Station wagon vacations: Looking at the near future of the travel industry

If you were in New York City this past weekend, you may have caught a glimpse of the near future of the travel industry: the station-wagon vacation.

Temperatures in NYC hit 80 degrees. And New Yorkers, who have endured weeks of stay-at-home orders, ventured outdoors by the thousands. The parks, frankly, were ridiculous. There were too many people gathering too close together and taking too few precautions.

But the streets of lower Manhattan were glorious. And it was there you could see the near future of the travel industry.

In order to practice social distancing, people spread off the sidewalks and on to the narrow streets of Tribeca.  Kids tossed footballs and rode bikes on blocks that are usually filled with cars. Young couples pushed strollers down the middle of streets that are usually choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was lovely, and strange, and looked as if somehow we had all traveled back in time to a New York of decades ago.

But here’s the thing: every few moments a car would cruise down the streets, moving slowly so as not to hit anyone. When a vehicle approached, people would yell “car” and move closer to the sidewalks until it passed.

And if you looked into the windows of those slow-moving vehicles, you saw the same thing again and again and again: kids in the back seat, smiling and waving.

Station-wagon vacations

This is how the country will return to travel: in family trips by car. Staying close to home, “taking a drive,” going to see how things look in nearby places, eventually stopping and spending a few hours in places with open space or something of interest to the kids.

At <intent>, we’ve come to calling this phenomenon the “station-wagon vacation.” Perhaps you caught the recent interview our CEO Richard Harris did with Travolution in which he talked about the station-wagon vacation.

Now we’re not predicting a rise in the sale of station wagons. But we do expect the next year or so in travel to be dominated by car travel to fairly unpopulated destinations. In the U.S., places like  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Amish country, etc. could see a rise in car-traveling families eager to see and do something new, but safe. 

That could prove to be great news for small, regional, family-friendly hotels and motels as well as other low-cost lodging. Add in that there’s an election coming and we may see a surge in “patriotic” travel unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Think Civil War battlefields, Presidential birthplaces, etc.

Research on post-COVID travel

Apparently we’re not the only ones to expect that the near-term future of travel is a family traveling by car. Research by our friends at Skift shows that roughly one-third of Americans want to travel within three months after travel restrictions are lifted and that 41 percent of Americans say their first trip will be by car within 100 miles of home.

Summer is coming. And it’s coming by car.