Prepare for travel's comeback: The 12 hottest destinations of 2021
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It's hard to believe that, this time last year, we were putting the finishing touches on our list of the 20 hottest travel destinations of 2020.
Everything then seemed so auspicious: A whole new decade was right around the corner. Airlines were expanding their route networks and making it easier than ever to reach far-flung destinations. Hotel brands were dropping their flags in new corners of the globe. Major events promised to bring together millions of people.
Of course, you all know what happened next.
Less than three months after our guide went live, countries closed their doors and travelers were forced to put their plans on hold. The entire world seemed to suddenly stall and turn inward. And the crystal ball isn't much clearer now than it was when the World Health Organization first declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in March.
We were never fortunetellers, but it's become more difficult than ever to predict exactly what the future of travel will hold. But we do know travel will make its comeback, and the time ahead is starting to look brighter. So, we've focused on the most exciting, promising and practical destinations for American travelers in 2021 as part of Hotels & Destinations Week at the 2020 TPG Awards.
Now, we're looking not only at landmark moments, game-changing hotel openings and new routes, but also destinations where airlines are doubling down. We considered ease of accessibility and access to outdoor spaces with few crowds.
Related: How airline route maps may continue to change in 2021 and beyond
Above all, we had to be optimistic.
Many of us might not travel until the second half of 2021, and even a readily-available vaccine won't mean an immediate return to normalcy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream and plan now. When and where we travel will continue to be a very personal, complex decision, but these 12 destinations are helping to bring travel back into view for many of us here at TPG.
Whether you're hoping to have at least one big international getaway next year or are more than content with rediscovering your home state, we hope these destinations reignite your wanderlust as we look ahead.
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All eyes will be on the nation's capital this year.
For one, it will welcome a spate of new points hotel openings such as the Kimpton Banneker Hotel in Dupont Circle (spring 2021) and, from Choice, the Cambria Hotel Washington, D.C. Capitol Riverfront.
Luxury and boutique brands have also announced exciting developments, such as The Dupont Circle, which emerged from top-to-toe renovations in mid-October and the six townhouses at the Rosewood Washington, D.C., which opened late last month. There's even the Hotel Zena, a Viceroy Hotels & Resorts property that opened in October and was designed to celebrate both the accomplishments of and empowerment of women.
But perhaps the biggest draw won't be what's new in Washington, D.C., but what's old.
Visitors can celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian with the reopening of its original site, the Arts and Industries Building (plus the opening of the Hall of American Culture at the National Museum of American History and the reimagined America by Air exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum).
Or, explore the just-renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library for the 125th anniversary of the D.C. Public Library system. The Kennedy Center, which will turn 50 next year, is expected to host free daily concerts at its iconic performance space.
And the good news is you don't need to fly to Washington, D.C. to experience these historic moments or spend the night at a new or refreshed hotel. Amtrak, which is celebrating its 50th birthday next year, makes it easy to visit the capital by train — and you may even be able to travel on the new Acela high-speed trains, which will hit the rails next year between Boston and Washington, D.C.
But, if you do fly, you can take advantage of the long-delayed Silver line extension to Dulles International Airport (IAD), which had tentatively been expected to open in early 2021 but may face further delays amid the pandemic.
TPG tip: Plan your trip around cherry blossom season, usually between mid-March and mid-April. It's one of the most incredible times of year to visit the capital when it's filled with delicate pink blooms. You can check out Bloom Watch for planning guidance.
Related: Planning the perfect trip to Washington, D.C.
The Riviera Maya, Mexico
Despite a decline in airlift all over the world, Cancun — the gateway to the upscale Riviera Maya resort region on Mexico's Caribbean Coast — has been a rare bright spot for airline service. Recent additions include three new nonstop flights with American Airlines from Columbus (CMH), Indianapolis (IND) and St. Louis (STL) as well as new Southwest service from Phoenix (PHX) that will begin this spring.
And travelers are definitely taking advantage. In late September, CheapCaribbean said Mexico accounted for 70% of all bookings — up 20% from before the pandemic.
