Air Travel

Delta variant derailing travel plans

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

Summer travel was the big bounce-back story for 2021, with Covid-weary American travelers spending $6 billion on domestic flights in June alone.

The delta variant of the coronavirus rapidly changed all that.

Domestic online flight bookings in July fell to $5.26 billion, a 13 percent decline from the previous month and 16 percent below 2019 levels, according to data from Adobe’s Digital Economy Index.

August numbers are falling even faster: In just the first three weeks of the month, August 1-21, $2.9 billion was spent online for domestic flights. That’s 33 percent below the same period in 2019.

The numbers show that “U.S. consumers are taking the Delta variant seriously and once again shifting their travel plans,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. “At the current rate, we expect spend in the month of August to be significantly under July.”

Reports from other parts of the travel industry tell the same story.

American Airlines said last week that August revenue was coming in lower than expected because Covid cases were driving down bookings. Other airlines, including Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit, have issued similar warnings.

Travelers changing plans, canceling trips

A recent survey of 1,000 American travelers by Longwoods International market research company showed that almost two-thirds of travelers surveyed said they are changing their trip plans because of the coronavirus, up from 43 percent two months ago.

In addition to travelers changing plans, Longwoods found that 36 percent of American travelers surveyed said they have postponed travel to either later this year or early next year, because of the delta variant. That is up 24 percent from just one month ago.

“The summer travel boom is at risk of stalling out as we move into fall,” said Amir Eylon, President and CEO of Longwoods International.

Fueling the drop-off is news that Hawaii’s governor is asking visitors not to travel the state right now and more cities are bringing back their mask mandates and requiring proof of Covid vaccinations to enter dining and entertainment venues.

“The late-summer drop-off in new flight bookings is happening sooner and sharper right now than it had pre-pandemic,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

But Keyes says there is a silver lining. “This softening in new travel purchases is driving airlines to put their thumb on the scale and spur new bookings by slashing airfares to entice travel bargain hunters,” he said. “Airlines are also offering free flexibility to basic economy ticket holders for the rest of 2021, as United and Delta recently announced.”

What about Labor Day travel?

Looking ahead to Labor Day holiday weekend, domestic flight bookings are down 16 percent compared to Labor Day weekend 2019, according to Adobe.

Many travelers may choose to drive this holiday weekend, feeling safer in a private vehicle than on a plane or other form of public transportation. And while last year’s Labor Day weekend gas prices were the lowest since 2004, this year’s prices at the pump are expected to average $3.11 per gallon. That’s the highest since the summer of 2014, according to fuel savings platform GasBuddy.

“For the most part, people who were planning to travel are still taking their trips, while being mindful to take important safety precautions to protect themselves and others,” said Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA. “But with a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, it’s important that travelers remain informed and be flexible.

Ready for July 4th travel adventures?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

Swimsuit packed? How about your patience?

If you are heading out of town for the July 4th holiday weekend, you will likely need both.

More than 47.7 million Americans will on the nation’s roadways and in the skies during this Independence Day holiday, July 1–5, says the American Automobile Association (AAA).

That will be very close to pre-pandemic levels and the second-highest Independence Day travel volume on record.

In normal times holiday travel can be frustrating. But as the nation makes its way out of the pandemic, there is a lot more than usual riding on this weekend.  

Road Trips Still Rule

Despite the shortage of rental cars and the highest gas prices in seven years, AAA expects more than 91% of holiday travel will be by car. An expected 43.6 million Americans will drive to their destinations, says AAA. That the highest on record for this holiday and 5% more than the previous record set in 2019. 

All those cars hitting the road means congested highways.

“With travelers eager to hit the road this summer, we’re expecting nationwide traffic volumes to increase about 15% over normal this holiday weekend,” says Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst with INRIX. “Drivers around major metro areas must be prepared for significantly more delays.”

In addition to loading up tunes and travel apps, experts suggest holiday road trippers do a refresh on safe following distances and remember that many motor home drivers are still getting used to maneuvering their new RVs.

Advice for Air Travelers

3.5 million people are planning to fly over the July 4th holiday, and air travel volumes are expected to reach 90% of pre-pandemic levels. That is an increase of 164% compared to last year, says AAA.

Earlier this month, analysts at travel site Hopper said a good deal on domestic airfare for July 4th was around $302 round-trip and $775 round-trip for international travel, on par with 2019’s July 4th prices. Prices will, of course, spike closer to holiday weekend, when Hopper expects average domestic round-trip prices to be closer to $500.  

If you do not have tickets yet and are determined to fly somewhere, Hopper economist Adit Damodaran suggests checking with low cost/budget carriers, such as Southwest and Spirit, especially on their new routes. Newcomers Breeze and Avelo, serving secondary airports, may still have good fares as well.

