DALLAS — Airlines and tourist destinations are expecting huge crowds this summer as travel restrictions ease and pandemic fatigue outweighs the persistent fear of catching COVID-19 while travelling.
Many forecasters believe that the number of travelers will match or even exceed levels in the old days prior to the pandemic. However, airlines have thousands of fewer employees than in 2019, and this has at times contributed to widespread flight cancellations.
People who only book for summer travel are suffering from sticker shock.
Domestic airfares for the summer average more than $400 a round trip, 24 percent higher than this time in 2019, before the pandemic, and 45 percent higher than last year, according to travel data firm Huber.
“The time to get cheap summer flights was probably three or four months ago,” says Scott Keys, who runs Scott’s Cheap Flights website.
Internationally, prices are also up from 2019, but by only 10 percent. Prices to Europe are about 5 percent cheaper than they were before the pandemic — $868 for an average round-trip flight, according to Huber. Keyes said Europe is the best travel deal out there.
Steve Nelson of Mansfield, Texas stood in line this week at a security checkpoint at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ready to board a flight to Nice, France, with plans to attend the Formula 1 race in Monaco.
“I decided it was time to work on my bucket list,” Nelson said. “I didn’t think about Monaco until this year.”
Although many countries have relaxed travel rules, there are still restrictions in place that add to the inconvenience factor. Notably, the United States still requires a negative COVID-19 test within one day of travel to the country.
“We just realized that a couple of days before coming here. We kind of panicked to find a place to test,” said Johnny Dawe, a software engineer from Bath, England, who was in Dallas for a conference. His first major flight since the pandemic began. “You have to check all the testing requirements for the countries you’re visiting, and you have to worry about contracting the virus.”
Online spending on US flights fell in April after a hot March, but is still 23 percent higher than in spring 2019, mostly due to higher fares, according to Adobe Analytics.
Airlines blame the higher prices on jet fuel, which nearly doubled in price compared to 2019. However, it’s more than that. The number of flights has not returned to pre-pandemic levels despite the high demand for travel.
“We have more travelers looking to book fewer seats, and the cost of each of those seats will be higher for airlines this summer because of jet fuel,” says Huber economist Hayley Berg.
When travelers reach their destination, they will be greeted with hotel rates that are about a third higher than last year. Hotels fill up faster, too. Hotel companies attribute the higher prices to the increased cost of supplies as well as workers in a tight labor market.
Rental cars were hard to find and expensive last summer, but that appears to have diminished as rental companies rebuild their fleets. The average price nationwide is currently about $70 a day, according to Huber.
Pricing and vehicle availability will be very variable, said Jonathan Weinberg, founder of a car rental shopping site called AutoSlash. It won’t be as bad as last summer, but vehicle prices will still be “well above average, if you can even find one,” in Hawaii, Alaska and nearby destinations like national parks.
Even if you drive your own car, it will still be very expensive. The national average for regular gasoline hit $4.60 a gallon Thursday — more than $6 in California. These prices make some people consider staying at home.
“Don’t really get used to $6 fuel,” San Diego’s Juliette Ripley said, paying $46.38 to put 7.1 gallons in her Honda Civic. The single mom of two has no summer vacation plans other than the occasional trip to a nearby beach.
However, for those intent on traveling, the question is whether airlines, airports, hotels and other travel companies can handle it.
On average, more than 2.1 million people a day board planes in the United States, about 90 percent of 2019 levels and a number that is sure to grow into the hundreds of thousands a day by July.
The US Transportation Security Administration has hired nearly 1,000 checkpoint workers who can move from one airport to another, depending on where they are most needed.
“We’re as prepared as possible,” says TSA President David Pekosky.