How the COVID Era Has Inspired Travel for 2021

After almost a year of staying close to home, some travelers are ready for bucket list trips in 2021.
Dec 22, 2020

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When Gianna De Salvo took her 4-year-old daughter Arabella to see Santa Claus this year, it was far from the merry experience she anticipated.

“She took one look at him and froze,” De Salvo says. Santa was wearing a mask. That’s not what Arabella was expecting, and there was certainly no lap-sitting; Arabella stood behind a piece of tape indicating how close she could get.

That’s when De Salvo, a parent coach who runs a business called Joyful Parent Coaching, decided: 2021 is going to be the best Christmas ever. Her thought process is not unique as many 2020 would-be travelers look to rebound in bigger and better ways in 2021.

A higher tolerance for cost

Not long after returning home from the Santa misadventure, De Salvo started browsing online and discovered what she’s calling a “trip of a lifetime” to a place called Lapland.

Located in Finland at the edge of the Arctic Circle, Lapland is a tourist destination where Santa supposedly lives. To get that far north, her family will take a private charter plane from their home in the U.K. Once there, they’ll partake in sled rides pulled by Siberian huskies, a reindeer petting zoo and snowmobiling.

The three-day excursion will cost roughly $4,000, and De Salvo has already put down a deposit on a 2021 trip.

“I want her to fall in love with Santa again,” De Salvo says. “We want to rekindle that love that she had when she was 3, since it won’t last forever.”

De Salvo says it’s a huge expense, but it will cost less than what they saved by not traveling this year. She’s American and her husband is Australian, and they typically travel to each of their countries annually, on top of an additional summer vacation.

“We saved money from not traveling, and we want to be able to do something truly memorable as a family,” she says.

Travel spending a top priority for many

With 2020 vacation budgets mostly untouched, some people now have extra money to spend. Others who witnessed their vacations taken away realized that it’s time to plan that bucket list trip in 2021. And for many, the endless cycle of mundane weekends and awkward video happy hours finally prompted planning more travel.

American Express polled 2,000 U.S. adults who traveled by air at least once in 2019 and have an annual household income of at least $70,000 as part of the December 2020 Amex Trendex report. They asked respondents what they anticipate their top big purchase in 2021 will be. Indeed, travel came in on top, taking in 22% of responses.

Katie Black, a Salesforce consultant in the U.K., would have answered "home" if she took this survey this time last year. She and her boyfriend planned on buying a house, but coronavirus-related obstacles kept blocking them.

“Not getting the house was actually a blessing,” she says. “Instead of committing the next 35 years to spending thousands on a house, we’re taking a year to travel, live and experience cultures so far from our own.”

They plan to backpack through Southeast Asia for a year, including a six-month stop in Bali, Indonesia, which she'll document on her travel blog. The couple plan to get married in May 2021, and then leave for the trip — which they call an extended honeymoon — in June.

“From a financial perspective, it might not be the most savvy thing,” she says. “But I realized I needed something different. The experience I’m going to get from it is worth it.”

More international travel

Like Black, many travelers are planning big international trips for 2021. Atlas Obscura, a U.S.-based travel company that puts on organized group trips to off-the-beaten-path locations, shared booking data with NerdWallet. While 80% of trips booked in 2019 were international, 91% of 2021’s trips are so far.

“In general, what's being booked skews longer in trip length, further from home and more adventurous,” says Atlas Obscura spokesperson Alexa Harrison.

Luxury will be in demand

Travel providers already anticipate people will prefer luxury in 2021. Qatar Airways launched service out of San Francisco in December with 36 seats in Qsuite Business Class, the airline’s premium cabin that includes a double bed made possible by privacy panels that stow away, allowing passengers in adjoining seats to create their own private room.

Photo courtesy of Qatar Airways

And Neiman Marcus is already banking on people choosing travel over physical items. The department store's 2020 Fantasy Gifts guide is largely composed of over-the-top trips, like the $345,000 getaway to a chalet in the remote Alaskan wilderness, located outside Denali National Park and Preserve. Even if it’s items you’ll buy, Neiman Marcus is betting high rollers will purchase “travel stuff” like the $255,000 Bowlus, a custom-made luxury RV.

While those are obviously designed for the wealthiest among us — and make the $4,000 Lapland trip look like small potatoes — they serve as travel inspiration for the window shoppers.

“We had anticipated this holiday season to be different,” says Amber Seikaly, chief communications officer of Neiman Marcus. “We anticipated widespread interest in safe and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, triggered by an increase in wanderlust and a desire to share those types of experiences with their loved ones.”

De-stressing while still social distancing

That’s not to say all 2021 vacations will be extravagant and expensive. Casandra Karpiak, who lives with her family outside of Vancouver, Canada, has a grand trip planned next year — and it might turn out to be cheaper than her usual travels.

They’re planning to rent an RV and drive to the Arctic Circle, a trip she says few Canadians ever take, despite it being a domestic trip. Their epic journey will have them navigating the infamous Dempster Highway through the Northwest Territories, taking breaks for hiking and exploring, and ultimately stopping when the road ends in the village of Tuktoyaktuk on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.

Karpiak’s trip will likely cost a tiny fraction of the Neiman Marcus trips and Qatar Airways Qsuites, but it does have something in common with those lavish travels: a clear response to 2020, in terms of both maintaining social distancing and recovering from the stress of the past year. Most people will still want to spread out, whether it’s avoiding the person sneezing in the middle seat, being able to vacation in the middle of nowhere or staying distanced from the comfort of your own RV.

“The vaccines are starting to roll out, but my son has an allergy,” Karpiak says. "Canada still has a two-week quarantine upon return. I would feel much more comfortable exploring in nature, as there’s going to be so much space between us and other people.”

While it’s likely that travel will pick back up, Karpiak, who runs her own travel blog, is still cautious of booking a trip that requires an airplane or that might be tough to cancel.

“We’re still uncertain of how 2021 travel is all going to play out,” she says.

Still, she’s expecting that this trip, which deviates widely from her family’s usual jaunts to Europe, will be one of their best trips ever.

“Up until 2020, we were so focused on other parts of the world and neglected our own amazing backyards,” she says. “I anticipate this trip to be one for the record books.”

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