Getting through airports during holiday weekends was frustrating before the pandemic. This year, it could be much worse, due to a temporary shortage of TSA officers, airline staff, and airport shop and restaurants workers. Add to that new airport protocols, the rash of unruly travelers, and passengers who show up at the security checkpoint with everything from oversized liquids to guns and other prohibited items because they’re forgotten how to pack.  

“The challenge will be to keep things moving smoothly,” says Sherry Stein, Head of Technology for SITA, an air transport technology company. But “mobile-enabled technology such as self-service bag tag kiosks that limit contact while improving efficiency” will help.

What about buses and trains?

Southwest Chief near Fishers Peak, Colorado.

AAA expects 620,000 Americans to travel by bus, train, and other modes this holiday weekend, an increase of over 72% compared to last year.  

While overall ridership on Amtrak is running at about 55% of pre-pandemic levels, says Doug Duval, an Amtrak spokesman, “We are currently showing riders down 14% compared to FY19. This is trending to be the best holiday since the pandemic started.”

Bus ridership is on the rise too, says Jan Jones, program coordinator for the Hospitality and Management program at the University of New Haven.  

But staffing is a problem here too. “During the pandemic, bus lines furloughed and laid off many employees, “Drivers aren’t rushing back,” says Jones, “So, July 4th travelers may be limited in terms of where they can go by bus.”

Hotels and campsites

TripIt trip planning company reports that lodging reservations are well above the reservation volume for last year, at 163% of 2020 bookings. 

Many travelers have already booked their July 4th hotel stays and desirable properties in popular destinations, such as Hawaii, Florida and beach destinations in Maryland and South Carolina may already be filled up or showing high prices.

But late planners are not totally out of luck. “If you know the hotel or hotel brand you want to stay with, try their mobile apps or websites because they usually offer a best rate guarantee,” says Paul Barron, EVP Marketing, Hospitality at Amadeus. Loyalty program members booking directly on a hotel website often receive personalized offers not available on other sites, he added.

Campgrounds and RV resort operators are reporting higher than usual bookings for this July 4th holiday too. But not all spots are taken; websites for camping enthusiasts, such as CampFlorida.com, are reporting plenty of vacancies still available.

Too daunting? Ditch the drama.

While you may be itching to get back to big cities and popular tourist locales, for this July 4 holiday, “You will likely find more availability for flights and hotels or vacation rentals near smaller towns,” says Jen Moyse, Senior Director of Product for TripIt.

Or do a pivot and “don’t travel at all,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Jessica Scot, of Denver’s J. Scott Travel. “Instead, spend the long weekend penciling out your travel schedule for the future. If there is anything the pandemic taught us, it is not to wait to take that dream trip, or to visit a far-away friend or family member.”

Time to hit the road

Topiary Dinosaur in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood getting a spring refresh

Overnight car trips. Visits to roadside attractions. Airport hang-out time. It all seems possible now that the weather is getting nice and so many people are vaccinated and honoring all the stay-healthy rules.

When we go. We won’t be out there alone.

Our email is filled with studies, surveys, and proclamations about the travel rebound already underway.

AAA Travel expects more than 37 million people to travel 50 miles or more away from home over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. That is an increase of 60% over last year when a record low 23 million people traveled.

Are there deals to be had at hotels and attractions and on planes? Don’t count on it

“Travel inflation is real and deals are hard to come by for summer and out months,” says Clayton Reid, CEO of global travel, tourism, and marketing company MMGY Global. “While we do expect deals in city centers to some degree, where the recovery of urban hotels and attractions is lagging, demand is so high that prices are actually going up in many places. Even airfares are on the rise because demand is outweighing airlines’ reduced schedules.”

Deals may not matter

This colorful Tripit chart shows that vaccinated Americans are ready to get out on the road as soon as they can. What about you?

We’re ready. Our suitcase has been patiently waiting by the door.

Ready for a ‘vaxication’?

(This is a story we wrote for NBC News)

Ready to Travel?

A growing wave of relaxed restrictions, along with an increasing number of vaccinated Americans, is leading to a surge in “vaxications” and other trips, after a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Mothballed restaurants, hotels and attractions, canceled cruise seasons, and record low airline passenger traffic are making way for a brisk uptick in travel plans. Around half of Americans set to take a trip in the next three months, according to an analysis from the U.S. Travel Association.

“People have an 18-month supply of events, visits and vacations to catch up on,” said Michael McCall, professor of hospitality business at Michigan State University. “There is a substantial pent-up desire to travel. Families have not hugged or spent time together.”