You can stay at the Hilton Cancun, an all-inclusive Resort that opens midyear, or head south to the Riviera Maya. In January, the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, a mainstay in the area, will debut new pool villas and a beach club. And, by next winter, the St. Regis Riviera Maya is expected to open its doors in the lush resort area.
TPG tip: Be prepared for crowds at Cancun International (CUN) airport, so consider a VIP service that gets you through customs and immigration faster. You'll be able to skip the long lines and have a safer, more relaxing welcome. Also, keep an eye on Mexico's COVID-19 monitoring map, which indicates what's open and closed across the country.
Related: 7 resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya that are perfect for families — and you can book with points
This was already shaping up to be a big year for New York, which has a dizzying number of high-profile hotel openings both in the city and in the surrounding Hudson Valley, Catskills and as far north as the Finger Lakes and Adirondacks.
Outdoor enthusiasts can hike sections of the 750-mile Empire State Trail, which will be the longest, multi-use state trail in the country when it's completed this month, and then retire to a room at the Hotel Canandaigua (a Tapestry Collection by Hilton property expected to open in the Finger Lakes in June) or the Chatwal Lodge, a luxury escape opening in the Catskills this spring. Also coming to the Catskills is a new 36-room wellness resort from Foster Supply Hospitality, and the Eldred Preserve, which will open in the spring with a boutique hotel, restaurant, lounge, a 75-acre private lake and more.
Related: This new hotel is worth a trip to the Catskills just for the tub
Of course, if you're a New Yorker in need of a staycation, you don't even need to leave the Big Apple. You can book a stay at the Six Senses when it opens its first-ever North American property and urban hotel in Chelsea's twisted XI skyscraper. Or head uptown to the Aman New York, which is shaping up on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. With views of Central Park and working fireplaces in every guest room and suite, it might be hard to leave.
TPG tip: Looking for an extended stay? Consider booking an entire home. Evolve Vacation Rental, a hospitality brand managing 14,000 properties, found the Catskills region of New York to be one of the top 10 fastest-growing markets in the country for new vacation rental listings. Just be sure to pay for your stay with a credit card that earns bonus points on travel, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
Related: A love letter to New York City
Florida may not be the first destination that comes to mind for all travelers right now, but we think 2021 will be a big year for the sides of Florida you didn't even know existed.
There are exciting hotel openings across the state. And, with miles of beautiful beaches, incredible state parks and nature reserves like the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, there are an abundance of activities perfect for social distancing.
Miramar Beach — between Rosemary Beach and Santa Rosa Island along the Panhandle's famous 30A — welcomes Hotel Effie at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort on Feb. 1. Cool features include an upscale spa, four dining venues designed by James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson and a rooftop pool, the only one on the Emerald Coast.
There's a lot going on elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, too.
Tampa welcomes two new properties to its Water Street neighborhood: the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street (Category 6) and the Tampa Marriott Water Street (Category 5). And, a dual-brand Aloft/Element complex opens in midtown in January. Head a bit further south and you'll find the recently opened 243-room Luminary Hotel and Co., part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, on Fort Myers' waterfront.
On the East Coast, a new Renaissance St. Augustine Historic Downtown Hotel (Category 6, Marriott Bonvoy) opens in April, or you can head to Miami Beach to experience the $30 million refurb of the W South Beach (Category 8, Marriott Bonvoy). There's also the just-opened Palm Beach outpost of the lauded White Elephant brand.
TPG tip: If Disney World is in your future travel plans, 2021 is set to be a banner year. Not only is it the park's 50th anniversary, which will be marked by the opening of multiple new attractions, but The Reserve tower at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin is also on track to open in 2021. It's a Category 6 hotel in Marriott's Bonvoy program, so it's a great way to use points to stay right on Disney property.
Related: Florida’s top 10 vacation regions for different types of travelers
At least the early part of Alaska's 2021 cruise season could be in jeopardy due to ongoing restrictions on cruising, which may spell bad news for cruise fans. But, if you're looking to do a land trip to the Last Frontier, it could make 2021 an incredible time to schedule a visit.
