New • Report

The Enduring Optimism of Vaccinated Travellers

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 • 4:30 PM EST

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Consumer Insights
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Key Takeaways:

1. Omicron derailed plans for over half (55.4%) of intended holiday travelers. The most common reasons for changes include a personal decision to cancel due to COVID risk (46.8%) or plans disrupted by loved ones (35.9%).
2. Payment card data shows that holiday cancellations have had minimal impact on the performance of travel providers in 2021. Among airlines, Delta enjoyed a particularly strong 2021, partially at the expense of United Airlines.
3. The majority of (52.2%) survey respondents said that they plan to travel by airplane within the next six months. Boosted and vaccinated individuals are the largest force behind this majority, indicating the strongest intent to travel more often in 2022
4. The outlook for travel in 2022 is optimistic with 33.9% of respondents intending to spend more on travel than they did in 2021. More generally, spend intent is shifting towards experiences rather than material goods

Optimism abounded leading up to the 2021 holiday season. Many heralded Christmas 2021 as the unofficial end of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading into a more prosperous 2022.

Then the Omicron variant of COVID-19 took out the wind beneath their wings. 

Cardify surveyed more than 3,000 people from January 6 to 7, 2022 to understand what became of their holiday plans and their outlook for 2022. Cardify also analyzed travel spend spanning from 2019 to 2021 to relate the lived experiences of individuals with the earnings of major travel corporations.

Holiday travel post game

Despite the COVID pandemic’s continued presence during Q4 2021, 49.4% of survey respondents originally had plans to travel this 2021 holiday season. 23.0% planned to travel by airplane while 26.4% planned other modes of transportation. 

Unfortunately, Omicron disrupted travel itineraries for 55.4% of intended travelers. Many personally decided to change their plans (46.8%) or had their itinerary impacted by the person they intended to visit (35.9%). Fewer (13.3%) had their plans disrupted by a service provider decision, such as an airline cancellation.

Among those who personally decided to cancel, 59.1% cited the risk of contracting COVID-19 as the most significant factor. The second biggest concern was not just contracting COVID-19, but passing it onto someone they were visiting (40.7%). Only 8.5% cited government advisories as having affected their decision.

Data also suggests people with different vaccination statuses made different holiday travel decisions (and for different reasons). 

74.1% of the respondent pool reported being fully vaccinated, with 43.5% reporting they are fully vaccinated and boosted. Only 21.2% reported being unvaccinated. 

Of the nearly half (44.6%) that carried out their 2021 holiday travel plans, 77.1% (38.6% + 38.5%) cited being fully vaccinated or boosted as a reason they felt comfortable following through. The next tranche of rationale for carrying out travel plans revolved around perceived risk: 24.3% said they were traveling for low-risk activities, 22.9% said they weren’t visiting any at-risk populations, and 22.0% said they already had COVID (and presumably had antibodies against further infection).

Among those whose plans were impacted by the Omicron variant, vaccinated people more often cited internal or personal factors while unvaccinated people more often cited external factors. For example, almost half of fully vaccinated people (two or three doses) said they chose to cancel their holiday plans, compared to only 38.0% of unvaccinated people. On the flip side, 42.3% of unvaccinated people said family and friends canceled the holiday plans, compared to 39.3% of people with two vaccine doses and 31.3% with three.

Impact on airline earnings

Despite a rash of cancellations and disruptions, the 2021 holiday season does not appear to have made a dent in overall travel spending for Q4 2021. Spend data indicates that spend remained stagnant for the majority of the quarter, with minor dips around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Contrary to the expected trend, transaction volume actually upticked to close out 2021.

Zooming out to observe the entire pandemic timeline, it’s clear that 2021 is showing signs of recovery, with a bit of a dip during the 2021 holiday season. However, overall travel spend is still consistently below pre-pandemic (2019) levels.

Diving deeper, it’s clear that the hardest hit travel sub-sector has been airlines. Despite showing signs of recovery from 2020, airline spending remains well below 2019 levels and saw a noticeable spending dip due to people not making travel plans and Omicron-related travel cancellations.

The slight rebound did not benefit all airline providers equally. Delta is a clear winner, regaining much of the share it had lost during the height of the pandemic. While American Airlines captured less of the market in 2021 than 2020, the provider also reported a strong year that indicated lift from its 2019 baseline. Less fortunate is United Airlines, which lost market share in 2021 at the expense of Delta and American Airlines’ gain.

Vaccination and intent to fly

With a new year comes an abundance of plans for the year ahead. The majority (52.2%) of people surveyed reported plans to travel by airplane in the next six months. People who are fully vaccinated with either two or three doses are the largest force behind this majority. Vaccinated or boosted individuals also reported stronger intent to travel more frequently in 2022 than they did in 2021.

When asked about factors that would further encourage their intent to fly, the top choice from survey respondents was some form of vaccination requirement (30.4%). This policy is well received by most, with 44.8% of respondents saying they would only choose an airline with this policy and 33.6% of respondents reporting it would make no difference in their decision. 

Just under a quarter (21.6%) said they would only choose airlines without a vaccination requirement, with the majority of respondents choosing this answer being unvaccinated themselves. But airlines may not need to worry too much about losing this minority: unvaccinated people report they are now less loyal to airlines than they were before the pandemic. Further, 40.8% of unvaccinated people said they have no plans to travel by airplane, compared to only 25.1% of people with two vaccine doses and 23.9% of people with three.

Travel outlook for 2022

The landscape of travel has shifted following the pandemic. For many, this means paying more attention to prices (39.0%), taking more short trips (34.3%), buying travel insurance more often (31.8%), or going on fewer international trips (45.5%) than they did before COVID-19. 

However, a plurality of opinions remain unchanged regarding how they travel, suggesting that most consumers are set in their travel needs (or habits) and even a global pandemic won’t change much.

More generally, respondents are optimistic about their ability to get back to in-person activities. One-third (33.9%) said they will be travelling more in 2022 vs. 2021, 34.3% said they will be spending more on experiences, and 25.6% said they plan to spend less on material things to accommodate an increase in spending elsewhere.

No industry has been hit harder by the pandemic than the travel industry, but signs continue to look up. A slight recovery already happened in 2021, and the world was headed to the path of full recovery before the Omicron variant ripped through. So while many are paying attention to how Omicron - and any possible future variants of concern - play out, the data suggests that people who are ready to have fun will travel.