After more than a year of closure, Disneyland looks set to open in April, along with many other theme parks. Dollywood theme park, for example, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, opened for the season last weekend, just in time for spring break, as is its tradition.

Live indoor music has already returned to New Orleans, although dancing inside clubs remains prohibited.

Business is brisk right now at Biloxi Shrimping Trip in Biloxi, Mississippi, which got hit hard during the pandemic. In March 2020, “we lost all our group travel clients and walk-up business for the year in just a few days,” said owner and operator Mike Moore, “But the start of 2021 has been surprisingly busy, even compared to last year. Our vessel has been operating steadily with walk-ups and the phone is starting to ring for groups visiting in the fall and also for spring of 2022.”

Urban areas are seeing visitors return, too.

“Since the beginning of February 2021, we have begun to see more travelers from outside our region,” said Rudd Schupp, chef concierge at tourist information center Visit Seattle.

While great airfare deals have lured some to Seattle from California, Utah, Montana and Texas, many visitors from the neighboring states of Oregon and Idaho “just wanted to get in the car and drive somewhere,” Rudd said.

Road trips were popular last summer, but even more people could be hitting the road this summer. Travelers in a recent TripIt survey said they will be ready to head out on a road trip as early as June in a personal car (83 percent) or in a rented car or RV (60 percent), with more than 60 percent planning to drive for Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day trips.

Many of those trips will include hotels stays, but many road trippers will stay in their RVs and in campgrounds.

Jon Gray, CEO of RVShare, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, said bookings for spring break are already up by 114 percent compared to last year.

Private and public campgrounds are also seeing an uptick in reservations, with some opening earlier than usual this year. Advance reservations were already up by 150 percent as early as January at many campsites affiliated with the Jellystone Park franchise network, which has nearly 80 family campgrounds across the U.S. and Canada. Campspot, a campground reservation software system, said guests are booking longer and more frequent trips, with a nearly 300 percent increase in guests booking multiple trips.

Even the hard-hit cruise industry is hoping to salvage some of its 2021 season. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its no-sail order in October, the restrictions in the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order that replaced it have led most major cruise lines to voluntarily extend their sailing suspensions.

Some cruise lines have announced that when cruises return, all crew and passengers will be required to have proof of negative Covid-19 tests and vaccinations. In the meantime, “we continue to see significant interest among cruisers in returning to sea,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

Based on a recent survey of our readers, 42 percent shared that they are currently looking to book a future cruise — and a majority of those are looking to sail within the next 12 months. So, though they are not yet able to sail, they’re eager to do so when the time is right,” McDaniel said.

LAX Flight Path Museum airplane models

Air travel has already picked up significantly, with the Transportation Security Administration screening the largest number of passengers last week since the pandemic hit. While the numbers are still way down compared to pre-pandemic times, traffic is rising enough to give airlines confidence to bring back many paused routes and introduce new services: Hawaiian Airlines just launched a new nonstop service from Orlando, Florida, to Honolulu; JetBlue Airways will soon begin flying between Hartford, Connecticut, and Miami; and American Airlines announced 10 new, returning and seasonal routes out of Austin, Texas.

“Airlines are seeing more people shopping for flights on their websites and they are getting more queries through travel agencies. They are seeing booking volumes build,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. “Because international travel restrictions still exist between the U.S. and many countries, most of the demand is domestic or to the few countries where Americans are allowed to visit, such as Mexico and Costa Rica. But there is hope on the horizon.”

Passengers whose flights or travel plans were canceled during the pandemic are also sitting on billions of dollars of travel vouchers, many of which expire soon. “Airlines want you to use that credit, so this may be a great summer for people to get out on the road and into the skies,” Harteveldt said.

Travel experts say anyone wishing to take a trip should be exercising caution, especially in light of the CDC’s recommendation that travel be avoided where possible, even for passengers who are vaccinated.

“If you’re considering travel sometime this year, it’s more important than ever to do your due diligence ahead of any trip to ensure it is safe and enjoyable,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel.

Face masks required at more airports in the US & Canada

In trying to keep people safe during the current COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of government entities around the country now require people to wear non-medical masks or face coverings when out in public.

In many cities, those rules now apply to airports.

Two examples: San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS).

Starting this week, Canada’s Minister of Transport is requiring all air passengers traveling to, through or from Canada to have a non-medical mask or face covering to cover their mouth and nose.

“Aviation passengers on all flights departing or arriving at Canadian airports will also be required to demonstrate they have the necessary non-medical mask or face covering during the boarding process otherwise they will not be allowed to continue on their journey,” Transport Canada said in a statement.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) jumped right on this rule – and had some fun with it (maybe too much fun?) in a Twitter thread.