How to pay less than the traveler next to you: Google indicates overpriced 2021 travel will only get worse

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In 2017, I traveled to Charleston for a chance to view the “Great American Eclipse.” Prices at Hyatt House Charleston/Historic District were $500+ per night. That’s about 300% of the normal room rate for an aggressively mediocre hotel. And people were paying it — because thousands and thousands of travelers were clamoring for a hotel room in the path of totality.

I stayed there for two nights with Hyatt points — just 12,000 points per night! With 24,000 Hyatt points, I saved over $1,000.

Revenge travel is coming in 2021. Americans have been largely at home for more than 365 days, and they’re ready to smell the roses. You can already feel the demand rising in some markets. Certain flight routes and rental agencies now charge three or four times their pandemic rates. And Google search trends suggest things are only going to get more expensive.

Let’s look at some Google data from late 2020, speculate what it means for 2021 travel, and see how we can avoid the price spikes.

Travel to see the 2017 eclipse was incredibly expensive. And no, I wasn’t looking directly at the eclipse! (Photo by Joseph Hostetler/Million Mile Secrets)

Why 2021 travel will be more expensive

Why are all things travel becoming pricier, anyway?

The simple answer is demand. The travel industry has adopted revenue-crippling precautions in an effort to shield their customers from the coronavirus. What did they do to keep their head above water?

  1. Airlines grounded a huge portion of their planes. Hardly anyone wanted to fly, and there’s no sense in flying empty planes all over the country. Carriers have managed to maintain relatively full flights by sharply lowering the number of planes they fly
  2. Rental car agencies lost a considerable number of their fleet cars. Nobody was renting, so agencies didn’t need nearly the number of vehicles as before. To keep an income flow, they sold their cars

There are fewer planes in the sky, and there are fewer rental cars in the lot. Common short-haul flights that once cost me $50 pre-pandemic now price at $150+. My upcoming rental car costs $900+ — about $400 more than I would have paid in 2019. You’re probably finding the same.

Take a look at the Harris Poll found on eMarketer.com, taken in Summer 2020. Once the effects of COVID-19 abate, the biggest priority of U.S. adults (by a landslide) is travel. If these titans of the travel industry don’t reintroduce more products, your vacation will become prohibitively expensive in 2021.

(Image courtesy of emarketer.com)

Let’s build on that: Google data also shows that travelers don’t care too much about brands — they just want cheap, clean, and flexible. Someone who may have flown Spirit Airlines before COVID-19 may find themselves on your American Airlines flight because the cancellation policy is better. That will likely play into the miles and points hobby a bit. After all, award seats don’t disappear solely when someone redeems miles — they disappear simply if the airline sells enough seats!

Google has indicated that searches into late last year had revolved around the best cancellation policies, which airlines are taking sanitization seriously, etc. This is a priority to current travelers. A very small percentage are die-hard loyalty members (you and me) searching brand-specific terms, like how to earn/use bonus airline miles or hotel points.

How to avoid high prices

Use airline miles and hotel points

Perhaps the greatest practical use of miles and points is to combat demand. Whether you’re searching for a hotel in Louisville during the Kentucky Derby, a flight to Grandma’s on the week of Thanksgiving, or accommodation in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl, you can often beat the price hikes by redeeming airline miles and hotel points.

All of us on the MMS team have used this strategy for annual festivals, sporting events, holiday travel, etc. For example, most hotels are confined to an award chart that restricts them from overcharging for reward nights. As long as there’s reward availability, you can book it.

We’ve already touched on the fact that hopeful travelers stopped googling things like “best Hyatt hotel in San Francisco” last year. Instead, the focus was more on hotel cancellation policies, coronavirus sanitation, etc. There were spectacular declines in:

  • Visits to brand websites
  • Brand-specific searches
  • Time spent on the apps of hotels, airlines, etc.

This has since fluctuated dramatically, with the most current data suggesting large jumps from online travel agencies like Expedia, Trivago, etc. Travelers who book through third-party sites like that aren’t usually travelers loyal to a brand — they’re just looking for the cheapest hotel.

But just because that data indicates loyalty engagement is low doesn’t mean there’ll be fewer people at your Marriott hotel. This just shows that the people looking for travel don’t seem to care where they’re staying. What it does indicate is that the people at your Marriott are less likely to be members of the loyalty program. This is good news if you find yourself contending with other loyalists for elite status benefits (ahem, suite upgrades).

If you don’t already have a travel credit card make sure to open one ASAP, preferably one with a large welcome bonus. This will give you a nice stash of points and miles to help reduce your inevitably hefty out-of-pocket travel costs.

Head into the city

Google gives us another hint for planning cheap travel in 2021: Urban vacations. Search data shows a massive decline in big city flight searches like Los Angeles and New York, with either increases or only slight decreases in more leisure areas like beaches and mountains.

Here are some examples of hotel inquiries and their popularity. I’m not surprised by Myrtle Beach — that’s always been wildly popular — but it’s pretty amazing that Gatlinburg search interest is rising faster than San Francisco or New York City.

Here’s an example of common outdoor search inquiries next to one of the most popular airfare search terms, “New York City flights.” Searches to Yellowstone and Tahoe are rising quickly — never before in the same ballpark as New York City in terms of searches. “National park flights” has been contending with New York City for years, but it’s currently at its peak, leaving NYC far behind.

The implication is that urban destinations will likely be far less popular than years previous — in fact, people are clawing to get out of the city and try to reclaim some personal space. If you’re comfortable with inner-city travel, prepare to see some great flight and hotel deals.

Book far into the future

This isn’t necessarily unique to the times, but the data is interesting.

To find a good deal, many generally default to searching far into the future, as inventory is likely to be less full. However, if you’re looking for award availability, this trend is sometimes reversed. You may only find the award seats you want a few weeks (or days!) before your desired travel date. With more people looking to travel in the near-term (significantly more searches for travel dates within 14 days than pre-pandemic searches), expect it to be even harder to find last-minute award seats.

Again, award seats aren’t “saved” for those with airline miles. They’ll disappear if the flight sells enough seats. If there are, say, 15% more people paying for seats on your flight, you can bet award availability will be more sparse.

In other words, you’ll be competing with fewer people by booking travel further out. It was in April 2020 that the coronavirus was foiling plans and causing people to speculatively book their trips far in advance. Now, as travel restrictions are lifted and opportunities for entry are issued (negative PCR test, vaccination, fewer strict quarantine rules, etc.), people are searching for near-term travel opportunities. This could be a result of:

  • Jumping on travel deals
  • Receiving inoculations
  • Eased travel restrictions and business openings
  • Snapping from coronavirus cabin fever

There are certainly flash sales published by U.S. carriers — but if you can’t afford eleventh-hour spontaneity, search for travel on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Bottom line

Americans are champing at the bit to travel. With coronavirus restrictions disappearing and low inventories across travel brands, 2021 may well culminate to exorbitance as we’ve never seen. But Google data gives us queues as to how we can possibly avoid the price increases — namely, plan big-city travel and book far into the future. And, of course, use miles and points to insulate yourself from predatory price surges.

We’d love to hear your hypothesis on Google data in the comments. And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tips and tricks delivered to your inbox once per day.

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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