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Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you might not want your next trip — and perhaps your first trip in over a year — to be in a packed, urban metropolis. Enter the “second city” trip.
Second city is a somewhat ambiguous term, but it’s generally used to refer to the second-most populous city in a region, state or country. Some interpret it to extend out to the third, fourth or even 10th most populous cities in an area. In short: Skip the sprawling, highly populated metropolis for a smaller, less people-dense location.
Reasons to visit a second city this year
Many travelers are skipping the big cities and opting for their smaller counterparts. A total of 69% of respondents in the March 2021 American Express Global Travel Trends report said they are interested in visiting lesser-known destinations for their upcoming vacations — and here’s why you should consider it, too:
You’ll avoid crowds
The most obvious reason to skip the big cities in 2021 is simply to avoid being around troves of people as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that attending events and gatherings increases your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.
You’ll help reduce overcrowding
As people make up for the lost vacations, family reunions and weddings they missed in 2020 and early 2021, the tourism industry is preparing for one of the busiest travel seasons yet. TSA data show multiple days in May 2021 that have set new checkpoint records for highest passenger throughput since the beginning of the pandemic — and those records have then been broken.
Reports suggest that the travel industry is stretched to its limit in some areas. Companies that laid off workers last year now have more customer demand, providing a predicament as they try to rehire former employees or quickly hire and train new ones. And while U.S. unemployment remains high, many businesses say they can’t find enough workers, with tourism-adjacent industries, like restaurants, especially affected.
After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, the hundreds of restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip might be overwhelmed with the surge in travelers. But while flashy Vegas eateries get overrun, a sleepier, less-touristy nearby town that has been catering to locals throughout the past year likely won’t feel as overburdened by your visit.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
You might not have to fly
While the CDC has declared domestic air travel to be relatively safe for fully vaccinated travelers, and we know most airplanes have excellent ventilation, you may still be feeling hesitant.
Sure, you’ll have to fly for that trip to Mexico, but you could also consider a road trip to a second city closer to home.
If you live in Los Angeles, you might go glamping in Santa Barbara. If you live near Houston or in most Louisiana cities, it’s likely not much more than a three to four hour drive to the epicenter of Cajun cuisine in Lafayette, Louisiana.
You might be able to extend your trip — and take a 'workcation'
Some travelers might actually opt to visit both the major city and the second city. If you sat double-masked for six hours on the plane to fly across the country to San Francisco, you might as well maximize your trip by staying in Northern California for at least a few weeks — or even a month. Take your time; sip on Chardonnay in Sonoma or relax in the cabin after skiing in Lake Tahoe.
This is part of the trend of workcations, where you book accommodations for longer than usual, but still work eight hours in your (virtual) office. Because you can work remotely, you might be able to travel more days than usual while simultaneously working.
» Learn more: What COVID-era travel changes are likely here to stay?
The best second cities to consider for 2021
Here are the biggest cities in the U.S. — and a second city counterpart worth visiting:
What to do there
New York City
Cape May, New Jersey
With the ocean on one side and grand Victorian homes on the other, sprawl out on the beach with views on all sides.
Joshua Tree, California
Go camping (or glamping) amid the rugged rock formations.
Look for wildlife at Indiana Dunes National Park, which spans 15 miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Whether you prefer fishing boats or party boats, Conroe is known for its lake activities.
You might make a stop when driving Route 66. Depending on the time of year, you’ll also find snow.
Other cities around the U.S. that are heavily traveled by other tourists could also provide an opportunity for a second city trip:
Orlando: Instead of theme parks, head to Clearwater, Florida, for beaches.
Atlanta: Head off the Georgia coast to St. Simons Island for whale watching or kayaking on the water. Landlubbers can go horseback riding or wander along the picturesque streets lined with moss-draped oak trees.
Dallas: Wine might not be your first thought when you hear “Texas,” but head to Fredericksburg, part of Texas Hill Country and home to over 100 wineries.
Las Vegas: Whether you’re trying to skip the strip completely, or you’re looking for an escape for a day or two, experience instead Nevada’s wild landscapes. Red Rock Canyon is only about a 20-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip, yet it feels like it’s another world away.
These are just a few examples of how you can take a traditional big city trip and spin it into a second city one, still full of fun experiences.
» Learn more: How to find cheap things to do in any city
The bottom line
The travel industry is gearing up to serve second city vacationers. New airlines (and new routes on legacy carriers) have emerged with routes to smaller cities, and hotels are opening to house these travelers.
This spring, Southwest announced plans for new routes to cities including:
Santa Barbara, California.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Similarly, Hyatt opened a boutique hotel in Tennessee’s second city of Memphis this spring, Hyatt Centric Beale Street Memphis, and another in Merced, California called El Capitan Hotel, which is just a short drive from Yosemite National Park.
Your international trips might be off the table for now, and depending on the city you’re visiting, you still might not be able to dine at an indoor table. Travel is different this year, but that’s not a bad thing. Get creative with the places you visit, and don’t overlook the benefits of visiting the second cities.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card