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Jacqui Slay, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, planned her family trip to Disney World in Florida a year ago. One month away from her scheduled tour in early September, she said she wasn’t sure if she would go, citing recent record-high COVID-19 cases in Florida.

“We’re kind of up in the air about it,” she said. 

Slay is one of many Americans who faces a travel dilemma during the COVID-19 pandemic: Is it worth the risk to travel and escape the monotony of quarantine life, or is it better to wait until the country has the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, more under control? 

A USA TODAY analysis of data from Trivago, a platform for searching and booking hotels, shows Americans have chosen a little of both. Although people aren’t quite ready to travel in full force again, they are still searching for domestic vacation destinations that have long been major draws – including in places where COVID-19 case counts are rising.

Trivago measures hotel search volume, which reflects travel requests and booking queries based on users’ link clicks. Last month’s volume was off 73% from the same time in 2019. 

It’s been up and down for months. After dropping 92% below 2019 levels in April, Trivago hotel searches started coming back in May and June as states reopened. Florida was among the states to progress the furthest back to normal booking levels, going from 95% below 2019 levels at the start of April to just 18% below normal in mid-June.

In July, when the number of new coronavirus cases was rising sharply in dozens of states, would-be travelers pulled back. The number of searches for hotels slipped further below 2019 numbers compared to the number of searches in June.

Yet Florida remained the country’s most-searched domestic travel destination, followed by California and Nevada. All three were major COVID-19 hot spots.

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Travel to hot spots

Florida, California and Nevada are “very traditional summer places for domestic travelers,” said  Robertico Croes, a professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at University of Central Florida. He added theme parks in Florida and California are “very attractive, especially in the summer,” to tourists, and Las Vegas “is known for entertainment and casino gaming.” 

“In general, especially when there is a crisis like this pandemic, people tend to be very conservative in terms of their travel behavior,” Croes said. “It means that they go to the places where they’re familiar with.”

In late May, Croes and his team surveyed nearly 2,000 American travelers across the country and found nearly two-thirds responded they would not travel within the next 12 months. 

For people who expected to travel, 40% said they were likely to stay close to home and consider destinations with small numbers of coronavirus cases, but 27% of them were “daredevils,” who were less concerned about the coronavirus situation when picking destinations and willing to travel farther. 

Craig Haseman, a 49-year-old family medicine doctor of Evansville, Indiana, is one of the “daredevils.” In mid-July, he and 11 friends and family members drove about nine hours from Indiana to a vacation house in WaterColor, a resort community on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and spent a week there.

When Haseman booked the rental about a month prior to the trip, after most states, including Florida, had begun reopening, he had no idea the virus cases would spike there during the very weeks for which his trip was planned.

“When the numbers were going down everywhere, we went ahead and planned it,” Haseman said. “As we got close to time, we realized that the numbers were going up.”

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The group of Indiana travelers decided to stick with their plan, but “we just stayed with the people that we went with” to social distance, said Haseman.

Susan Glasser, 50, and her husband of Nashville, Tennessee, visited Florida in a way that potentially exposed them to more people – by air

They had originally planned a trip in January to Costa Rica for their 25th wedding anniversary in July but by June chose to cancel.

“We are not overly frightened of coronavirus, but we are pragmatic and cautious enough,” Glasser said. 

The pair took a quick flight to Jacksonville, Florida, instead and went to Amelia Island. 

“We felt as safe as can be when traveling during COVID,” she said, complimenting The Ritz and Southwest Airlines for their safety protocol enforcement. So much so that Glasser is hoping to go on a family trip with their five children in September or October if they can get their schedules – and COVID-19 – to cooperate. 

But for others, canceling altogether became the safest choice.

Tracey Marshall-Underwood, a 44-year-old optometrist from Dover, Delaware, chose to “forgo our summer” in the name of safety for her family. They typically spend a week in Virginia Beach, Virginia, as well as attend the state fair and go to amusement parks.

She bought a trampoline to keep her 13- and 10-year-old kids occupied outside the house instead.

