Expect big crowds for the summer travel season—and great prices, too

The unofficial start of the summer travel season is here, with airlines hoping to avoid the chaos of last year and travelers looking for ways to save a few bucks on pricey airfare and hotel rooms.

Some travelers say they will settle for fewer trips than they hoped to take, or will drive instead of fly. Others are finding different 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, she ended up costing the same as the Dallas-area family’s trip for four to California last summer, so now her husband and her son are staying home.

“We had to grit our teeth,” Hanrahan, a writer and speaker who also runs a nonprofit organization, said as she and her daughter Campbell waited for their flight last week at Dallas Love Field.

The number of people passing through US airports hit pandemic-era highs last weekend, and those records will almost certainly be broken over the Memorial Day holiday.

AAA predicts that 37 million Americans will drive at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from their homes this weekend, an increase of more than 2 million since Memorial Day last year, but still below pre-August numbers. the pandemic in 2019. The Transportation Security Administration expects to test 10 million travelers between Friday and Monday, 14% more than the holiday in 2022 and slightly more than in 2019.

With more travel comes more expenses. The average rate for a US hotel room last week was $157 per night, up from $150 the same week last year, according to hotel data provider STR. And the average daily rate for other short-term rentals like Airbnb and Vrbo rose to $316 last month, up 1.4% from a year ago, according to AirDNA, which tracks the industry.

There’s some good news for drivers, though: The national average for a gallon of regular gas was $3.56 midweek, down from $4.60 this time last year, according to AAA. Renting a car is also cheaper than a year ago, when some popular destinations ran out of vehicles. Travel company Expedia said larger inventories allow them to rent more cars at lower prices.

For air travelers, airline industry officials say carriers have fixed the problems that contributed to a spike in flight cancellations and delays last summer, when 52,000 flights were canceled between June and August. The airlines have hired some 30,000 workers since then, including thousands of pilots, and are using larger planes to reduce flights but not the number of seats.

“I don’t have the arrogance to tell you exactly what the summer is going to be like, but we’ve prepared and have a solid plan for it,” said Andrew Watterson, director of operations for Southwest Airline, which has struggled at times for the summer of 2022 and suffered an epic collapse around Christmas, canceling nearly 17,000 flights.

David Seymour, chief operating officer for American Airlines, said his staff has perfected a system it uses to predict the impact of storms at major airports and devise a plan to recover from disruptions. He said that he is reducing cancellations.

“It’s going to be a solid summer for us,” Seymour said.

In a report released last month, the Government Accountability Office blamed airlines for a spike in flight cancellations as travel recovered from the pandemic. He also said that airlines are taking longer to recover from disruptions like storms.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the government will hold airlines accountable for treating passengers fairly when they cause cancellations or long delays. But like airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that manages the nation’s air traffic, has had its own staff shortages and occasional technology glitches that have hampered air travel.

The FAA resorted to lobbying airlines to reduce flights in the New York City area this summer and opened new flight routes over the East Coast to reduce bottlenecks.

“It’s going to be a test: It’s always a test to travel in the summer,” said travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, “but airlines have done a lot to improve their ability to operate 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 US flights have been canceled this year, half the rate of a year ago and less than in 2019.

Limiting the number of flights also keeps prices above pre-pandemic levels.

One travel data provider, Hopper, predicts that average domestic airfares will peak next month at $328 for a round-trip ticket, which is down last summer’s record of $400 but down 4%. more than in 2019.

There are some last-minute deals on domestic flights, Hopper discovered, but international fares are the highest in more than five years, with prices to Europe 50% higher than a year ago.

The same is happening in Europe, as airlines hold the capacity line at a time of strong travel demand.

“There is no expectation to see cheaper fares in Europe in the next seven to eight months,” says John Grant, an analyst at OAG, a UK-based travel data provider.

For the travel industry, the big question is how long consumers can keep paying for airline tickets and accommodation as they try to deal with stubbornly high inflation, news of layoffs and bank failures, and fears of a recession.

Industry executives say consumers are favoring the travel experience over other types of spending, but some analysts see cracks in strong travel demand that began in early 2022.

Bank of America analysts say data from its credit and debit card customers showed a slowdown in spending in April, as card usage fell below year-ago levels for the first time since February 2021. Hotel spending, which rebounded relatively early since the pandemic, is said to have tanked this spring, while the late-recovering cruise industry keeps making headway: Cruise card spending rose 37% last month, though from very low levels a year ago.

“Travel remains a bright spot relative to other sectors, but we are also seeing signs of moderation in the travel space,” said Anna Zhou, an economist at the bank.