Nearly 60% of visitors to Alaska in any given year typically come by cruise ship. So, if cruising is on hold for all or part of the summer season, you could find it uncrowded in a way it rarely has been in the 61 years since it became a state.
Related: Alaska tourist businesses devastated in 2020 as cruise ships stay away
A few small cruise lines, such as the U.K.-based Cunard Line, already have canceled all 2021 sailings to Alaska. And one of the biggest Alaska cruise operators, Princess Cruises, has cut back its planned Alaska deployment.
Princess last month canceled all 2021 Alaska sailings on the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess — one of seven ships it originally had scheduled to sail in the state next year. The line also has pulled the 2,000-passenger Sun Princess from Alaska for 2021 as part of a coronavirus-related downsizing.
Consider touring the Alaskan wilderness by rail with a ride on the Denali Star, which carries travelers from Anchorage through Denali National Park. Or head straight to one of the state's national parks, which are some of the most-remote and least-visited in the country. You can also get in your turns at Alyeska, the state's only true ski resort, which has 1,600 skiable acres and will open a new Nordic spa this spring.
TPG tip: Alaska Airlines will officially become a member of Oneworld on March 31, 2021, so Alaska flyers will enjoy a subset of their traditional perks when flying on one of the other 13 member airlines. You could also use the companion fare certificate on the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card to minimize your out-of-pocket cost traveling to the state.
Related: How to earn miles with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program
Last year, Tokyo landed on our list primarily because of the Summer Olympics, which triggered a flurry of hotel openings from nearly every major brand, a temporary terminal at Narita International (NRT) and a deluge of first- and business-class award space. Japan is said to have spent $12.6 billion preparing for the event.
But with the Olympics postponed by a year for the first time in history, many dreams of a trip to Japan were dashed.
And though Japan's borders remain firmly closed to most tourists, there's a lot of chatter about a strategic reopening as early as this spring, as the nation prepares to welcome travelers back in time for the rescheduled Summer Olympics, which are set to start on July 23.
With so many incredible new places to stay around the country — The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko, a new Tokyo Edition property, the Kimpton Shinjuku, the Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, W Osaka City and Roku Kyoto, LXR Resorts & Resorts (the first property for Hilton's luxury collection in the Asia Pacific region and also the brand's first foray into Kyoto) — travelers will be spoiled for choice, even when venturing beyond Tokyo to explore the nation's world-class ski resorts, ancient temples, meticulous gardens and hot springs.
And though people may not be booking flights to Japan just yet, we know they're dreaming about it: Data from ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) has shown a surge in award searches for Tokyo, which is now the most-searched destination (up from No. 3 this time last year). Japan is also one of the top 10 destinations Virtuoso travelers are anticipating most in 2021, according to its interactive social site, Wanderlist.
TPG tip: Take one of Japan's famous high-speed trains from Tokyo to visit the incredible Mount Fuji. It's less than two hours each way and the scenic ride alone is worth a day trip. Instead of buying individual tickets during your trip to Japan, save yourself time and money and purchase the Japan Rail Pass ahead of your trip.
Related: 11 of the most scenic train rides on Earth
Colorado ski country
Despite real pandemic-related challenges, it's been a good year for Colorado. The state has seen an influx of new flights, new hotels and a renewed appreciation for the Centennial State, which offers everything from national parks to scenic road trips and world-class skiing.
Two Colorado ski towns emerged on a recent Airbnb trend report (Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs), highlighting just how interested travelers are in getting outside and experiencing the region's iconic Rocky Mountains and legendary slopes. And while no one knows exactly how this winter will unfold, ski resorts are already up and running with new procedures designed to keep skiers safe and socially distanced.
