Travel Trends: The rise of the ‘Free Independent Traveler’ (FIT)

Over the last few years, the world travel landscape has undergone significant changes brought by security concerns, the economic crisis and green considerations. These new conditions have given rise to a new type of tourist: the “Free Independent Traveler,” or FIT. The term refers generally to people over 35, of above average income, and who like to travel in small groups or as couples. They avoid mass tourism and the holiday package of traditional travel operators, and favor a more individualistic approach to travel. They may or may not be “Four Percenters.”

Free Independent Travelers as an alternative movement?
FITs tend to be environmentally aware, with the desire to experience new ways of life and usually are enthusiastic, off-the-beaten-track explorers with a thirst for experiencing the “real thing.” They enjoy good food, architecture, and the heritage of local cultures.

Also, they are an important and growing sector in the travel market. Governments, regional tourist boards and other public sectors responsible for tourism development try to attract them. Why? The basic principle is economics. FITs spread their money around in a more efficient fashion, buying from multiple locations driven by their own particular itinerary and tastes and by the intention of enjoying the local way of life. In contrast, tour groups concentrate in a few providers, which tend to spread money in a less than optimal manner.


The Power of Information

How FITs garner information for their trips is of vital importance. Not surprisingly, a wide variety of sources and/or tips from social websites are key.Sites such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum or GoNOMAD.com are both examples and represent the fundamental difference between the FIT and other types of traveler. Many FITs are even leraging Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other social networking sites to get information about trips. After all, independent travel is about the sharing and passing on of ideas and knowledge. The FIT vacation is a custom-built menu fed by suggestions from friends, forums, specialty providers or others. The rise of low-cost airlines in the US and Europe has also increased the supply of alternative and lower cost short haul destinations fueling demand for these newly available markets.

The internet is fundamental to the rise of the FIT, and as such, many traditional Travel Operators interested in tapping into this new, growing market are starting to offer fully customized travel options through their websites to create almost an oxymoron: Independent Travel Operators.

Take a look at the trends in information gathering and travel booking below. (Please note that all data points for 2010 and 2011 have been forecasted to show future trends. We can’t see into the future.)

Information Sourcing for Travel
As you can clearly see below, FITs have turned almost exclusively to the Internet for information gathering and trip-planning.

Where do people go to price airline tickets?
As you can see from this chart, FITs have largely abandoned advice from tour guides, tour books, friends, and relatives to price airline tickets. [Ed's note -- who ever asked their friends for details about airline ticket prices?!] With the rise of the Internet, FITs are instead going directly to the source to learn about and compare airline ticket prices. For anyone who has ever visited a booking aggregator or an airline website, of course, this makes perfect sense.

Where do people go to book tours?
As with the chart above, FITs have almost entirely abandoned tour operators for actually booking their trips and/or extended tours.

So are you a FIT traveler?

Data Sources:

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