Editor’s note: In light of COVID-19, please review federal, state and local traveler guidance. Please also check with hotels before booking to confirm they are open and operating with safety precautions.
In a year that challenged us to rethink every aspect of our lives, a few new travel trends were bound to emerge. Luckily, what this year took from us in terms of ability of travel, it also gave back to us in terms of ingenuity. Travelers today are getting outside their comfort zones and finding pleasures in the unknown. So, what travel trends do we expect to stick around in 2021? Flexible airline and hotel bookings (see ya, cancelation fees!); the workcation and investing in extended stays; discovering remote corners of our own homelands; trips rooted in mindfulness; getting there by road, or better yet, via car-camp or an RV; and supporting small and BIPOC businesses all along the way.
When it comes to 2021, the world of travel is still hard to predict, of course, but what we’re seeing clearly is that this ingenuity will survive, and the landscape will look a lot different than it did pre-COVID-19. Armed with some current data, conversations with experts in the industry, the glimmer of a return to normalcy and, well, a dash of intuition, here are all the 2021 travel trends your inner wanderlust will come across this coming year.
1. People Will *Actually* Start Traveling Again
Multiple studies show that travel is steadily picking up and will continue to over the next few months; and with the rollout of two now-approved vaccines, these numbers are only likely to climb. “While travel during the pandemic has focused on close-to-home destinations, for trips planned in the summer and beyond [of 2021], people are thinking big and far away to satisfy their pent-up wanderlust,” Christina Tunnah, General Manager of the Americas for travel insurance provider World Nomads, tells us.
So, when will travel truly get more normal-ish? Likely starting in early summer 2021, when global luxury travel network Virtuoso is already seeing a significant surge in bookings. In fact, overall hotel bookings for the month of June 2021 are up 146 percent over May 2021 alone, and they also tell us they’re seeing bookings increase in September and October of 2021, meaning people are optimistic about the vaccine and getting back to a more normal way of life.
The best part? There will be serious travel deals along the way. “We’re already seeing major fare sales on airlines like Southwest and JetBlue. Expect discounts on flights, hotels, travel packages and more as companies try to entice travelers to get back out there,” says Sara Rathner, credit cards and travel expert at NerdWallet.
2. But We’ll Be Staying “Local”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, travelers are limited on international options. So data around bookings and our general travel research right now is focused on destinations that are open to American tourists, packed with natural beauty and offer ample (and suggested) room to spread out. Priceline analyzed all hotel booking data to determine the top destinations for the first few months of 2021, and Cancun, Riviera Maya, Key West and Atlanta are already high on travelers’ lists. In fact, both Mexico in general (up 113 percent) and the Dominican Republic (up 205 percent) have seen significant increases in popularity as travelers look to go abroad in the first quarter of this coming year, their rep tells us.
Thanks to islands being proactive and protecting their citizens and travelers, with strict entry and exit protocols, destinations like St. Barth, Anguilla, St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados and the Bahamas will also prove to be popular choices in 2021, with promise also revealing itself for Costa Rica, Brazil and Peru.
Looking to get away closer to home? Data from Rovia, which provides travel and lifestyle services for millions worldwide, suggests you might already be interested in a Las Vegas or Napa jaunt this year.
3. Rapid Testing Will Become the Norm at Touchdown & Check-In
Traveling in larger groups for conferences, corporate events, destination weddings and beyond will be that much more possible in ‘21 thanks to hotels and destinations offering on-site rapid PCR COVID-19 testing. This exact type of test, for example, will be available once you deplane or prior to take off in destinations like Dublin, Ireland. It’s also a perk launching in the new year for guests and staff of the recently revamped W South Beach, which will have its own dedicated, on-site testing center and eventually plans to offer in-room testing, too. Partnering with New York's leading medical concierge, Sollis Health, W South Beach will get its guests results within 24 hours and also add peace of mind by providing those "in residence" with access to top medical professionals.
4. Travelers Will Be Making Up for Lost Time (with Their Wallets)
If there’s one takeaway from VRBO’s extensive 2021 trend report, let it be this: Travelers are ready to go big. It makes sense—we’re making up for lost time, after all. Symptomatic of canceled trips in 2020, the vacation rental booking platform's report reveals that travelers are ready to pull out all the stops next year. In fact, 65 percent of travelers plan on traveling more than they did prior to the pandemic; 33 percent are willing to throw down more on a trip when it comes to spending; and 54 percent revealed that 2021 is the year they’ll finally stop talking about that bucket list trip and make it a reality.
5. Retro Motels Are Making Their Comeback
Call it a symptom of Schitt’s Creek fandom or attribute it to the '50s and '60s-chicness we all just witnessed while bingeing The Queen’s Gambit, but in 2021, the retro-style motel is getting its much-deserved comeback. “Travelers, now more than ever, are looking for ways to minimize touchpoints and contact while on the road, so the demand for drive-up style rooms and exterior corridors will continue to rise in 2021,” says John Russell, CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corporation, which owns Signature Inn, a brand well ahead of this burgeoning trend. And with this revival of the motor inn, there will also be a revival of foundational design layouts and principles of motels, Russel adds—with a modern twist, of course—just check out that surprisingly chic Marilyn Monroe shower.
