Two girls in hats sitting in airplane terminal.
Two girls in hats sitting in airplane terminal.

These Are 2021’s Big Family-Travel Trends

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the travel industry from top to bottom, grounding planes, shuttering hotels, and turning some of the world’s most popular destinations into ghost towns (or, in the case of Disneyland, a vaccine super site).  

Not all of those changes are here to stay. As more people get vaccinated and we get closer to herd immunity, some travelers are planning adventures again. 

But for some time, industry experts say, family travel is going to look very different than it did pre-pandemic, from how we plan to what to do to who we travel with. Here’s a look at what to expect in the coming months. 

We’ll have to jump through hoops 

When it comes to travel, the world has become a giant patchwork of Covid requirements. Many destinations demand proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests, or quarantines in order to visit. (Read out recent article on immunity passports here.) The rules seem to be constantly changing—and they’re going to linger for a while. 

Families planning to travel this year will need to stay on top of requirements. You don’t want to accidentally end up on an extended vacation because you lack the paperwork to go home—or end up wasting your vacation, because you’ve been shut out of your destination. 

Airlines are trying to make it easier to navigate all these regulations. Delta, United and American are among the major carriers who’ve added features to their websites that allow travelers to check for local Covid testing or vaccination requirements and to upload Covid-related documents, whether that’s a negative test result, proof of vaccination or proof that the flyer has recovered from Covid-19. Delta will soon start sending pre- and post-travel Covid test kits to customers’ homes.

Hotels—especially upscale ones—are also trying to remove obstacles to travel, offering access to tests and even partnerships with private jet companies.

We still won’t go the distance

Road trips were making a comeback before the pandemic struck and for now, they remain many families’ preferred mode of travel. 

The appeal is obvious: you and yours in a self-contained travel pod, with no busy airports or crowded planes to contend with. Car travel is often the best way to explore national parks and other outdoor spaces, but it’s also convenient for vacations where families might have otherwise hopped on a plane. AAA estimated only a 3% decline in car trips for last summer, compared to a 74% drop for air travel. 

“The drive market continues to bring in both in-state and regional business,” said Kerry Morrissey, director of PR and community relations for OPAL Collection Hotels, which has nearly two dozen hotels and resorts in Florida and New England. In Florida, he said, they’re starting to see an uptick in out-of-state visitors, most of whom are arriving by car. 

What does that mean for intrepid families? Expect drive-able destinations to be more crowded—and possibly more expensive.

Rentals will stay big

People who traveled during the pandemic were far more likely to stay in vacation rentals than hotels. Rentals often come with kitchens and separate entrances. Some are set far away from other residences, for built-in social distancing. 

Vacation rentals are still going strong. If you’re planning a trip for 2021, consider booking early to avoid the best rentals being booked, or rates shooting up. Remember to read the fine print carefully, so you’re protected if you have to cancel or there are new Covid restrictions.  

In Osceola County, Florida, which is adjacent to a little attraction called Disneyworld, vacation home rentals are already soaring going into 2021. “Families are looking for private and safe accommodation options, ” said Juliana Leveroni, director of communications for Experience Kissimmee. “Vacation homes in Kissimmee have seen 30 percent more bookings versus hotels, and we expect that trend to continue.” 

Kids’ clubs will be hard to find 

Over the past year, hotels have had to change their offerings because of local regulations, guest safety concerns and even financial constraints. At many properties, the kids’ club, a hallmark and treasured amenity of family resorts, has been shut down. 

“As health and safety advisements continue to vary by market, this impacts a hotel’s family offerings, from kids’ clubs to pools to on- and off-property activities,” said Andrea Torrance, senior vice president of guest experience for Accor North & Central America

Hotel managers say families don’t seem too upset. “We’re finding that families who are traveling are using the time to reconnect with each other in a different setting and enjoy activities on our grounds,” said Eduardo Ballesteros, general manager at the Westin Resort & Spa Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, whose kids’ club is closed until further notice. 

An upside: resorts are making it easier to take advantage of alternatives. The Westin is pushing outdoor activities with walking maps, beach cruisers, and kid-friendly watersports like snorkeling, SUP, and kayaking. The Playa Largo Resort & Spa in Florida has hired an on-site environmentalist and eco-guide, said the property’s GM, Kristine Cox. 

It’s all about loved ones

Reconnecting is the buzzword of post-pandemic family vacations. One of the most painful parts of coronavirus lockdowns has been the separation of grandparents and grandkids—and travel is emerging as the remedy. 

“Grandparents have really missed that connection with family,” said OPAL’s Morrissey. “So as vaccine rollout takes off, we should see a lot more multi-generational travel by this summer.”

Even for families that have spent the better part of a year at home together, the chance to be together—but not at home—is an attractive one. 

Surveys, including one released by Airbnb in January, are showing that a big reason people want to travel again is to spend time with relatives. That doesn’t mean your 8-year-old won’t sneak off with his Nintendo Switch or your teen with her cellphone. But the chance to be together, yet away from the repetitiveness and routine that’s defined the past year, looks to be the driving force for family vacations in the near future. 

And harried parents, take heart: There’ll be plenty of time for those kids’ clubs, adults-only pools and couples’ massages in 2022.  

Elizabeth Heath is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Telegraph,, Thrillist, Frommer’s Travel Guides, and many other publications.