People with an irresistible urge to get out of their pandemic bubbles are driving increased demand for travel this summer. But they face a major sticker shock.
The average cost of a domestic air ticket has increased by more than 30% compared to the same period in 2019, according to industry observers. Travelers will also pay more – sometimes significantly more – to rent a car, stay in a hotel, or fill up on gas, which will even make car trips more expensive.
Nonetheless, it seems many are undeterred, leading the travel industry to prepare for a bumper summer season that will resemble the pre-pandemic era.
“Records are expected at parks, theme parks and airports,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of FrommerMedia and editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebooks. “After being stuck at home and having all this uncertainty in their lives, people want to go celebrate life and see their families who live far away.”
Costs may be rising, but the economy is stable and people are starting to work again, Frommer said. “Even with inflation, people know they have money coming in. They can eat out less on vacation and picnic more. They might not go to all the attractions. They go save money. But they go out anyway.”
Luckily for Tristan Klausegger, 37, of Minneapolis, he booked flights to Orlando and California earlier this year before ticket prices rose. He will also do roadtrips closer to home, such as on the North Shore, as he did for the first two years of the pandemic. Next year he may rebook the Tokyo trip he canceled in 2020.
Although costs are on the rise, Klausegger said traveling has been his lifelong passion: “So I will always find a way to save money.”
Strong desire to travel
According to statistics compiled by Hopper, a travel app, domestic air fares this summer are up 34% from 2019 – the result of rising jet fuel prices and demand that outstrips airline capacity.
The average cost of hotel stays, according to Hopper, has risen 36% from 2019. Car rental rates continue to rise after automakers reduced their fleets at the start of the pandemic and had struggling to rebuild them in the face of supply chain issues.
For those who drive, AAA Reports the national average for gas is up more than $1.30 a gallon from a year ago.
“People are deciding in droves that they’re ready to come back there, even compared to a few months ago,” said Kyle Potter, editor of the Minnesota-based website Thrifty Traveler.
Over the past two years, it has seen bursts of travel that have reached pandemic heights. But this summer is expected to be the busiest stretch since before the pandemic, and it could even top the numbers seen in normal times, he said.
People not only have a pent-up desire to go somewhere, but their choices are broader as COVID-19 restrictions have eased and sometimes disappeared. Masks are no longer required on U.S. airlines, and many countries no longer require vaccinated people to test negative for COVID before entering, Potter said.
The United States, however, still does, making it a high-stakes decision to travel abroad, he said.
“If you test positive then you’re there for another week or two at your own expense,” Potter added.
While that may stop some from traveling overseas, others are betting that US officials will eventually drop the testing requirement for those who have been vaccinated, Potter said.
Once that requirement is removed, Linda Snyder, vice president of travel and retail services for AAA Minneapolis, expects demand for international travel to increase even more.
“COVID is still a concern for many,” she said. “But many say ‘I’m vaccinated. I’m boosted.’ … People say, “I’m going now. Somewhere.””
Many are booking “bucket list” trips – to Europe and ocean and river cruises, with cash-in credits for trips they canceled in 2020 when the pandemic began. Extended family travel and destination weddings are returning.
“The [higher] costs don’t scare people away,” Snyder said. “People want to spend on experiences.”
Demand for flights is skyrocketing
Still, some travelers may be shocked when looking at the cost of flying, especially compared to artificially low prices when air travel fell sharply at the start of the pandemic, Potter said.
“Domestic flights are quite expensive this summer – as expensive as I’ve seen them in at least five years,” Potter said.
But there are deals if people can be flexible where and when they go, he said. He and his wife wanted to rebook a trip to London which they had to cancel in 2020 but couldn’t justify this year’s prices. They will fly to Turkey instead.
Once people have booked their flights, they can expect full planes. This means that when issues such as bad weather force cancellations, it can be difficult to find empty seats on other flights.
Over the past year, several airline meltdowns have occurred when a cascade of flight delays and cancellations have left people stranded.
Brian Davis, chief marketing officer of Sun Country Airlines, said the industry was doing its best to rebuild after the pandemic forced it to cut capacity.
“Instead of multiple multi-day flights that customers can choose from, options may be limited,” he said.
Airlines, he said, are making adjustments to better prepare for pent-up demand. For example, Sun Country canceled flights to Hawaii this summer because the long-haul flight is fuel-intensive and requires more crew members than shorter flights.
“Removing those that weren’t planned helped us free up crews, aircraft and resources, putting us in a stronger position to operate and fly other flights in the schedule,” Davis said. “But we probably can’t fly enough to meet all the demand.”