There's also a notable number of all-new airline routes serving both Steamboat Springs (HDN) and Montrose (MTJ), the gateway to Telluride. Southwest is flying to the seasonal mountain destination for the first time with new service to Montrose (MTJ) and Steamboat Springs (HDN) this winter. JetBlue Airways is adding Montrose and expanding in Steamboat, and American Airlines is boosting service to a number of ski towns by resuming all its pre-pandemic flights to Aspen (ASE), Montrose, Steamboat and Vail (EGE) by December, according to Cirium schedules. It will also offer new seasonal flights between Charlotte (CLT) and Montrose.
But if you want to take in the beauty of Colorful Colorado from ground-level, you may be the most interested in taking the glass-domed Rocky Mountaineer train on a new route from Denver to Moab beginning August 2021. The route, aptly named Rockies to the Red Rocks, will take two days, with the overnight occurring at a hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
TPG tip: This season, many major ski resorts are requiring reservations in order to manage daily traffic at each property. Many of the major ski passes are already off-sale for this winter season, but you can still get lift tickets directly from the individual mountains for many dates. Just be sure and plan ahead for this ski season as day-of availability is far from guaranteed.
Related: The best times to visit Colorado
Bermuda has long been a favorite among East Coast travelers, thanks to its proximity. But the attractive, albeit expensive island, is about to get much more appealing to travelers who deal in points and miles.
Come spring, a St. Regis and a Tapestry Collection by Hilton property, the Bermudiana Beach Resort, will welcome their first guests, making it possible to book a luxury Bermuda trip using your Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy points.
But perhaps the biggest news is the new terminal at L.F. Wade International (BDA), which will replace the current, aging facility. Upon arrival, travelers will be immediately reset to island time, thanks to the on-site nature trail, putting green and outdoor terraces. Sometimes, unforeseen events can completely derail your travel plans — a lesson we were all reminded of this year. But the terminal's new location (further inland at a higher elevation) promises to make the airport more resistant to hurricanes.
TPG tip: Working from a hotel or resort for an extended stay (usually a week or more) may be one of the biggest travel trends to emerge this year — and Bermuda has made it incredibly easy to book an extended stay on the island. Since August, Bermuda has been offering year-long residency certificates for “digital nomads” as well as students seeking to either work or study remotely, in addition to extending its tourist visa terms from 90 to 180 days.
Related: Dreaming of a sandy beach? A country-by-country guide to Caribbean reopenings
The United Kingdom
Talk of a travel corridor linking New York City and London and more flexible entry policies have made it possible to imagine casual hops across the pond in 2021, which might explain why it's also on one of the top 10 destinations Virtuoso travelers are anticipating most in 2021, according to the Wanderlist site.
Upon arrival, check out The Londoner (which, when it opens in April, will be hailed as the first super-boutique hotel) or the forthcoming Nomad London, which is expected to debut in February.
But travelers should venture beyond the Great Smoke and discover the wide-open spaces of the entire island nation. Hyatt's collection of Small Luxury Hotels of the World has a good presence around the country — including The Nare Hotel in idyllic Cornwall, where the water is the turquoise blue color you'd expect to find in parts of the Mediterranean.
Alternatively, head about 100 miles west of Heathrow to the small city of Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The classic destination, famed for its Roman baths and stunning scenery, also welcomed a new Marriott property earlier this year. In August, the Abbey Bath Hotel joined the Marriott Tribute Portfolio, blending the old Bath charm with some modern touches. As a Category 4 property, you can expect to use between 20,000 and 30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
If you want to make a full trip out of it, don't skip out on heading from England to the other three nations of the U.K. — Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And, if you're looking for an entirely authentic experience, considering saving your points and staying in one of the country's famed bed and breakfasts instead. Nothing beats cozying up next to a fireplace in a British pub with a pint of beer and a Sunday roast.
TPG tip: Getting to the U.K. has seen great improvements in recent years as well. Both of the country's biggest airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, introduced new and improved business-class products in 2019. Consider flying in Virgin's new Upper Class Suite or BA's Club Suite on your next trip to London or Manchester — and watch for Amex's second international Centurion Lounge at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) in 2021. Just be prepared to drive on the left side of the road.
Belize hasn't been known for its branded resorts, but a few major openings are putting Belize on the map for hotel loyalists.
