NEW YORK — The unofficial start of the summer travel season is upon us, with airlines hoping to avoid last year’s chaos and travelers looking for ways to save a few bucks on expensive airline tickets and hotel rooms.
Some travelers say they’ll settle for fewer trips than they’d hoped to make, or they’ll drive instead of fly. Others make various sacrifices to save money.
Stephanie Hanrahan thought she would save money by planning ahead for her daughter’s birthday trip to Disney World in Florida. Instead, it ended up costing as much as a family of four from Dallas to travel to California last summer, so now her husband and son are staying at home.
“We just had to grit our teeth,” said Hanrahan, a writer and speaker who also runs a nonprofit, as she and daughter Campbell waited for their flight last week at Dallas’ Love Field.
Over the weekend, the number of people passing through U.S. airports reached a record high since the pandemic, and those records are almost certain to be broken during the Memorial Day holiday.
AAA predicts 37 million Americans will drive at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home this weekend, up more than 2 million from Memorial Day last year, but still below 2019’s pre-pandemic numbers . The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen 10 million travelers between Friday and Monday, up 14% from the 2022 holiday season and up slightly from 2019.
Longer trips cost more. According to hotel data provider STR, the average price for a hotel room in the U.S. last week was $157 per night, up from $150 in the same week last year. And the average daily rate for other short-term rentals, such as Airbnb and Vrbo, rose to $316 last month, a 1.4% year-over-year increase, according to AirDNA, which tracks the industry.
There’s good news for drivers, though: According to AAA, the national average for a gallon of regular liquor was $3.56 midweek, down from $4.60 this time last year. Renting a car is also cheaper than a year ago, when some popular destinations ran out of cars. Travel company Expedia said higher inventory allows companies to rent more cars at lower prices.
Airline officials say they have fixed problems for air passengers that led to a spike in flight cancellations and delays last summer, when 52,000 flights were canceled between June and August. Since then, airlines have hired about 30,000 workers, including thousands of pilots, and are using larger planes to reduce flights but not seats.
“I don’t have the arrogance to tell you exactly how the summer is going to play out, but we’ve prepared and have a solid plan,” said Andrew Watterson, chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines, which had a tough 2022 summer at times and suffered an epic meltdown around Christmas, canceling almost 17,000 flights.
David Seymour, American Airlines’ chief operating officer, said his staff has set up a system they use to predict the impact of storms on major airports and develop a recovery plan after disruptions. He said it cuts down on cancellations.
“It’s going to be a good summer for us,” Seymour said.
In a report published last month, the Government Accountability Office accused airlines of increasing flight cancellations as travel resumed after the pandemic. It also says airlines take longer to recover from disruptions such as storms.
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the government will hold airlines accountable for treating passengers fairly when carriers cause cancellations or long delays. But just like the airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration — the agency that manages the nation’s air traffic — has faced staff shortages and periodic breakdowns due to outdated technology.
The FAA is training about 3,000 more air traffic controllers, but they won’t be ready this summer. The agency has pushed for airlines to reduce flights in the New York area this summer and has opened 169 new flight routes over the East Coast to reduce bottlenecks.
“It’s going to be a tough test – summer travel is always tough,” said travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, “but airlines have done a lot to improve their ability to perform well this summer.”
Airlines hope that limiting the number of flights will improve reliability and reduce delays. So far, it seems to be working. About one in 70 U.S. flights have been canceled this year — half the number from a year ago and down from 2019.
Limiting the number of flights also keeps prices above pre-pandemic levels.
Travel data provider Hopper predicts average domestic airfares will peak at $328 for a round-trip ticket next month, down from last summer’s record high of $400 but up 4% from 2019.
Hopper found that there are last-minute deals on domestic flights, but international fares are at their highest for more than five years, with prices to Europe up 50% on last year.
The same is happening in Europe as airlines hold back their capacity during periods of high demand for travel.
“In the next seven to eight months, we don’t expect a drop in travel prices in Europe,” says John Grant, an analyst at OAG, a British provider of travel data.
The big question for the travel industry is how long consumers will be able to pay for airfare and lodging as they try to cope with persistently high inflation, news of layoffs and bank failures and fears of a recession.
Industry executives say consumers are prioritizing travel experiences over other types of spending, but some analysts see cracks in the high demand for travel that began in early 2022.
Bank of America analysts said data from its credit and debit card customers showed a slowdown in spending in April as card use fell below last year’s level for the first time since February 2021. They say spending on hotels, which recovered relatively early compared to the pandemic, Bank of America analysts said, has fallen this spring, while the cruise industry, which recovered late, is still ahead, with card spending on cruises up 37% in last month, albeit from a very low level a year ago.
“Travel remains a bright spot compared to other sectors, but we also see signs of moderation in travel,” said Anna Zhou, an economist at the bank.
Watch “Kickoff to a Long Island Summer” on Saturday, May 27 at 7:00 PM on Channel 7 and wherever you stream ABC7NY
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