring last-minute deals

Road trip

Daniel Milchev / Getty Images

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, and it tends to be the last travel hurrah before the crisp fall temperatures whisk in, but with COVID-19's impact on travel this year, will the Labor Day vacation become a thing of the past? Not so fast—with many borders remaining closed and air travel decreasing, many Americans still plan to hit the road by car.

According to Arrivalist, road trips are down by 5.3 percent compared to last year, but more than 42 million Americans still plan to get behind the wheel.

While AAA didn't release its Memorial Day or Labor Day travel trends this year (for the first time in 20 years!), the company's summer travel forecast estimated that Americans will have taken 700 million trips from the period between July 1 and Sept. 30. Despite the significant number, it's still a drop of almost 15 percent compared to the same time last year. However, out of those 700 million trips, a whopping 97 percent will be via the road. That's up from the five-year average of 87 percent.

Not surprisingly, AAA reports travel by air is down 73.9 percent and rail and cruise by 85 percent—meanwhile, automobile travel only saw a three percent decline.

While many people plan months for a getaway, the new trend sees last-minute plans becoming the norm, with some Americans booking travel plans just 48 hours in advance, according to AAA. Hotwire, a favorite among travelers seeking wallet-friendly prices, has also noticed an uptick in spur-of-the-moment bookings, particularly with rental car deals. 

"We've seen overall interest in car rentals growing steadily since April, with 71 percent of travelers now booking within one week of their trip, compared to 60 percent in 2019," said Nick Graham, Hotwire's general manager. 

And when people finally do decide to venture out, where are they going? Some major cities are starting to see a rebound in visitors, but less crowded, socially-distanced destinations are also on the rise. According to Skyscanner, the most-booked destinations for this year's long weekend include stalwarts like Las Vegas, L.A., New York City, and Chicago, but Denver also makes a surprising appearance—presumably for outdoor lovers.

"We see the traditional top domestic destinations continuing to do well, as travelers use extremely competitive prices being offered by many airlines to return to their favorite hotspots within the U.S.," explained Skyscanner's travel expert, Jon Thorne.

While there are deals in popular destinations, new Airbnb data suggests travelers are increasingly seeking smaller cities and unique experiences for Labor Day weekend. Thirty percent of the company's booked trips are for stays in more remote areas that have access to water or spacious outdoors like Big Bear Lake, California, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Interest in the above has nearly doubled since last year, according to the company.

Modes of transportation and location choices are changing, but Airbnb also notes the actual accommodations people are booking have changed as well. Labor Day bookings for apartments have been slashed in half, while the number of travelers opting for a cabin has nearly doubled. July listings also saw major booms (up to 60 percent increases) in shepherd's huts, cottages, cabins, and even barns.

It's clear: Americans are hitting the road—and they're probably heading to a yurt.

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