You're not the only one with no summer plans: This year's vacations will be last minute, says AAA

Rather than take extended vacations, Americans will likely take weekend trips and three-day trips, the AAA found in its annual survey.
Image: Travelers move through a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport
Travelers move through a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport on June 22, 2020.David Zalubowski / AP

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

Retired Wall Street analyst Ron Glantz is an inveterate traveler, and this year’s agenda was to have included trips to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan in May; as well as an excursion to Rwanda and Tanzania at the end of the summer. Now, it turns out, those trips have all been canceled or postponed and the only time Glantz plans to leave Manhattan is for a family reunion in Rhode Island — which, he points out, “is an easy drive (and) on 43 acres for easy social distancing.”

Glantz is by no means alone. The monthslong lockdown covering most of the U.S. translated into empty roads, barren airports and anchored cruise ships. As the country slowly opens back up, traffic is on the rise, but experts don’t see a return to normal travel and vacation plans anytime soon.

That’s underscored by a new AAA report forecasting Americans will take just over 707 million trips this summer. That’s down about 15 percent from a year ago, a number that might seem relatively modest considering the broader impact of the pandemic. But a closer look reveals much more significant changes in how we travel and where we may go.

Almost 97 percent of those trips are expected to be made by car, with travel by automobile forecast to decline by a modest 3.3 percent year-over-year, said the AAA. By comparison, road trips accounted for 85.3 percent of summer travel last year.

Air travel is not yet in recovery mode, with Americans expected to fly 73.9 percent fewer miles this summer. Other travel, including rail and ship, will dip by just over 85 percent, compared to summer 2019, the AAA anticipates.

“No flying, only car travel,” said Bret Jacobowitz, of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “No golf vacation. We won’t be taking the grandkids to Disney World. Fortunately, we can play golf locally.”

Even when people do take to the highway, the sort of travel they do is likely to change, the AAA said. Rather than take extended vacations, many Americans are “likely going to take weekend trips and three-day trips, said Jeanette Casselano, a spokesperson for AAA.

The road and travel service also reported seeing a major shift in the way Americans are planning the trips they are taking. Many have canceled previously made plans, in part because of uncertainty about how the pandemic will play out. Instead, AAA is finding a sizable share of travelers making decisions within a day or three of when they actually head out on the road.

And, said Casselano, that is likely to remain the case as they watch the headlines revealing new outbreaks of COVID-19 popping up across the country. Travel experts also warn that plans may have to change due to new restrictions that are being put into place in communities as diverse as Dallas, New York and the European Union. NY, New Jersey and Connecticut now require quarantines for travelers coming from places with new outbreaks. The EU has warned it may ban Americans entirely.

For those who still want to take longer trips, this could be the year of the recreational vehicle, said Vinnie Richichi, the host of an auto and travel radio show in the New York region. “I have spoken to a number of people who say that they are renting or considering renting an RV this year. It gives them much more control of the environment and their surroundings,” while there is also the lure of cheap gas prices.

A survey by Airstream, the maker of those iconic silver RVs, found 60 percent of Americans said “feeling safe is critical to traveling again and 64 percent of people want to avoid crowds.” The study found only 18 percent of consumers felt safe about flying, or staying in hotels.

Even though RVs offer the ability to go pretty much anywhere at any time, however, Airstream also found its owners planning to take shorter, one- to three-day trips, while also sticking closer to home, typically within 100 miles.

Shorter trips, AAA and others indicate, may reflect current economic realities as much as concerns about personal health and safety.

“We’re definitely changing our travel plans,” said Sue Carter, a professor at Michigan State University. “The Education Abroad program is gone. Any trip to New York to see my daughter and her family is not likely to happen either. We’re staying away from where (people) congregate. We’re masked up to make it.”