6. “Ghost Kitchens” Will Be a Thing
With more people looking to limit interactions when they do choose to travel, a spike in room service is inevitable. However, the whole concept is about to drastically change, as more hotels rely on “ghost kitchens” to provide their catering services. This is because the business model for room service has long been defunct and expensive—which as a consequence is passed on to your bill and means many hotels lose money on room service in the process.
Enter one of these leading ghost kitchens, Butler Hospitality, which operates in many New York City hotels, recently expanded to the Chicago and Miami markets, and is about to go national. They provide quality grub and convenience items you expect when you check in and are able to get it to your room in a fast fashion. In turn, and because they're servicing lots of different hotels rather than each property having its own dedicated kitchen, that means you also score on meal offerings that are catered to your taste buds by popularity, with the added bonus of healthier ingredients and lower prices.
7. Hotel Bars Are About to Smell Extra Fresh
We could all use a spritz of something special to liven up the mood next year, and whether you decide to travel locally or globally in ‘21, we’re noticing an emerging hotel, restaurant and bar trend from New York to Berlin to the Caribbean that’s centered around fragrances…for your cocktails. At the recently opened and very dreamy Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf, guests can sit on the gorgeous veranda to take in the sunset and the red roofs of St. Barth as the bar man comes by with a very special leather box. Filled with delicious, edible fragrances to smell and sample—including bergamot, lemon, lavender and Thai basil—innovative craft cocktails are then spritzed and infused with the scent of your choosing. The best part: Whether you decide to travel or not, you can always get in on the trend at home.
8. “Extra” Private Dining Options Will Become the Norm
Next year, expect to see outdoor dining setups and private dining experiences that will completely blow your mind. With restrictions relaxed in many cities and towns to better accommodate outdoor dining space, and hotels and resorts giving a second life to underleveraged space on their properties, you might find yourself eating in very Instagrammable al fresco moment. Just a few examples: In Hawaii, Hotel Wailea is letting guests sit in a completely private treehouse suspended over a stunning coastline amongst mango trees that was once intended to host outdoor spa treatments. Hotel 50 Bowery in NYC built an outdoor chef’s counter and is offering up a 13-course Yakitori Omakase menu, with master Chikarashi Isso as a pop-up to highlight Japanese Yakitori and Kappo cuisine. Meanwhile, Hotel Revival partnered with a local Baltimore artist, Will Watson, to bring an outdoor, socially distant street art dining experience to life. Perhaps, though, the dinner and a show takeout offering from Roly China Fusion, a Palm Springs restaurant, will be the most memorable. During a “drag queen delivery” from the restaurant, local drag queens will deliver dinner to your vacation rental or home and then do a masked performance from a distance!
9. Rooms Will Be Bigger & Better with More Individual Space
When it comes to checking into a hotel, the days of getting your key card and aimlessly roaming a never-ending hallway to find your room are long gone. Instead, in 2021, you should expect a range of new accommodation options that appeal to every type of traveler and their individual comfort level.
Even before the pandemic hit, hotels and resorts were making investments in more private, away-from-the-pack lodging options, but the pandemic has accelerated the desirability of these offerings. Take, for instance, the well-timed introduction of Rosewood Washington, D.C.’s standalone townhouses, a new category of accommodations ideal for today’s travel climate. Or, the brand-new, Prieta Bay Private Retreat residences being offered by Four Seasons Resort at Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica. Whether you stay in this eco-friendly beachfront villa located in a residential enclave or at Rosewood’s urban offering, you get the best of both worlds at either—a private space to limit interactions, with all the amenities and service of a great resort when you need them.
Secluded and safe rooms at larger resorts with their own individual amenities will be sought out by travelers too, like the ones available at Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico. Here, rooms can have private plunge pools, an outdoor shower, outdoor dining areas, and more.
Meanwhile, those who need extra space to spread out safely will find it in the Nomadic Travel Pods at Palmaïa, which offer the opportunity to book an entire floor, inclusive of up to nine adjacent suites. Since so many families were unable to see their relatives during the pandemic, expect a surge in these kinds of bookings in 2021.
Or, you could simply rent out an entire resort, because, why not? Meliá Hotels International is offering a new level of privacy and safety with several of their resorts now offering special travel experiences that are just for you and yours.
10. And Communal Spaces Will Be Smaller
A well-established trend as 2020 started, those communal spaces in hotels will—for obvious reasons—go the wayside in 2021. Avenue Interior Design, a Los Angeles based interior design firm that’s worked on some pretty recognizable boutique and corporate hotels across the globe, is seeing a shift and emphasis on guest room experience instead. “Guestroom size may grow, bathrooms may become more spa-like and we suspect we will see the introduction of what we’re calling ‘lifestyle schemes,’” says Andrea DeRosa, the firm’s co-founder and co-creative director. This means more meaningful fitness options (think in-room Peloton bikes, mat Pilates equipment, or space to spread out and do your virtual iFit personal training sessions), plus better workstation setups and guest rooms with “family rooms” that cater to extended stays with children, she adds.