road trips

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.”

Ready for the summer travel tsunami?

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

Summer travel may cause some headaches

Memorial Day weekend and a unusual travel season are just around the corner.

Experts expect a summer travel tsunami fueled by a dip in Covid-19 infection rates, rising vaccination rates, and the reopening of attractions, resorts, and other tourist destinations.

AA predicts that 34 million Americans will take road trips 50 miles or more from home during the Memorial Day holiday, May 27-31. That is a 52 percent increase compared to last summer — although still about 9 percent below the pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

More than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) plan to take trips this summer, according to the latest results of a Harris Poll survey.

But with everyone rushing to go somewhere – anywhere – travelers may find their dream destinations hard to book or sold out already.

“Travelers should be aware that there is still limited supply, as airlines haven’t brought back fleets in full, there are hotels that haven’t opened or are at limited capacity, and car rental fleets are still reduced,” said Kelly Soderlund of travel management company TripActions. She advises travelers determined to hit the road this summer to book as arly as possible to avoid being disappointed by a lack of inventory or by high prices.

Here are some of the summer travel “hiccups” travelers may encounter — and some tips for how to handle them.

High Gas Prices

AAA says motorists will be met with the highest gas prices since 2014.

Gas prices were expected to flirt with $3 per gallon leading up to Memorial Day weekend. But last week’s shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline caused prices to spike weeks ahead of the holiday.

“Americans will still take their road trips,” says AAA spokesperson Jeanette McGee, “They just may not travel as far as originally planned and may spend a little less.”

To save money on gas, make sure your car is tuned up and your tires are properly inflated, join gas station rewards programs, and download one or more gas price apps to your smartphone so you can compare prices on the road.

Crowded planes, high ticket prices

Right now, flights are 77 percent full on average, compared to 85 percent to 90 percent pre-pandemic, said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “But hidden under that topline average is the fact that popular leisure flights to places like Hawaii and Florida are regularly seeing completely full planes. With Memorial Day such a popular time to travel, expect airports to be crowded and planes filled to capacity.”

While the dirt-cheap fares airlines floated during the pandemic are long gone, there is some good news for air travelers.

“Two new budget airlines, Avelo and Breeze, will introduce more low-fare seats and increase competition,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. In addition, “United Airlines just announced it is adding more domestic flights, and Southwest is adding new flights between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii.”

Long lines at security checkpoints

Passenger volumes continue to rise at airports across the country. In many airports, that means the return of long lines at security checkpoints.

“We are encouraging people to arrive at their airports early, like they were asked to do prior to the pandemic,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Expect longer lines at airports where the TSA is short-staffed and unable to open all checkpoints during the busiest times. Elsewhere, lines may stretch out because passengers who have not flown in the past year have rusty packing skills. In addition to finding a lot of oversize liquid containers in travelers’ carry-on bags, TSA officers are finding that many passengers are still forgetting to leave their firearms at home.

For a refresh on what can be put in carry-on bags, travelers can consult TSA’s “Can I Bring?” feature online and on the MyTSA app or tweet to @AskTSA.

High Hotel Rates

Have your heart set on a beach vacation? So does everyone else. So this summer is an especially good time to seek out hotels in secondary or alternative cities.

For example, Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, a price comparison site, found that while hotels in Southeastern beach destinations, such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Galveston, Texas; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are booking up quickly, hotels in Florida towns with similar vibes — like Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Myers and Daytona Beach — are showing increased availability.

Elusive rental cars

During the pandemic, many car rental companies sold off big chunks of their fleets. Now, many Americans who hope to rent cars for summer road trips are finding cars unavailable or renting at a premium.

To increase your chances of finding a rental car for this summer’s vacation, Priceline and others suggest booking your car at the same time as, or even before, you book your flights, booking a travel bundle that includes a car rental, checking for cars at off-airport locations and exploring services such as Zipcar and peer-to-peer car-sharing programs.

