“Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what’s to come for summer travel,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel, said in a statement. “Based on our projections, summer travel isn’t just heating up, it will be on fire.”
A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 72 percent of Americans say they will “definitely” or “probably” go on a summer trip. That is despite high prices for gas, hotels and airfare that are “major factors” for a majority of vacationers. In contrast, fewer than 3 in 10 Americans say the coronavirus is a major factor in their vacation decision-making.
Gas prices a much bigger factor than covid for summer travel, poll finds
“The pandemic kind of facilitated a change in the way people think about travel,” said Nathan Line, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism marketing at Florida State University’s Dedman College of Hospitality. “If you have the time and the money, why put it off? Especially if maybe you’ve got a couple years of quarantine under your belt and you haven’t been able to travel and there’s some additional money saved away for that kind of thing.”
Here are six things to remember going into Memorial Day and the summer travel season.
Expect crowds — everywhere
Transportation Security Administration spokesman R. Carter Langston said in an email that the agency expects about 2.1 million passengers each day between Thursday and Memorial Day. In comparison, an average of about 1.8 million people traveled every day during the same holiday stretch last year.
“With travel volumes reaching and in some cases exceeding 2019 levels, this will be a busy weekend at airports around the nation,” he wrote. “TSA is encouraging travelers to arrive in plenty of time to park, check in, check their bags, get through the security checkpoint and make it to their gates.”
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Delta Air Lines said summer travelers should plan to arrive two hours early for domestic trips and three hours for international flights. Some overwhelmed airports are urging passengers to plan even more of a cushion: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport said passengers should show up 2½ hours early for domestic flights.
Nearly 35 million people are expected to travel by car over the holiday weekend, AAA said. Using data from transportation analytics company INRIX, the group said travelers should expect the longest delays on Thursday and Friday afternoons.
“Even with a significant increase in gas prices, we expect a large jump in holiday driving compared to the last few years,” Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at Inrix, said in a statement.
The worst times to travel this weekend, according to the forecast, are 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday; 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday; 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday and Monday. The best times are after 9 p.m. Thursday, before 7 a.m. or after 9 p.m. Friday, before 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and before 11 a.m. Monday.
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Travel booking app Hopper said its data shows domestic airfare this holiday weekend will average $394 for a round-trip flight; that’s 28 percent higher than the same time in 2019. According to federal economic data, airfares in April were 33 percent higher than a year earlier.
Lindsay Schwimer, a consumer travel expert at Hopper, said those prices are expected to continue to go up seasonally into next month, peaking at about $410 or $420 for round-trip domestic airfare.
Hotels over Memorial Day weekend will cost an average of $163 a night, Hopper said, an increase of more than 30 percent year-over-year. Rates aren’t much lower for summer, averaging at $154 a night — 36 percent higher than last year, Schwimer said.
She said flexibility on destinations and dates can help travelers find deals that remain — and so can pushing a trip to late August or early fall.
Tougher to hack: rising gas prices. The national average for a gallon of gas on Thursday was $4.60, according to AAA, compared to about $3.03 a year ago.
Apps and tools such as GasBuddy, Waze and Google Maps can help travelers find cheaper gas. Line, who lives in Tallahassee, said he plans to fill up in Georgia rather than in Florida for a comparative discount on a road trip.
A majority of Americans are similarly concerned about gas prices. The poll, conducted by The Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, found that 61 percent of Americans say gas prices are a “major factor” in making their summer vacation plans. Fifty-four percent said hotel or lodging prices play a major factor, and 52 percent said the same about flight prices.
Be strategic when renting a car
The price of a rental car has actually decreased compared to last year, AAA said, but prices are still fairly high because of a vehicle shortage.
Experts said travelers should consider booking a rental car first once they know their travel plans to make sure there will be one available. Flexibility is key; renters might need to pick up a car at a location away from a busy airport. If rental-car companies are too pricey, you could have better luck on peer-to-peer apps such as Turo.
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And travelers should keep an eye on prices once they lock a car in. If the rates drop, they can rebook at lower prices.
Data tracked by The Washington Post shows that new infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the rise — even as experts caution that official case counts are not telling the full story because they don’t include many home tests.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said all domestic travelers should “consider getting tested as close to the time of departure as possible.” Before that, the agency had only recommended testing for domestic travel if people were not up to date on their coronavirus vaccines.
Traveling in the U.S. soon? Get tested before your trip, CDC says.
Be aware that the mask mandate is over
Travelers are no longer required by federal authorities to wear a mask at airports, on planes and on other forms of transportation. Health-care providers still recommend masking up in airports and on planes. For those who are concerned about navigating maskless flights, etiquette experts offer tips for politely asking a neighbor to mask up or cover their sneezes or coughs here.
There’s still a labor shortage
Summer travelers should not expect their vacations to be free of snags, especially as the travel industry remains understaffed and customer service takes a hit.
On Thursday, Delta announced it would cut service by about 100 flights a day between July 1 and Aug. 7 to “build additional resilience in our system and improve operational reliability for our customers and employees.”
Braving crowds and paying high prices will only be part of the summer vacation challenge, as The Washington Post reported this spring: Travelers should expect their rooms to be cleaned less frequently, service at restaurants to suffer and flights to be delayed or canceled.
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