What does optimism look like?
A lot like this, we think.
The year 2021 brought with it a ray of hope for travel enthusiasts around the world. With the “new normal” settling in, there was finally something to look forward to beyond the four walls of our homes (with all safety precautions in place of course). This reflects in search behavior over the last three months in the USA, with “travel 2021” seeing a gradual rise over the last 3–4 months.
It’s been so long since we embarked on a “carefree” trip without the pandemic weighing on us that near-term nostalgia faded away within days of the pandemic and people started reminiscing about long past adventures, childhood holidays, and even a different era altogether (we’re looking at you, Bridgerton fans).
What did you seek from pre-COVID travels?
Escape? Exploration? Cultural immersion? Entertainment?
The Pre-COVID American Traveler
Last year we studied the travel motivations of American travelers for a client. We used our Culture AI to analyze search behavior, social media content, blogs, reviews, and forum conversations to understand pre-COVID travel motivations, interests, and behavior.
Hawaii and Cuba topped the list of dream destinations, while the top destinations that people seemed to be actively planning to visit were Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, Los Angeles, and Honolulu.
Out of eight broad categories of travel motivations based on travel-related search behavior across ten countries, the three dominant motivators for American travelers were found to be:
1. Escape and relaxation: Travel to slow down and escape from everyday routines — think all-inclusive resorts, private villas, spas, wellness retreats, luxury cruises, and family hotels. Jamaica, Thailand, and Italy were the most popular destinations in this category.
2. Nightlife: Travel to experience cities through the after-hours entertainment scene at bars, nightclubs, red-light districts, parties, concerts, circus shows, and festivals. Amsterdam, Las Vegas, and Toronto were the most popular destinations in this category.
3. Leisure pursuits: Travel to indulge in leisure activities like staying in high-end luxury hotels, shopping, and fine dining. Mumbai, Dubai, and Dublin were the most popular destinations in this category.
While younger Americans sought out far-flung destinations, older travelers found comfort in the familiar. Male travelers’ preferences were skewed towards nightlife, while female travelers sought both leisure pursuits and nightlife. Gen Z (18–24 years) and older travelers (35+ years) were more inclined towards leisure activities, while Millennials (25–34 years) traveled to escape from their daily routine and relax.
Although American travelers’ choice of destinations has changed post-COVID (keeping safety and travel restrictions in mind), their intrinsic travel motivations (i.e. the “DNA” of an American traveler) remain the same.
Despite being unable to travel abroad, the appetite for overseas travel is temporarily whetted through virtual travel, throwback posts, and future travel bucket lists on social media.
Meanwhile, Americans are turning to domestic travel to cure their wanderlust.
The American road trip is witnessing a second heyday with travelers preferring road travel over flights. RV camper rentals spiked last summer while old-school Airstream trailers experienced a 22 percent jump in retail sales last year. This trend is likely to continue in 2021.
People are embarking on short weekend getaways and staycations, working from hotels, and looking to explore and re-discover their own homeland which they may have neglected in the past.
In light of these trends, we handpicked a few interesting, offbeat, lesser-known travel experiences and destinations to lift you out of your COVID blues.
The Great American Road Trip
The USA has numerous stunning road trip routes: the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway (a paradise for birders), the Bluebonnet Trail in Texas, U.S. 1 Florida Keys, the majestic Route 12 in Utah, the Trail Ridge Road in Colorado, Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, Highway 101 Oregon — the list is endless no matter where you are.
One place that is off the beaten path is Slab City, also known as “the last free place on earth.” Rent an RV, drive down to the Slabs in Southern California, and live your adventure after a year of being holed up at home.
An off-the-grid community of snowbirds, Slab City gets its name from the concrete slabs left behind from World War II Marine Corps’ Camp Dunlap (an artillery training basecamp). Initially settled by Marine base veterans, it later drew drifters, oddballs, artists, homeless people, migrants, and RV owners in search of free parking spots outside Palm Springs.
It might sound odd, but head here to immerse yourself in a different world, where people challenge the ideas and notions of freedom and live on their own terms. Tourists are called Normies while the residents call themselves Slabbies.
The place boasts of an outdoor music venue called The Range, a free library, and the colorful Salvation Mountain, an art installation created by an early settler, Leonard Knight, that was featured in the movie Into the Wild and took 30 years to create.
East Jesus is another art installation and features a variety of experimental art including live events, performance art, and sculptures. It is sustainable and habitable art made of trash — decaying, growing, evolving with time and seasons.
Architect and author Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wiley note that Slab City has a unique orientation. The layout of the place is a grid, with stone slabs and the leftover infrastructure of a working town, yet it exists completely off the grid with respect to services. Each dwelling showcases its own individuality and the structures reveal the people.
Camping here is free for as long as you want, though it gets very hot in the summer so make a trip before or after. There are plenty of places that you can travel to from here, including Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs, and Cleveland National Forest.
Though Slab City is isolated, it is still at risk of the coronavirus and all safety precautions must be taken. Also, check out this travel vlog about what not to do at Slab City!
America’s newest national parks
People are actively seeking immersive nature experiences after a year of being indoors. They aren’t satisfied with city hikes and “contained” nature like neighborhood parks and city forests; they want “extreme nature” like national parks that are vast and expansive, where they can be isolated by nature and in nature.
Yosemite National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon immediately come to mind when we think of the great outdoors, but why not explore one of America’s 12 newest national parks this year?