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Some travelers avoiding hot spots

Amy Fesmire, of Firestone, Colorado, opted to cancel her family’s summer vacation plans to South Carolina. They’ve been going to the same beach in Isle of Palms for about 22 years with another family. Fesmire said they didn’t feel comfortable flying right now and cited South Carolina’s coronavirus numbers for the concerns. New cases in the state were rising throughout the summer, though have since begun to fall; they opted to change plans around Father’s Day.

“When I called to talk with someone there, she said that it was crazy and no one was wearing masks,” the 54-year-old second grade teacher said. “My daughter-in-law is pregnant, so we didn’t want to take any chances.” 

Fesmire and her husband, three sons and daughter-in-law decided to visit Yellowstone National Park instead of South Carolina because they all could drive there; they arrived July 25 and left Aug. 1. They rented a lake house in Island Park, Idaho, made day trips into the park for sightseeing and wore masks wherever they went, including on hikes. 

Travelers may also be contending with quarantine restrictions around the country or from their employers when deciding whether or where to travel. 

Diana Snyder, a 34-year-old teacher of Jonas, Pennsylvania, received a list from her school of 18 states, including Florida, California and Nevada, that, if visited, would require her to quarantine for two weeks.

“The coronavirus isn’t really holding me back from going anywhere. … But I wouldn’t go to any of those states because of the fact that I won’t be able to go to work for two weeks … when the school starts back at the end of August,” said Snyder, who eventually drove with her family to upstate New York and camped near Lake Ontario for a week.

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Some trips canceled by restrictions, others by choice

Matthew Loraditch, a 35-year-old network engineer of Maryland, was supposed to be in South Africa with his parents for a 11-day trip in mid-July. Three months prior to his family trip, his international flight got canceled. South Africa began its lockdown in late March, when all its borders were closed and international flights prohibited.

Months later, he canceled two more trips: a convention trip to Las Vegas scheduled in June, and a Disney World tour that was originally planned in March and rescheduled in September.  

“I’m not doing anything now,” Loraditch said.

Nevada saw a stronger recovery in travel interest in May and June – Las Vegas reopened casinos in early June – but the interest declined as the state’s outbreak worsened. Trivago data shows the hotel search level bounced back to just 26% below 2019 levels in mid-June after dropping to 94% below 2019 in the beginning of April. Then Nevada hotel searches dropped down back to 58% of 2019 levels at the end of July.

Among the countless trips that have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 37-year-old trip planner from Northern Virginia who specializes in booking and planning Disney tours, experienced 14 of them.

Justin Rose said 10 families canceled their trips during Disney World’s shutdown between March and July, and when Disney World reopened its Florida parks starting July 11, four more families requested cancellations because of “concerns for COVID itself or concerns that the experience at Disney would not be what it was prior to the shutdown.” 

“A lot of people plan their trips a year or two years in advance. They do all the pre-planning and go through all the excitement to build up to it, and then to have it be canceled last minute, out of their control, is really unfortunate,” said Rose, who has visited Disney parks about 30 times so far.

For the rest of the calendar year, he has 10 other trips booked to Disney World in Florida.

Before the shutdown, visitors may have faced long lines. Now, Rose said, “because the park is going to be so empty, you can see and do all things you want to do.”

After lower-than-expected attendance amid the coronavirus pandemic, Disney is scaling back operating hours at the Magic Kingdom and several other Florida theme parks.

José Miguel Polanco, a 27-year-old sales supervisor, lives in Peru but is currently in Brazil with his parents. Every year he goes back to the U.S. to visit family. This year, that couldn’t happen.

He was supposed to fly from Lima to Dallas this past week, for a work event and then vacation.

“First our company canceled the event and then Peru canceled all international flights,” he said. He was able to fly to Brazil on a humanitarian flight to be with his parents.

His family had other trips planned this year, including one to the French Riviera in May and to Ecuador this August. 

“There was no question on whether to cancel the trips, it just doesn’t feel right to be out and enjoying travel when there are so many people in the Americas suffering either from health or economic problems,” he said, noting he’s had relatives sick with COVID-19 in Peru.

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