With the warmer weather coming, Americans are making spring break travel plans. More than usual, those trips will be in a car rather than a plane.

Americans like to travel when the weather gets warmer, just look at annual spring break pilgrimages. But this year it looks different — it appears people will be driving more and flying less.

At least that’s what Cars.com suggests. The website released the results of a recent survey that looked at people’s potential travel plans and what modes of transportation they were thinking of using. One conclusion was that thanks to ever-increasing COVID vaccination rates, warm weather travel is more of a possibility in 2021.

The survey also showed that driving is a more popular choice than in pre-COVID years. For spring break in 2021, nearly 3 in 5 respondents (57%) surveyed indicated plans to travel to destinations at least 50 miles from home.

That’s on par with levels before the COVID-19 pandemic — 54% of the same group said they’d traveled for spring break in 2019 — and far ahead of spring break travel at the outset of the pandemic, with just 32% of the group indicating such excursions in 2020, said Kelsey Mays, assistant manager editor at Cars.com.

Driving versus flying

The percentage of spring breakers driving instead of flying has declined each of the last three years.

What is different in 2021 is that people will be driving more than flying, Mays said. Just 1 in 4 spring break travelers plan to fly to their destinations this year, down from 38% before the pandemic (2019) and 30% at the outset of widespread outbreaks (2020).

Seven in 10 spring break travelers indicated plans to drive to their destinations this year, up from 63% in 2020 and 57% in 2019. These numbers come at a time when health authorities are still cautioning against any sort of travel, Mays said.

Since early February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained explicit guidance that Americans delay travel and stay home to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

Mays said that of respondents who said they don’t plan to travel for spring break, 3 in 5 said the coronavirus drove that decision.

COVID concerns

Even among the majority who still plan to travel, pandemic concerns weighed large.

More than half (53%) indicated moderate or high concerns around COVID exposure during their trip, even as nearly a third of the group (29%) indicated higher comfort levels now that vaccinations are underway.

Concerns about COVID-19 are cutting into the numbers of people flying for their trips.

By the CDC’s count, roughly 16% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose as of March 1 (two of the three leading vaccines approved by U.S. regulators require two doses, spaced a few weeks apart).

That’s still a long way off from so-called herd immunity needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, which health officials reportedly peg at a 75% vaccination rate.

More of the same

Mays said looking at all the information gathered by the Cars.com survey led to one conclusion — travel plans are up, but driving has been a much more popular option than before the COVID pandemic. He said there might be a couple of reasons for this preference. First, driving could be considered safer.

“In your car, you’re traveling in your own private bubble,” Mays said. “If people plan right and minimize interactions with others, this greatly reduces the chance of infection.”

Seven in 10 spring break travelers indicated plans to drive to their destinations this year, up from 63% in 2020.

Flying, on the other hand, requires a lot of interactions with strangers and there’s not much people can do about that, Mays said. Despite this, he does expect people to fly more as things get better.

“Having said that, this driving more to travel might have some legs,” Mays said. “But I do believe flying rates will increase as vaccination rates get better. The question is by how much?”

Mays said he had no hard numbers to back up that notion, but there are a couple of things to consider. First, during the past few years Cars.com has seen more people making their first car purchases. When first-time car owners get their vehicles, they tend to want to drive more.

The second thing to consider will be the cost of flying. Airlines might not reduce the price of tickets because they have to make up for a lot of profits lost during COVID.

So as the cost of one form of travel is high, other forms of travel become more attractive, Mays said.

But the bottom line is that as the weather warms up, people will want to travel more, and cars could come out as a more attractive alternative.

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