Not far from Slab City is Joshua Tree National Park that will transport you to not just another world but another planet! Marked by indigenous plants of all shapes and sizes, the landscape is straight out of a sci-fi movie and makes for a perfect getaway for nature lovers, adventure-seekers, photographers, climbers, and hikers.
West Virginia’s New River Gorge was recently announced as the state’s first national park and the USA’s 63rd national park as part of a COVID-19 stimulus package. Ideal for rock climbing, whitewater rafting, paddling, and mountain biking, it is also an outdoor museum of black coal miners and rail workers who lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A few other less-known national parks on our travel bucket list are Congaree in South Carolina, Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Pinnacles National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado.
Each of these places offers an escape from Zoom calls and PowerPoint decks, and promises to fill our days with outdoor adventure and exploration — something we’ve so missed this past year!
Magical treehouses and nomadic yurts
In an attempt to reconnect with nature post-lockdown, there’s growing interest in weekend getaways and staycations that are close to nature. Are these early signs of the decline of city living? Will the silhouettes of trees become the new skylines to covet? Only time will tell, but for now, Airbnb has plenty on offer, from magical treehouses to yurts that are ideal for “glamping.”
Treehouses have a strong association with childhood: memories of building them in the backyard, a hideaway from the main house, tucked away amidst trees, our own little place in the world, safe and cozy — exactly what we need right now.
The Majestic Treehouse in Walhalla, South Carolina is straight out of a fairytale. Make your mundane weekend exciting and magical by spending time amidst treetops in a 40-acre farm (with all COVID safety protocols in place).
The Rainforest Tree House in Costa Rica is equally enticing. Organically integrated with a 35-acre rainforest, this beautiful property boasts 15 hot and cool springs to relax and unwind.
The Insta-famous Secluded Intown Treehouse in Atlanta, Georgia is also Airbnb’s most wish-listed property in the world. Sleep on a bed up in the trees and wake up to the sound of birds chirping sweet nothings as you relax and reconnect with nature and yourself.
New Yorkers can head to Willow Treehouse near Woodstock to enjoy some time out from the hustle and bustle of big city life without traveling too far.
Finally, yurts, or circular tents originally used by nomadic tribes, have become a symbol of glamping in the USA in recent years. Our favorite ones (based on online research) are Yurt at Danvile, Austin Glamping, Vermont Retreat, Hippie Yurt in Arizona, and a secluded off-grid yurt-home in the woods in New Hampshire.
Simple pleasures of small-town life
The small towns of America are possibly the most underrated travel destinations in the country. Lakes, beaches, old-world architecture, and historic streets — there’s a lot waiting to be discovered beyond the big cities.
Given the rise of the modern rural fantasy, our top picks are Holland in Michigan to see tulip fields and picturesque windmills, Buckhannon in West Virginia for a taste of history and nature, Key West in Florida for beach bums, Breckenridge in Colorado for skiing, Port Townsend in Washington for kayaking and whale-watching, Snowmass in Colorado for mountain biking, Ketchum in Idaho for outdoor activities, and Magnolia Spring in Alabama and Chautauqua in New York to slow downtime.
Themed vacation rentals
We are familiar with theme parties (stag parties, bachelorettes, baby showers, major milestones, anniversaries, fancy dress parties, etc.) and last year we came across thematic flights to nowhere in Asia, but we had no idea that there were quirky thematic vacation rentals across the USA. It seems like our regular vacations have become occasions for themes, allowing travelers to role-play different characters and live in their homes.
Featuring outdoor pools, movie theatres, and game room options, travelers are spoilt for choice.
PinkCastle Babe’cation in Hudson, Wisconsin is a pink Victorian mansion built in 1883 and has become a popular option for hosting birthdays and bachelorettes.
Movie geeks and families can choose from Toy Story, Cinderella, The Hobbit, Pirates of the Carribean, Star Wars and Disney themed rentals. Our recent study of blockbuster children’s movies revealed that viewers love magic realism. Living in a movie-themed Airbnb might infuse some magic into our lives. Thematic rentals not only bring Disneyland to you but also let you live in your favorite movie settings. It may not be a buffet like a theme park, as you can only choose one land at a time, but this could very well be the future of “Wonder Entertainment” experiences — small-scale, piecemeal offerings that are truly immersive and equally satisfying.
Some of the more innovative thematic vacation homes include the Phoenix Earthship in El Prado, New Mexico, Hollywood Hills Castle in California, and the ManCave apartment in Florida (an active airplane hangar on a private airstrip!).
Escapism is the end goal
Travel for Americans is about pleasure and restoration. This manifests in different ways for different people, but at the core, American travelers value having a good time.
Pre-COVID travel motivations included escape and relaxation, nightlife, and leisurely pursuits as three separate motivation categories. We now see the lines blurring, with a strong undercurrent of escapism across all the above experiences. While national parks help escape busy city-life, treehouses take us back to childhood. The small-towns embody resistance to city pressures and pace, while theme vacations combine leisure travel with entertainment.
Escapism is a recurring pursuit we have been seeing in people’s entertainment choices, brand preferences, and consumer trends in the last few months. This is likely to continue in the near future and may not be a bad thing as people learn to cope, heal, and plunge forward with optimism.
We’ll sign off with Jack Kerouac’s inspiring words from ‘On the Road’:
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more insights on the future of travel.