Shifting protocols

This summer, “travelers researching a destination will need to pay attention to how that location is handling Covid protocols and what might be expected of you as a visitor to the community,” said Tori Middelstadt of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Visitors Association.

That includes noting and adhering to the rules about masking. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can forgo wearing masks indoors and travel in the U.S. without getting tested before or after they travel.

But a federal rule not set to expire until Sept. 14 requires that masks be worn when traveling by air, rail, or bus. Cities, states, and individual businesses are still able to set their own rules.

The current unknowns of travel and the pressures around booking that first vacation in over a year understandably make many travelers anxious.

“There are just too many variables in play right now, from the basics, like availability, to the more complicated, like Covid-19 protocols. If you’re thinking about a summer trip, you need to move past the thinking part and swiftly get yourself to the booking process,” said Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Advisors.

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.

Museum exhibits celebrate the classic road trip

Interstate highways and the demise of Main Street America have turned many modern-day road trips into boring long hauls from here to there.

Brooks Stevens Housecar_bw

A Streamlined House Car designed by the Brooks Stevens firm of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1936. From a Private Collection / Courtesy Harley-Davidson Museum

Those yearning for the good old days — ones that may have included station wagons and stops at roadside attractions — might want to motor on over to two new museum exhibits celebrating the rise of car culture and the transformation of the family vacation into an American ritual.

On Saturday, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rolled out “The American Road,” an exhibit that uses hundreds of artifacts and many personal stories to examine the evolution of the quintessential American road trip from its early beginnings in the 1930s to what it has come to represent in our culture today.

“The 1930s was the decade when you had a lot of infrastructure coming into place, including improved roads, full-service gas stations, early auto courts and other services, so we start there,” said Kristen Jones, manager of exhibits and curatorial at the Harley-Davidson Museum.

In the early 1930s, there were about 160,000 travel trailers on the road, Jones said, so on display in the exhibit’s first gallery is a 26-foot house car designed by American industrial designer (and Milwaukee native) Brooks Stevens. “It’s built on a truck chassis and has many of the comforts of home, including a galley kitchen, a bed, a dinette and a bathroom,” said Jones. A 4-foot salesman’s model of a mid-1930s trailer is also on display, complete with a hinged top that opens to display details such as an upholstered couch and a tiny fake plant.

The 1950s and ’60s were the “Golden Era” of the American road trip, Jones said, when many people had more vacation time, and more disposable income, to travel. “During this time you went west not in a covered wagon, but in your station wagon, and from this post-World War II era of travel we have everything from a 1962 Ford Country Squire station wagon with wood paneling to neon signs that became important beacons to entice travelers to pull off the highway and into the lots of motels, eateries and other attractions and businesses,” she said.

For years, a classic American road trip was along Route 66, the highway that originally ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and now ends in Santa Monica, California. The highway and its history is the focus of “Route 66: The Road and the Romance,” an exhibition that opened on June 8 at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles celebrating the decommissioned highway as both a road and a romantic notion.

“There are several Route 66 museums actually on the highway that look at the road’s history in that state or region, but we take a national view and look at factors that led to its creation and how it became a fixture in popular culture,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s Gamble curator of western history, popular culture and firearms.

Among the 250 objects on display at the Autry are the oldest existing Route 66 shield, a handwritten page from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” manuscript that introduces the term “Mother Road,” (one of the many nicknames for Route 66), a classic 1960 Corvette and the original 120-foot-long typewritten scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Autry_JackKerouac On the Road Scroll

Jack Kerouac’s original On the Road manuscript, written in scroll form.

If you go:

The American Road” at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, runs through Sept. 1 and includes special meals in the restaurant and special road-trip themed events.

Route 66: The Road and the Romance” will be at the Autry National Center of the American West through Jan. 4, 2015, and also includes seminars, tours, family activities, films and more.

(My story about museum exhibits celebrating road trips first appeared on NBC News Travel)