LOS ANGELES — As COVID-19 cases decline, mask protocols ease, and more Americans venture to beaches, theme parks, and other tourist destinations, travel are rebounding to levels not seen since the pandemic took hold, industry experts say.
The bad news: Airfares and gas prices are also hitting highs not seen in years.
Eric Oh, a freelance writer from Thousand Oaks, Calif., is already feeling the pinch. He’s paying about $600 for a round-trip flight to Orlando, Florida to visit Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and other theme parks, about $200 more than he paid a few months ago for a similar flight.
“It surprised me and upset me a bit,” Oh said of the raise.
Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Group in Garden Grove, called the prices “shocking”.
“I see hotel rates over $1,000 a night for rooms under $300 in 2019, and people are paying,” he said. “Spring break is definitely back,” Johnson said, adding that he suspects travelers are willing to pay a premium because they’re so desperate to vacation again.
Nearly 40% of Americans plan to travel during spring break, compared to 29% who said they would travel for spring break 2021, according to a survey commissioned by vacation rental company Vacasa. Home rental company Vrbo also reported an almost 50% increase in demand for vacation homes this spring, compared to spring 2021.
Spring Break travel, which typically begins in mid-March, begins just weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would no longer recommend face coverings in counties where 72% of Americans live. In California, indoor masking will no longer be mandatory in schools and daycares after March 11. Oregon’s mask requirements will be lifted on March 12.
“People planning spring trips are like bears coming out of hibernation,” said Melanie Fish, spokeswoman for travel site Expedia. “We are awake and planning to travel but not ready to go too far.”
The revived demand is partly responsible for the price rise. Analysis by travel website Hopper indicates domestic air fares for spring break jumped 21% from a year earlier, with hotel rates up about 30% from a year ago for get closer to pre-pandemic prices.
But if you wait until the last minute to book a flight, you’ll likely pay up to 45% more, according to Hopper. The average round-trip domestic airfare for the March 7-March 21 period sells for $290, down from $240 for the same period last year, according to Hopper. Travelers trying to book last minute will face an average round-trip ticket price of $365. The average hotel rate for this spring break is $165 per night, down from $129 last year and $148 in 2020, according to Hopper.
Road trippers don’t take a break either. Already high gasoline prices have risen to near-record highs due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent shockwaves through the oil market. Nationally, the price of a gallon of gasoline averaged $3.61, about 90 cents higher than a year earlier, with prices in California climbing to $4.82 a gallon , according to AAA. Oregon had the fourth highest gas prices in the nation on Monday.
The reason for the price hike is simple supply and demand: pent-up demand among holidaymakers who feel safe to travel after staying close to home for most of the pandemic. But airlines have yet to add back all the routes and seats that were available before the pandemic took hold in March 2020, when many airlines began parking idle planes at remote desert airports. The number of domestic flights in the United States is still 12% lower than in 2019, with international flights down 21%, according to Airlines for America, the national airlines trade group.
The hotels, too, have not yet been staffed. In Los Angeles County, hotel occupancy rates are expected to range from 68% in March to 78% in July, compared with rates that ranged from 50% in March 2021 to 76% in July last year, according to Discover Los Angeles, the department’s tourist office.
Travelers who need a rental car during spring break should pay about $70 a day, about the same as in 2021, according to Hopper. The most booked domestic destinations are Miami; Vegas; Los Angeles; as well as Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to the travel website.
At Coastline Travel Group, the hottest ticket is to Hawaii, Johnson said. Hawaii has ended its coronavirus testing requirement for domestic travelers who are fully vaccinated, so U.S. travelers prefer Aloha State to bookings in Europe, where testing is needed, he said. .
“We did more business in Hawaii than before the pandemic,” Johnson added.
The United States has also begun to see an increase in European visitors despite testing requirements for international visitors to the United States, said Jeff Karnes, executive vice president of New World Travel in Los Angeles. Even business travel – travel to business conferences and trade shows – has started to rebound, which is good news for airlines and hotels, as business travelers tend to book airline seats and hotel rooms more expensive than leisure travelers.
Oh, the freelance writer, is a theme park enthusiast whose trip to Florida will include rides on several thrilling roller coasters at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, plus Mardi Gras festivities at Universal Orlando. The extra $200 he had to pay for his plane tickets stung, he said, but it will be worth it when he gets on those adrenaline-pumping attractions. “I’ve only seen rave reviews of the new coasters,” Oh said.
–Los Angeles Times