Want to travel this summer during the pandemic? Road trips are back

Pacific Beach
People sit on the sand at Pacific Beach on June 2, the first day sitting and stopping was permitted on the beach since a ban on such activity had been put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Sam Hodgson /The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Auto Club predicts more than 100 million road trips this summer, but air travel will be down by 72 percent among residents in the Pacific region, from California to Hawaii


As tourist destinations across America cautiously reopen, Pacific region residents from California to Hawaii are planning more than 100 million trips this summer, but travel will still be down 17 percent — the largest decline in 20 years.

Road trips will dominate as they always have, with such vacation trips down by only 3.6 percent, the Automobile Club of Southern California reported Thursday. The outlook is entirely different, though, when it comes to summer travel by air and other modes of transportation, such as trains and cruise ships, which have canceled many of their sailings through September.

Among the five Pacific states — California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska — air travel this summer is expected to plunge 72 percent to 3.3 million trips, the lowest number of such trips in 20 years, the Auto Club reported said. The travel period covers July 1 through Sept. 30.

An even bigger decrease is expected for those taking cruises or traveling by bus and train. The Auto Club is forecasting that just 1.7 million of those types of vacations will take place, which is an 85 percent decrease compared with the same time frame last year and is also the lowest number recorded in the last two decades.

The slumping travel trends are similar for the nation as a whole, with 14.6 percent fewer trips planned overall, according to the Auto Club report.

“This has been an unprecedented time in our nation and world, but we are hearing from so many of our members who want guidance on how to get out and travel in a safe and healthy manner,” said Filomena Andre, the Auto Club’s vice president for travel products and services. “The good news is that in California, we have so many nearby destinations that are outdoor natural wonders. And our travel partners have quickly stepped up to provide safe and sanitary environments, from hotels to tour and attraction operators.”

She noted that travel these days is much more last-minute, with the number of bookings made between 48 hours and seven days before departure significantly higher than normal.

“Travelers may not yet be aware that most travel providers are offering full-refund cancellation policies for up to 24 hours before arrival,” she said.

Nonetheless, the state’s tourism industry is expected to take a huge hit. In a report commissioned by Visit California, the statewide tourism bureau, California is expected to lose $72.1 billion in visitor spending this year, nearly half of what was generated in 2019.

Recognizing that most travel this year to San Diego will be from the region’s close-in drive market, the San Diego Tourism Authority is focusing its efforts on marketing to residents in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. While hotels that have recently reopened to leisure travelers are seeing higher occupancies, they’re still a fraction of what a normal summer would be.

According to STR, a firm that tracks lodging industry performance, hotel room demand in the county the week of June 7 rose 13 percent over the previous week, with hotels that are now open reporting an average 43 percent occupancy. Ordinarily, hotel occupancies during the summer would hover near 80 percent.

Meanwhile, passenger volumes at the San Diego International Airport remain way down compared with last year, similar to what other major cities are experiencing. Most recent statistics show the number of passengers boarding planes in San Diego is down by about 80 percent, according to Hampton Brown, the airport’s director of air service development. He expects passenger volumes will be down about 50 percent next year, although he’s hopeful the numbers will be better than that, Brown said during an air travel forum hosted Thursday by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., Tourism Authority and Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Alaska Airlines Vice President Annabel Chang reported that the airline has seen an 82 percent decline year over year in passengers departing from the San Diego airport. She noted that Alaska is currently operating network-wide at an 80 percent reduced capacity from pre-COVID-19 levels.

In a bit of good news for San Diego, it is among the top ten most-searched destinations on the Auto Club’s Trip Tik planning platform, between mid-March and mid-June of this year. And it is ranked No. 3 among the 10 most popular hotel destinations since mid-March, based on AAA Travel bookings.