What’s your pleasure? travel

We know more Americans traveled last year, and now we know more about who traveled and how they traveled.

Most people traveled for pleasure, not business, and most of that travel is within the United States.

U.S. leisure travel increased about 2 percent last year, accounting for 80 percent of all U.S. travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA).

Overall, airlines carried a record 965 million U.S. passengers* in 2017, up 3.4 percent from the previous high in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). More than three-quarters of those passengers (742 million) were on flights within the United States.

Airline passenger traffic 2003-17

Travelers were more likely to choose closer-to-home destinations with paid lodgings, but not necessarily a packaged flight, according to travel research firm Phocuswright. In fact, air and cruise purchases declined in 2017, and prepackaged vacations were flat, it said.

Leisure travelers spent $718 billion in 2017, nearly double the amount spent by business travelers and up 5 percent from 2016, according to the USTA. Food and lodging were the top two spending categories.

Here’s how those USTA numbers broke down for 2017:

  • Travelers spent $257 billion on food at restaurants, grocery stores and bars, accounting for 25 percent of all U.S. traveler spending.
  • Travelers spent $220 billion on lodging, including vacation homes and campgrounds, accounting for 21 percent of total U.S. traveler spending. Although more than two-thirds of U.S. travelers (68 percent) stayed in a hotel, that declined from 73 percent in 2016, according to Phocuswright.
  • Spending on auto travel rose 8 percent, mostly due to higher gasoline prices. Phocuswright also found that the number of car rentals also increased slightly
Phocuswright travel trends
Leisure travel trends from 2014 to 2017. (Courtesy of Phocuswright)

U.S. air travel continues to rise this year. As of April, the number of air passengers was up about 5 percent from a year ago, according to BTS statistics.

* Passengers on domestic and international trips traveling on U.S. or foreign airlines.

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6 travel trends to look for this year

Who doesn’t love to travel?

Each year, many of us add more destinations to our bucket list and new experiences we want as part of those trips. That’s partly why travel is up and expected to grow even faster this year, according to the US Travel Association. Another reason is the strong economy and high unemployment giving people the means to travel.

Here are six trends that may reshape the way we travel this year and beyond:

1. Unplug

More travelers want to refresh themselves and escape their busy lives. They’re prioritizing mental health over fun and thrills, according to the ATTA-Outside study.

This trend, however, varies by age, according to AARP. Nearly half of boomers say they travel to relax and rejuvenate or as a getaway from everyday life. But nearly three-quarters of millennials expect to bring work along on a trip.

I wrote an article about spa travel for the Chicago Tribune in late 2016. Spa spending has grown steadily over the last decade.

Japanese garden at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary
The Japanese garden at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, Calif., offers another way to relax and meditate. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

2. Higher prices

That relaxation may come at a higher cost this year — a reflection of the stronger U.S. economy and growing travel demand, according to a report by Carlson Wagonlit Travel and the GBTA Foundation. They expect global airfares to rise 3.5 percent, hotel prices to increase 3.7 percent and ground transportation, such as taxis, trains and buses, to remain more or less flat.

“If 2017 was the rise of the airline carriers’ “basic economy/no frills” concept, 2018 will be the hotel industry’s big year for ancillary charges,” according to a report by American Express. More lodgings are charging higher rates for a refundable room and fees for services that used to be free, such as Wi-Fi service, holding luggage, parking, early departures or a room safe, it said.

This may affect older travelers more because Baby Boomers (people age 54-72) prefer to stay in hotels or motels for amenities such as the concierge and room service, according to AARP. Millennials (age 13-36) are more open to staying in private home rentals, citing better prices, more space and amenities like a kitchen or washer/dryer.

3. Travel restrictions

Cheap regional airfares, home rentals and social media hype has contributed to overtourism in many popular places worldwide. Italy’s Cinque Terre is trying to control large tour groups that visit the five small, hillside towns linked by a trail along the Ligurian coast. Peru’s Machu Picchu restricts the number of visitors and how and when they access its ruins. Norway has introduced safety digital marketing to help deal with increased tourism and rescue calls.

The ATTA expects more places to restrict visitor access as governments and local residents protest the impact of overtourism on historical sites, pollution, traffic and the cost of living.

4. Customized travel

More people traveling to more places means there are fewer hidden gems and untrammeled areas. Research by Deloitte and the ATTA show that more travelers want personalized itineraries in their quest to experience something truly different.

5. Go local

Travelers also want more authentic interactions with local residents and communities, according to a study by the ATTA, East Carolina University and Outside magazine. This may include immersive experiences, such as staying overnight in a villager’s home or visiting a farm to learn about their sustainability efforts.

AARP found similar trends among international travelers: 49 percent want to “tour with a local” vs. 40 percent in 2017.

Bike and donkey in New Zeland
Personalized travel, such as a multi-day bicycle tour in New Zealand, lets you get closer to local people and animals. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

6. Virtual travel

Simulated travel experiences based on virtual and augmented reality technology provide access for people who can’t travel, enhance travel with behind-the-scene looks at damaged or hard-to-reach sites and create new marketing opportunities, according to the ATTA. Discovery Communications’ Discovery TRVLR project takes people to the seven continents using VR headsets. Go Under the Canopy takes people into the Amazon rainforest in an educational VR tour by Conservation International and Jaunt. You can take an interactive kayak tour of the Grand Canyon with Immersive Entertainment.

Virtual travel still can’t replace the real thing.