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How Do Travelers Choose Their Destinations? Travel Expert Mark Blutstein Highlights Phocuswright’s Surprising New Findings

Phocuswright Research Reveals How Travelers Choose Destinations

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Adam West
By: Adam West
Posted: September 16, 2019

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In a Nutshell: Travel professionals rely on expert analysis to understand emerging trends and drive innovation. Recently, leading industry research authority Phocuswright produced a report — Destination Decision: How Travelers Choose Where to Go — that provides insights on how and why travelers choose their destinations. Phocuswright Research Analyst Mark Blutstein spoke with us about the report’s surprising findings, including that U.S. travelers tend to prefer domestic travel — and don’t mind repeating trips they enjoyed.

Travel industry professionals have always tried to understand what motivates travelers to choose their next leisure destination. And recent findings from global travel industry research authority Phocuswright offer insights into what drives those decisions.

In Destination Decision: How Travelers Choose Where to Go, Phocuswright analyzed consumer travel choices in seven major markets around the globe — Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Mexico, the U.K., and the U.S. Some of the findings were unsurprising, including the primary reason for travel across all of the markets.

“The most common travel choice everywhere we surveyed is to journey somewhere to visit friends or family,” Phocuswright Research Analyst Mark Blutstein said.

While the report uncovered parallels among travelers in all seven countries, it also highlighted the unique U.S. market. Americans stood out for placing a premium on their limited amount of leisure time and being surprisingly open to repeating trips.

Photo of Phocuswright logo and Research Analyst Mark Blutstein

Phocuswright Research Analyst Mark Blutstein shared the results of the Destination Decision report.

The report found that while many Americans choose to venture to places they’ve never been, most prefer to return to a destination where they’ve already had a great experience.

Successful travel industry suppliers, agencies, and intermediaries must continually, and precisely, anticipate changes in the ways consumers choose their travel experiences. For more than 20 years, many prominent organizations have counted on Phocuswright research to understand trends and drive that organizational innovation.

“Since the travel industry started migrating online, market sizing and consumer research from Phocuswright has tracked shifts in the market and described what travelers are doing,” Blutstein said. “This new study is the first where we dive deep into where travelers are going and focus on that decision-making process.”

U.S. Travelers Prefer Extraordinary Experiences — Even When They’re Repeat Journeys

All over the web, it seems like people are on adventures. One look at social media can reveal the sights and sounds of people journeying into the unknown and documenting their experiences every step of the way.

And those adventurers exist in droves — U.S. travelers alone spent $34 billion on travel activities in 2018. But in its Destination Decision report, Phocuswright found that only 35% of Americans choose their travel destinations independently without taking the opinions of family and friends into account. The study focused on the minority of travelers who made those independent choices.

“We looked at how they did it — what they considered, where they did their research, why they picked their destinations, and what other destinations they might be considering,” Blutstein said.

Surprisingly, Phocuswright found that today’s American leisure traveler prefers the tried and true over the new. Americans in the survey were more likely than travelers from any other country to journey to a place they’d visited before.

Phocuswright research travel activities market graphic

Phocuswright predicts the total travel activities market to continue growing through at least 2022.

“By and large, Americans are not trying out new places — only the 18-34 years olds are doing that,” Blutstein said. “It makes sense because younger people have less travel history. And most places are new to someone who’s either in college or just starting their career.”

Moreover, a full 60% of independently chosen American travel journeys remain entirely within the bounds of the U.S.

“Compared to Europeans and even Australians, Americans travel domestically at the highest rate,” Blutstein said.

People only have so much leisure time available to devote to travel. And Phocuswright’s research indicates that Americans would rather choose a sure thing than the prospect of an adventure gone awry.

How Demographic and Economic Trends Influence Leisure Travel Choices

Blutstein explained the American tendency to favor predictable, domestic travel in economic and demographic terms.

“A lot of U.S. travelers don’t have passports — the rate is pretty low especially compared to Europe,” Blutstein said. “And the sheer size of the country plays a role. One interesting thing we found was that Americans who traveled internationally generally lived on the coasts. And those most likely to travel to Europe, for example, live on the East Coast.”

Even when U.S. travelers choose to venture somewhere new, they usually have a plan behind it.

“They’re going because it’s a place they’ve always wanted to visit,” Blutstein said. “This is one of our ideas that resonated with all the countries we studied. Travelers have a list of places they want to visit, and when they find the right moment — or a good deal — they’ll go ahead and book the trip.”

Phocuswright independent travel graphic

Only 35% of Americans choose their travel destinations without the input of family or friends.

The fact that independent leisure travel is more about checking off items on a bucket list than throwing darts at a map surprised Blutstein and his team.

“We thought U.S. travelers would at least want to pick between a couple of destinations — between Florida and New York, for example,” he said. “But we found that Americans know where they want to go — more so than in some of the other markets.”

The report found that almost 60% of American travelers already had a destination in mind before they started the booking process.

“They didn’t even need to decide — that was shocking to me,” Blutstein said. “And I think that plays into the high percentage of domestic travelers. International travelers were less likely to know in advance where they wanted to go. Maybe the price of the flight came down, or currency values shifted, or they finally earned enough credit card points.”

When It Comes to Travel, Authenticity and Recommendations are Key

When U.S. travelers venture off on their own, not visiting friends and family, they mainly want their trips to be about the experience, not the challenge of achieving it. Phocuswright found that even when they leave the country, they’re likely to visit somewhere familiar.

“A high percentage of American international travelers visit Europe, Mexico, and Canada — places where they at least assume they’ll be comfortable — as opposed to places like Asia or even Central and South America,” Blutstein said.

Most travelers turn to the web, where they can consult with an ever-expanding network of recommendations and accommodation options. And that process often happens quickly.

“Because a lot of these travelers have visited their destinations before, the research phase doesn’t take long — a couple of days, maybe a week at most,” Blutstein said. International trips and longer trips — of a week or more — may require more time.

“Travelers still get recommendations from friends and family, but with Facebook and Instagram and other sites, they’re also crowdsourcing online.” — Mark Blutstein, Phocuswright Research Analyst

Top web destinations for travel research start with top search engines, including Google in the U.S., which also developed the popular Google Maps.

“We’ve noticed many travelers like using Google Maps during the research phase to locate attractions and even book lodging near things they want to see,” Blutstein said.

Still, much of the information travelers plug into their online searches originates with people they know.

“Travelers still get recommendations from friends and family, but with Facebook and Instagram and other sites, they’re also crowdsourcing online,” Blutstein said.

No matter how travelers arrive at their destination of choice, Phocuswright’s Destination Decision report shows that a positive experience may entice them to do it all over again.