Revival of the Great American Road Trip

August 26, 2020

Beginning in the 1930s and gaining popularity until the 1980s, the ideal American vacation, no matter the length or destination, started with a road trip. 

Equipped with AAA’s “'little spiral-bound book that mapped the trip – with directions, places to stop to eat and hotel recommendations,’”[1] guidebooks produced by the Automobile Club of America, and even the coveted Michelin guide. The American road trip as we know it took shape and assumed a dominant role in popular recreation “as more and more Americans incorporated it into their visions of recreation and leisure.”[2]

As the 1980s came around, so too did fundamental changes within the US airline industry. The Airline Deregulation Act in 1978 removed the federal government’s control over such areas as fares, routes, and market entry of new airlines.[3] The introduction of a free market in the commercial airline industry, coupled with exponential growth in number of flights and massive decreases in fares[4] ushered in a new standard to vacationing for most Americans. “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.”[5]

Through all of these changes, even in the foundational meaning of what a family vacation meant, the great American road trip continues to attract new adventurers. The question of “are we there yet” and the proclamation of “I have to use the bathroom again” never quite disappeared. In a 2018 expose titled, ‘The Future of American Road Trips,’ Skift notes that modern road trips usually happen a few times a year instead of annually, they’re usually shorter in length, and most likely to involve the younger demographic of adventurers. According to MMGY Global’s 2017–18 Portrait of American Travelers study, 39 percent of U.S. leisure travel in 2016 included a road trip, up 17 points from the year prior. The consumer expenditures on road trip travel surged from $66.6 billion in 2015 to $113.7 billion in 2016, and domestic vacations made up 85 percent of American vacations, up 7 points from the year prior.[6]

In that same MMGY study, the No. 1 reason people choose to road trip is the ability to make stops along the way, followed by the ability to pack everything needed for the vacation in the car, and then lower vacation costs. From a social perspective, the study said 75 percent of road trippers cited experiencing different cultures as a motivation to travel.[7]

By now, we all know the world of 2020 looks unexplainably different than any of us could have foreseen in 2018. At the beginning of this year, as COVID-19 flew, drove, and sailed around the world moving from human to human regardless of demographic or sociographic barriers, the world came to a near standstill. With travel bans enacted around the world, border closures not seen since WW2, and shutdowns of travel through no sail orders and plane groundings, the world is experiencing “… an economic tsunami,” the likes of which “…there’s no analogue to [in] the modern era.”[8] Now, just months later, the world is slowly awakening, shaking off what Forbes has deemed “The Great Shutdown.”[9]  

As most states start to loosen COVID19 restrictions, and businesses start to open up, 45% of vacation delayers will begin to prioritize booking a vacation/trip.[10] With a majority of America still feeling unsafe about air travel, and unwilling to risk the health of themselves or their families, it seems the great American road trip is positioned to make a “Roaring 20s” comeback. In the Future of Travel Survey recently released by Generali Global Assistance, 73 percent of respondents said they plan to go on a vacation this year with 47 percent indicating they would be traveling domestically this summer.

With COVID-19 recovery coinciding with summer vacation, and universities/schools suspending in-person classes until 2021, Americans who have been sheltering in place are ready to start adventuring once more.

An ongoing survey by PYMNTS shows that, “27.8 percent [of Americans] 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 [of] their four walls.”[11] Combining this information with data from GWI’s Coronavirus tracker, indicating 68 percent of Americans are ready to resume travel, “When I feel it's safe to travel,”[12] and Longwoods survey which finds, “86 percent of respondents plan to visit a domestic destination in the next six months,”[13] we can further confirm that the pent up demand will ultimately be funneled into a revival of the great American road trip.

“People are going to be traveling and taking summer vacations this summer – it’s just going to be different,” Adam Sacks, president of the Tourism Economics research firm told CNN Business. “Traveling is going to be weighted toward traveling within one’s driving region.”[14]

The preliminary data further reinforces Adam Sacks comments of a revival of the great American road trip.  In the most recent Future of Travel Survey released by Generali Global Assistance in July, we can see that an overwhelming majority of American travelers, 72 percent, indicated they’d be taking their car to their  getaway this summer. In the same survey, only 23 percent of respondents indicated they would be comfortable traveling by plane this summer. Correlated with new findings from the data research firm ADARA: "state flight bookings for Labor Day weekend are down 90 percent year over year at this point, however lodging bookings are only down 23 percent during the same time period.”[15] This seems to suggest people are planning to travel this summer – they just aren’t planning on flying.[16]

So…when will the revival take place? What will it look like? How long will it continue for? Are they safer for my family? These unknowns are still being answered; however, we can assume that since news about community spread of COVID-19 continues to pepper the media, trips to large metropolitan cities like New York will be less appealing than remote camping trips, national parks adventures, lake houses or cabins rentals, and a rising star – RV trips.

Austin, Texas based Outdoorsy, for example, is a peer-to-peer marketplace connecting RV owners with other campers with similar interests who want to experience RVing without the burdens of ownership. Their local selection includes everything from vintage Airstreams, toy haulers, fifth wheelers, Class A, B, and C of RVs, as well as garden variety trailers and motorhomes.

While travelers were canceling or rescheduling most vacations plans during the last few months, Outdoorsy has had 2.5 million visits to just in May, which is up 93 percent YOY despite the pandemic.

Not only is RVing becoming one of the most popular ways to experience the great outdoors, it is also the only all-inclusive way to travel. Positioned as the ideal vacation for the social distancing traveler who wants the outdoor experience during the day and the ability to shower and sleep in a real bed at night.

When speaking with Jeff Cavins, the Co-Founder of Outdoorsy, he explains that with people pressed into cities which are starting to act like urban pressure cookers, the road trip is an ultimate healing mechanism—assisting with the health of the nation and playing a really big role in society as we push towards a new normal.

If you’re still on the fence, it’s worth noting that Outdoorsy prices for affordability. At a time when households and businesses have been hit hard, a road trip in an RV or campervan can be a more affordable option than traveling by air. And, according to Outdoorsy, with their ever-growing fleet of affordable rentals, at an average rate of $121/night (2019 data) compared to $133/night average U.S hotel rate,[17] RV vacations can be up to 60% cheaper—especially when gas prices are low.

As RVing and other forms of road trip travel continue to offer Americans a sense of safety and adventure while vacationing, the trend may continue to gain steam. Perhaps what we are seeing across the country will continue to surge post COVID-19 as more travelers rediscover the Great American Road Trip.