Hotels

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.

Amelia Earhart at Union Club Hotel in Indiana

Here’s a nice way to celebrate the life and legacy of Amelia Earhart during Women’s History Month.

In West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University’s recently renovated Union Club Hotel now has an installation with 14 different images of Amelia Earhart projected on the two-story bookcase behind the reception desk.

Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland.

She also earned money from product endorsements: her “real aeroplane” luggage was a big seller.

Courtesy Purdue University Libraries, 

The installation at Purdue’s Union Club Hotel is especially appropriate. Earhart served on the university faculty as a career counselor and an adviser in aeronautics. The University helped to finance her first airplane. And today there is digital access to the Amelia Earhart Collection.

The collection is a treasure-trove of photographs, artifacts (luggage, goggles, smelling salts), postage stamps, letters, and papers.

We’re looking forward to checking into this hotel and spending time in the library learning more about Amelia Earhart.

Travel on the rebound? Bookings say yes.

[This is a slightly different version of the story we prepared for NBC News]

As the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations is ramping up, so is consumer confidence — and with it, a surge in travel bookings.

“Many travelers are feeling optimistic that they will be able to vacation abroad this year. Many people are already actively planning their next big trip; even for trips more than four months out,” said Shibani Walia, senior research analyst at Tripadvisor.

2020 was the worst year in history for air travel demand, according to the International Air Transport Association, with global passenger traffic falling more than 65 percent, compared to 2019. The hotel industry also tanked, surpassing 1 billion unsold room nights, according to hotel industry research firm STR. The story was much the same for cruises, attractions, and tours, with the World Tourism Organization calling 2020 the worst year on record.

Pent up demand fuel bookings

With a comprehensive vaccine schedule and pent-up demand for leaving home, vacation planning and bookings are on the rise for late 2021, 2022, and beyond.

Spirit Airlines announced Thursday it would start training new pilots and flight attendants as of next month, in preparation for a spike in leisure travel.

“We just got our first shot. So maybe we could plan a trip this summer or later this year,” says Vicky Stein of New York. “I’d love to visit my son in Vancouver, B.C. But that depends on the regulations in Canada. At this point, I’d be happy to go to Vermont.”

A recent Tripadvisor survey found that 80 percent of U.S. consumers planned to take at least one overnight domestic leisure trip in 2021. Just over one-third of respondents planning at least three domestic trips this year. Popular destinations such as Orlando are already seeing a hopeful booking rebound.

“The region expects 2021 spring break travel to mirror the Christmas and New Year holidays, when occupancy reached 50 percent,” said Daryl Cronk, senior director of market research for Visit Orlando. “This would be a significant improvement over last year’s 12 percent, one of the lowest points of the year.”

Tripadvisor’s survey also found a strong interest in international travel planning. Nearly half (47%) of all respondents said they are planning to travel internationally in 2021.

Already, the majority of hotel clicks for trips taking place from May onwards are to international destinations, Tripadvisor noted. “This is an early signal that travelers are feeling increasingly confident they will be able to travel abroad in 2021, at least in the back half of the year.”

Italy, France, Japan, Australia, and Greece are at the top of most travelers’ lists, said Misty Belles, managing director at Virtuoso travel network, citing customer planning.

Cruises may make a comeback

Travelers are also eyeing cruises, a good sign for the many cruise lines that had to abandon entire sailing seasons.

“We’re seeing growing confidence from cruisers as vaccines begin to be distributed,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic. “Both because they see it as a step in the right direction for the return of travel, and because they’ll feel most comfortable sailing knowing that they and their fellow passengers have been vaccinated.”

Many cruisers are making their bookings further out.

“Our 136-day 2021-2022 Viking World Cruise sold out more than a year in advance,” says Richard Marnell, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Viking. “And we have had such strong demand for our new Mississippi River cruises that we opened additional dates for sale in 2023 sooner than expected.” 

Rich and Suzi McClear of Sitka, Alaska, whose 2020 Holland America Line world cruise was cut short due to the pandemic, are anxious to go back to sea. “We’re rebooked for a 2022 world cruise. We’re also booked for the 2023 world cruise, which we view as an insurance policy in case the 2022 cruise does not go,” they said in an email.

Should you book a trip too?

Most travel companies now have flexible and more generous booking and cancellation policies, and prices are historically low. So, it can be a good time to book future trips.

Airfares, for example, are 20 percent lower compared to last year, said Adit Damodaran, economist for travel app Hopper. “Domestic airfare prices are expected to rise in mid-to-late March and gradually return to 2019 levels over the course of the year. And it is not too early to book for 2022, especially if you’re booking with trip protection or flexible booking options.

Hotels add COVID-19 testing to amenity lists

Courtesy Arora Group

Skip the lines and get a COVID-19 test at your hotel

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

You may not be able to work out in hotel gyms or hang out in lobby bars just yet. But at an increasing number of hotels, guests can now get COVID-19 tests as part of their stay.

The tests are offered in partnership with a local laboratory or medical company and at an extra, sometimes hefty expense. But now that a negative COVID-19 test is required for crossing many state and country borders, hotels hoping to stand-out are adding medical testing to their list of amenities.

Results before you fly

“Test and Rest” packages starting at about $240 at the Sofitel Heathrow and about $200 at the Sofitel Gatwick allows guests to check-in and take a self-administered saliva COVID-19 test from a kit.

Twice a day, the hotel sends test samples via courier to a HALO testing laboratory. Results, plus a certificate to be printed at reception, are emailed to guests so they can go from the airport hotel to the plane.

“It seemed to be the right thing to do to both encourage travel and get people booking airport hotels again,” said Raj Shah, Commercial Director – Hotel Division of the Arora Group. The company operates several hotels at both Heathrow and Gatwick.

COVID-19 testing at resorts and boutique hotels

In Las Vegas, the REVIV wellness spa at the Cosmopolitan offers COVID-19 PCR testing ($100) with results and documents promised within 24-hours. Antibody tests ($40) are also available, with discounts offered to guests who bundle their tests with some of the spa’s treatments.

With HELIX Urgent Care, Florida’s Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa provides COVID-19 testing for guests three days a week. The fee is $125, with results promised in 48 hours or less.  

Both the W South Beach in Miami Beach and Chateau Marmont Hotel, Cottages and Bungalows in Hollywood are partnering with Sollis Health to offer guest COVID-19 PCR tests with a 24-hour turnaround. Test prices are $175 at the W South Beach and are included as part of the amenity package at Chateau Marmont, where rates start at about $475 a night.  

For $299, the Nemacolin, a resort in Farmington, PA, is offering guests rapid COVID-19 tests that are analyzed on-site, with results in 15-20 minutes. “Should a positive test result occur, you will be expected to re-test immediately,” the resort tells guests.

And at the Nobu Hotel Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley, guests simply ask their private concierge to arrange an on-site COVID-19 test. A licensed medical professional then arrives in full personal protective equipment (PPE) to administer the test. And couriers take the samples to a certified laboratory for expedited results. The white-glove service starts at $500.

What do you think of this new hotel amenity?