Marriott’s Alaia Belize, an Autograph Collection property, is slated to welcome its first guests next spring and will mark Marriott's first foray into the Central American nation. The eco-friendly resort in Ambergris Caye will feature a glass-bottomed infinity pool suspended five stories over the ground. There's also the forthcoming Four Seasons Caye Chapel, on the first Four Seasons private island in the Americas.
Belize may be especially promising for travelers with a stash of United MileagePlus miles, since United Airlines will add new nonstop flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Denver (DEN) and Belize City (BZE) this winter.
For travelers who really want a secluded getaway, Belize also offers many private islands available for rental including Cayo Espanto, Little Harvest Caye and Kanu Private Island. Talk about social distancing.
TPG tip: When Belize's international airport (BZE) reopened to travelers in October, the tourism board created a “Tourism Gold Standard” recognition program for hotels to give travelers additional peace of mind. Be prepared to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure, download the Ministry of Health's contact tracing app and wear masks in all public places — including beaches.
Palm Springs, California
While we are entering 2021 with heightened restrictions in California, that just may increase demand from travelers dreaming of a getaway to the Golden State later in the year.
And warm, sunny Palm Springs (PSP) is perhaps the hottest airport on the aviation route map, with a number of new airlines adding both new flights and new routes. With the additions, Palm Springs will barely be down over winter 2019 to 2020 flight levels for the 2020 to 2021 season. American Airlines, Allegiant and Southwest have all launched new domestic flights.
With more options than ever for getting to this California resort town, travelers can more quickly and easily experience the desert destination's famed arts and culture scene. Check out Desert X, an outdoor art exhibition that returns to the desert on Feb. 6 and stretches until April 11; the Palm Springs Surf Club (with everything from a wave pool and cabana to a surf shop) when it opens in July; and the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, a new museum celebrating the history and culture of the Cahuilla Indians opening next year.
The much-awaited Andaz Palm Springs may not welcome guests this year, but there are plenty of other new and refreshed places to stay. Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs just opened this winter, marking the brand's debut on the West Coast. The intimate 29-room Casa Cody is reopening following a property-wide renovation, and at the new 40-key Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Oasis (opening January 2021) guests can soak in the geothermal mineral pools while watching the sun set over the San Jacinto Mountains.
TPG tip: Palm Springs is the undisputed capital of mid-century modern design and architecture. Take a drive around town to see some spectacular examples. You can get a map from the Palm Springs Visitors Center, which is itself a masterpiece of modernism.
Related: 6 California trips for every type of traveler
Western National Parks
It's impossible to talk about the future of travel without underscoring the importance of our country's national parks, which have offered a much-needed respite and opportunity to venture into the great outdoors during these incredibly difficult times. Multiple national parks out west, such as Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, saw record numbers of visitors this fall. We see no reason this trend won't continue in 2021.
In Utah, a new Under Canvas is expected to open at Lake Powell-Grand Staircase in April 2021, and there's a renewed push for a sixth new national park, Escalante Canyons National Park, to round out the so-called Mighty Five.
But whether the area receives another officially designated national park or not, there's no denying the allure of its existing parklands including Bryce Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and others.
Related: Guide to Yellowstone National Park
Out in Wyoming, 2021 will bring us the first hotel located on the town square in Jackson Hole. When it opens, the new Cloudveil (a Marriott Autograph Collection property) will be located just a few miles from Grand Teton National Park and roughly an hour from Yellowstone.
We fully expect the new year to continue to bring new flights and lodging opportunities in and around these western marquee outdoor destinations that allow for social distancing while exploring.
Related: Guide to Glacier National Park
TPG tip: Don't forget to get an annual national park pass if you plan to visit more than one park. The $80 pass pays for itself after just a few trips (Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, for example, are just a few minutes from each other and both have $35 entry fees). Plus, you get to skip the line at many busy entrances.
Additional reporting by Nick Ellis, Nick Ewen, Clint Henderson, Summer Hull, Emily McNutt, Ben Mutzabaugh, Andrea Rotondo, Gene Sloan.