Travel spending across the U.S. decreased by nearly $500 billion in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of all the American jobs that were lost in 2020, 65% were related to the travel industry. But the U.S. travel industry — this year more than ever — is recuperating. According to a report from the U.S. Travel Association, vacation spending and hotel occupancy rates are nearly back up to their 2019 levels.
More than half (55%) of American adults stated they were planning to go on vacation by the end of this year. With travel restrictions lifted, where are they all planning to go? And since so many people are intending to travel this winter, which U.S. destinations are the most desirable (and, therefore, likely to be the most crowded)? We analyzed what people have been Googling in the last few months to find out. And like on most subjects, different states have different opinions, so we also looked to see if these answers varied between states.
- People in 45 of 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) are most interested in traveling within their own state this winter.
- Ice skating is the winter sport most people searched for, according to Google Trends data.
- People were most interested in searching for Florida as a travel location between all of the U.S. states.
- North Dakota and South Dakota had no search activity related to traveling to (or within) their states.
The hottest winter vacation destinations
Some of the most popular winter vacation destinations in the world can be found in the U.S. The extravagant winter wonderlands and holiday markets in cities like New York and Chicago; phenomenal skiing in places like Vail, Colorado, or Stowe, Vermont; and the not-so-wintery weather found in cities like Miami, Florida, and San Diego, California all draw people for their distinct experiences. However you might like to spend the last months of the year, there seems to be something in America for everyone.
Using Google Trends search data for a 90-day period between July and October 2022, we sought to discover which vacation destinations in the U.S. people are most interested in traveling to this winter. We also used data from Tripadvisor to narrow down which attractions were the most popular (most searched for) in each state.
Along with the most popular cities and states for winter travel and the top attractions in each state, we also wanted to get a better idea of what people most enjoy doing during their winter vacations in general. So, we compiled a list of the most popular winter vacation-related search terms, then used their individual search values to determine their desirability according to each state.
We found, for example, that people in Vermont searched for “winter vacation” and “skiing” more than residents in any other state. The state with the most interest in the most activities, however, was Wyoming:
- Ice climbing
- Build a snowman
- Sleigh ride
Yet, even with interest in winter travel clearly on the rise in America, we discovered that not everyone is as eager to venture out. As colder winter months approach, people in 45 of 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) appear to be most interested in traveling within their own home state; the majority of people in four states don’t seem to be interested in traveling within the U.S. at all.
Most popular states for winter travel
It isn’t hard to imagine that where you live throughout the year has a significant influence on what sort of climate you prefer when going on vacation. Even if people don’t want to go far, they still might want to escape the cold, heat, or landscape of their home states. This could be why we found a wide range of climates within the top five states people are most interested in traveling to this winter.
The top five most popular states for winter travel are:
- New York
- Tennessee and California (tied)
As winter approaches, literally millions of snowbirds from across North America regularly flock to warmer destinations, such as California, Arizona, Texas, and, especially, Florida. It’s unsurprising that Florida — the Sunshine State — is at the very top of our list. Unlike casual vacationers, who might only stay for a short trip, Florida’s recurrent snowbird population has been known to regularly stay put for weeks at a time.
State-to-state travel preferences
The most common place that people wanted to travel in almost every state was somewhere close to home within their own state. (We noted these states with an asterisk in our list below.) To see what inter-state travel is gearing up for, we also included each state’s second choice in the breakdown.
People in four states (Alaska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas) did not search enough during the specified time period to generate a definitive travel preference — not even for their own state. Therefore, we will consider people in these states to be “staying home” this coming winter.
Here’s where people in each state were most interested in traveling:
As mentioned above, we found that people in 45 of 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) were most interested in traveling within their own home state, and people in four states didn’t appear to have much interest (but not necessarily zero) in going anywhere.
Anywhere but the Dakotas
Alongside residents of Alaska and Wyoming, residents of North and South Dakota appeared to be uninterested in traveling anywhere within the U.S. this winter based on their search habits. Unlike Alaska and Wyoming, however, the Dakotas had no search activity whatsoever related to their states. This means that no one in any state was interested in traveling to either of the Dakotas — not even the Dakotans themselves.
Perhaps the stone faces of former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, depicted on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial are just not of much interest to people, especially in winter.
The lack of interest in traveling to the Dakotas could also be the lingering effect of the severe COVID-19 outbreak that followed the 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a gathering of nearly half a million people hosted by a small town in western South Dakota. Two months after the August rally, North Dakota had the highest COVID-19 infection rate per capita in the world. In South Dakota, the death rate had also soared to global heights. Due to a slow, ineffectual response by the states’ governments and the ongoing spread of misinformation related to vaccines, the Dakotas struggled much longer than other states to get a handle on the COVID-19 threat.
The wanderlust of New Hampshirites
Interestingly, only people from New Hampshire — searching most for Florida, then Maine — appeared to be exclusively interested in vacationing elsewhere this winter. One theory is that the intense and variable winter weather in New Hampshire drives people away during the colder months. A winter storm in New Hampshire can range from a moderate snowfall to a full-on blizzard with blinding snow that lasts several days. It isn’t uncommon for people to become stranded in their cars or trapped in their homes, often without electricity. The after-effects of such storms can include burdensome snow accumulation, extremely cold temperatures, heavy snow and ice coating tree branches or power lines, closed highways and blocked roads, as well as coastal flooding and beach erosion. A trip to sunny Florida or coastal next-door-neighbor Maine could offer a respite from the storms for those in New Hampshire.
Most popular cities for winter travel
We took 15 of the country’s most popular major cities and, based on each city’s total search value, ranked them according to their popularity for winter travel planning. Here’s how they measured up:
- Miami, FL
- San Diego, CA
- Virginia Beach, VA
- Savannah, GA
- Los Angeles, CA
- New York City, NY
- Las Vegas, NV
- Nashville, TN
- New Orleans, LA
- Atlanta, GA
- Chicago, IL
- Maui, HI
- Boston, MA
- Portland, OR
- Denver, CO
While people weren’t necessarily interested in traveling to other parts of Nevada, we did find that people were very keen on visiting Las Vegas — in fact, Sin City received more than three times the amount of searches the state of Nevada received. This could be due to the fact that most of Nevada (80-90%) is still mostly uninhabited land owned by the federal government.
Colorado had more than four times the amount of searches compared to its capital city, Denver. Denver isn’t nearly as popular a destination for winter skiing as mountain cities like Aspen and Vail, which could explain people’s higher level of interest in the state in general.
When it came to winter vacation interest in California, San Diego accumulated more searches than its much larger and more densely populated neighbor up the coast, Los Angeles. And just as Florida turned out to be the overall most-searched-for state, Miami (its second largest city) was found to be the city of most interest to winter wanderers. The most likely conclusion: people want to travel somewhere warm (and often coastal) where they can be outside in the winter.
Following the same “homebody” trend we found with our most-searched-for states, Floridians were the ones most looking to vacation in Miami; Californians were the ones most looking to vacation in San Diego; and New Yorkers were the ones most looking to vacation in New York City.