NerdWallet: Even with low journey costs, tour operators see nice curiosity on this new pattern

When the lockdowns began in March 2020, Steve Schneiter lost all of his income. Schneiter is the owner of Denver Microbrew Tour, a company that offers brewery tours. With both travel and indoor dining at a standstill, Schneiter had few options to keep his business going.

To stay busy, he set a goal of running a mile each day during the lockdown, which was estimated to last eight weeks. But when the lockdowns continued, Schneiter – who had run no more than a half marathon before the pandemic – organized a socially distant relay race in which up to 10 people shared a 50-kilometer run.

In November, Schneiter was itching to escape Colorado, so he planned a road trip to Moab, Utah – partially selected for another race. This course was also 50 kilometers long, but the difference here was that it was not shared among friends, he had run everything himself.

From then on, active holidays became his new, pandemic-driven modus operandi. Since then, he has been on several running vacations, including a trip where his wife drove her converted 1996 Bluebird bus to a different campsite every night and he ran out to meet her.

The increase in active holidays

Schneiter may be unique in finding a 50-kilometer run relaxing, but his newfound love of active holidays is far from unique. After more than a year of being stuck at home and gaining "COVID-15" pounds (for some), travel companies are seeing growing interest in active vacations.

These trips eschew the typical stops at museums and theaters and instead involve physical activity while avoiding large crowds. Active holidays are available for almost every sport and activity level. You can hike a mountain range, dive off the coast of a remote island, or cycle through vineyards and farmland.

Some travelers organize their own active trips – planning their own hikes, bike rentals, and accommodations – like Schneiter did. Others may travel through a travel company that handles exercise equipment rentals, meal planning, and hotel reservations.

Despite the fact that overall travel rates are still well below pre-pandemic levels, many tour operators who market active travel are attracting great interest.

Country Walkers, a company that offers both self-guided and group walking tours in the US and abroad, told NerdWallet that bookings for its South America routes that include a hike to Machu Picchu increased 170% compared to 2019.

"We hear feedback from guests that they are excited about biking or hiking and are not spending time in museums or other crowded places right now," said Laura Breen, who runs Country Walkers and its sister brand VBT Bicycling Vacations directs. "Some guests make two or even three trips to make up for lost time in 2020."

An increasing focus on US travel

Active vacations have long attracted US travelers who want to test their trekking or cycling skills in places like Everest Base Camp or the Vietnamese Hải Vân Pass – a highlight of the six-day bike tour offered by the cycling company Spiceroads.

However, with ongoing border restrictions and ever-changing security rules, many travelers have chosen to stay closer to home.

Tour operators have adapted their travel routes to customer preferences. REI Co-op, which organizes guided backpacking, cycling and camping tours around the world, announced this year that it will end its international travel in order to invest in domestic travel.

And the strategy is paying off. The company now operates more than 100 itineraries in the US, according to REI, and in March its domestic travel sales increased 28% compared to 2019.

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What does an active vacation cost?

The problem with staying domestically: often significantly higher costs. Spiceroads, based in Thailand, has tours primarily in Southeast Asia that start at less than $ 100 for a two-day trip. The seven-day trip along the Vietnamese coast costs 1,400 US dollars including accommodation, rental bike and support vehicle.

Compare that to domestic tours: California-based Backroads offers bike tours similar to Spiceroads, but at a premium price. His $ 4,000 five-day bike tour of Nantucket Island takes you to the heated outdoor pool in front of your private cabana at the luxurious White Elephant Resort.

And of course you burn calories, but many of the chicest trips also emphasize food. The bicycle travel company DuVine has created a niche for itself in excursions through the vineyards. Of course, it includes gourmet meals paired with local wines, such as a 5-day tour of California's wine country for USD 6,600 with two Michelin-star dinners.

Some domestic travelers avoid high costs by planning their own trips. However, this requires more research and the effort of navigating unknown paths yourself.

The internet can make it easy to plan an active vacation for a cheap price. Dirt In My Shoes, a national park-focused website run by a former park ranger, sells digital itineraries for less than $ 10. Sites like Strava and AllTrails have grown successfully based on user-generated ratings and maps that provide advice on routes. Both sites offer free versions and inexpensive subscription upgrades.

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Active vacation: a welcome trend?

Leaving home and staying more active is certainly a welcome trend more than ever, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that obesity can triple the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 infection.

But an increase in active vacationers is not without its challenges. National parks saw record visitor numbers in 2021, resulting in long lines and the need to make reservations just to get in – hardly the socially distant, peaceful vacation some have envisioned.

These high numbers have also resulted in an increase in the number of people who need to be rescued. The National Park Service said rangers responded to 37 medical evacuations by helicopter in the Grand Canyon in September 2020. That one month is nearly a quarter of the 164 helicopter evacuations in all of 2018. Park Service spends approximately $ 5 million annually to rescue visitors to the Grand Canyon.

"Many of these emergencies could have been prevented if hikers plan ahead, know their own physical abilities and choose suitable hiking trails," said a statement from the National Park Service.

Read: Exercise is good for your brain and your body – as you do it right in old age

But for most, active vacations have brought much-needed physical and mental health benefits.

"One of my favorite things to do is just get up early in the morning to go for a run and catch the time of day at sunrise," says Schneiter. “It helps me get the day off to a good start. It enlivens me. "

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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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