Skift Take

U.S. travelers are taking a wait-and-see approach to the evolving coronavirus situation, with few canceling just yet. But most American travel happens domestically, and as the virus spreads within the country, that may soon change.

Skift Research is taking the temperature of American travelers in this time of growing concerns over the coronavirus. For now most travelers are in a wait-and-see mode, with few canceling plans. But that could change rapidly as more COVID-19 cases are reported in the United States.

In a straw poll of the U.S. online adult population conducted from Feb. 27–29, we reached 377 Americans who had previously booked travel plans. Of that traveling population, 12 percent had canceled due to concerns around coronavirus. Which means, of course, that 88 percent — almost nine in 10 American travelers — have not canceled trips due to coronavirus.

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What helps explain this resilient outlook? Well, for starters, the typical American books his or her leisure flights two to three months in advance. The hotel booking window is shorter, 26 days per Kalibri labs. So most Americans today are probably considering a spring or summer trip and have yet to book accommodations. Under those circumstances, most are, reasonably enough, taking a wait-and-see approach.

Secondly, the vast majority of American trips take place domestically. All told, Americans made up less than 10 percent of international outbound trips worldwide in 2019. And when Americans do travel abroad, most trips are to neighboring Canada and Mexico. With few coronavirus cases in North America so far, there is little pressing need to cancel immediately, furthering the patient approach taken by U.S. travelers thus far.

Our survey results seem to back this second thesis up. Those with international plans have been canceling forward travel at nearly twice the rate of those with domestic itineraries. Forty-six percent of cancellations reported to us were for international travel versus 24 percent of cancellations for domestic travel. If you factor in those planning both domestic and international travels, fully 76 percent of U.S. coronavirus cancellations in our survey involved an international component.

Now our sample size for this breakdown is getting pretty small, so take these numbers as a directional gut check, not as precise figures. But this trend is also backed up by data from ForwardKeys, which shows that while American outbound bookings have fallen in the last few weeks compared to this same time last year, the vast majority of that drop comes from travel to the Asia-Pacific region.

Yes, the data is a slightly different metric — forward booking changes rather than cancellations — and it stops before the worst of the Italian outbreak — which would no doubt impact the European figures. But overall, we think it reinforces our story of patience from American travelers and a desire to maintain travel plans as long as the virus remains contained outside of their vacation destinations.

Thus far, consider us impressed with the level-headed attitude most American travelers appear to have taken. But this could, of course, change on a dime.

A look at Chinese domestic air travel data from ARC shows that cancellations spiked in the course of just a few weeks. Refunded air tickets were 45 percent higher in the third week of 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019. That’s already not great, but by the fifth week of the year, Chinese domestic tickets were being refunded at 5.7x the rate of 2019. Chinese domestic scheduled flight departures in January were down 50 percent from the prior year, according to Cirium data.

So where do we stand today in America? Americans are canceling travel to Asia and other affected international destinations but have been hesitant to back out of other plans, particularly domestic itineraries.

We can’t help but be a little proud of our fellow American travelers. After all, fear of the thing can often do more harm than the thing itself.

But Jay Shabat, senior analyst at Skift Airline Weekly, points out that JetBlue last Wednesday waived all change and cancellation fees for customers who book tickets in the next few weeks for travel through the early summer. JetBlue has no flights to Asia or Europe. That this almost entirely domestic airline is bracing for a wave of coronavirus cancellations may be a sign of the times. And the Chinese data cautions us that travel cancellations can start slowly but rise precipitously.

Americans continue to wait and see what will happen with coronavirus. Few have canceled their travel so far, but with COVID-19 now spreading across the U.S., we will soon be seeing the effects of the virus up close. Cancellation patterns could soon change. For now, coronavirus’ bark has been worse than its bite within the U.S.

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Photo credit: In a straw poll of the U.S. online adult population conducted by Skift Research from Feb. 27–29, almost nine in 10 American travelers have not canceled trips due to coronavirus. Nico El Nino / Adobe

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