By DAVID KOENIG
The unofficial start of the summer travel season is here, with airlines hoping to avoid last year’s chaos and travelers looking for ways to save a few bucks on expensive plane tickets and hotel rooms.
Some travelers say they’ll settle for less travel than they’d hoped, or drive instead of flying. Others are finding 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 the same as the Dallas-area family of four’s trip to California last summer, so now her husband and son are staying 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.
The number of people passing through US airports hit pandemic-era highs last weekend, and those records are almost certain to be broken over the Memorial Day holiday.
AAA predicts 37 million Americans will drive at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home this weekend, an increase of more than 2 million from Memorial Day last year, but still below pre-pandemic numbers in 2019. Safety Administration of Transport expects to screen 10 million travelers between Friday and Monday, an increase of 14% compared to the holiday in 2022 and slightly more than in 2019.
With more travel comes more expense. The average rate for a US hotel room last week was $157 a night, up from $150 in 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 earlier, according to AirDNA, which tracks the industry.
There is good news for drivers, though: The national average for a gallon of regular was $3.56 midweek, up from $4.60 this time last year, according to AAA. Renting a car is also cheaper than a year ago, when some popular destinations were car-free. Travel company Expedia said larger inventories allow companies to rent more cars at lower prices.
For air travelers, airline industry officials say carriers have fixed 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 laid off about 30,000 workers since then, including thousands of pilots, and they are using bigger planes to reduce flights but not the number of seats.
“I don’t have the presumptuousness to tell you exactly how the summer is going to go, but we’re prepared and have a solid plan for it,” said Andrew Watterson, chief operating officer at Southwest Airline, which has had problems at times. summer of 2022 and suffered an epic meltdown around Christmas, canceling nearly 17,000 flights.
David Seymour, American Airlines’ chief operating officer, said his staff has fine-tuned a system it uses to predict the impact of storms at major airports and to develop a plan for recovering from disruptions. He said he is reducing cancellations.
“It’s going to be a strong summer for us,” Seymour said.
In a report released last month, the Government Accountability Office blamed airlines for a surge in flight cancellations as travel recovered from the pandemic. He also said airlines are taking 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 like the airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration — the agency that manages the nation’s air traffic — has had its own staffing shortages and occasional technology breakdowns that have hampered air travel.
The FAA addressed the push by airlines to reduce flights in the New York City area this summer and opened new flight paths over the East Coast to reduce bottlenecks.
“It’s going to be a challenge — it’s always a challenge 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 limiting the number of flights will improve reliability and reduce delays. So far, it seems to be working. About one in every 70 U.S. flights have been canceled this year — half the rate a year ago and lower than in 2019.
Limiting the number of flights also keeps prices above pre-pandemic levels.
A travel data provider, Hopper, predicts that average domestic flight fares will peak next month at $328 for a round-trip ticket, down from last summer’s record high of $400. , but 4% higher than in 2019.
There are some last-minute deals on domestic flights, Hopper found, but international fares are the highest in more than five years, with prices to Europe up 50% from a year ago.
The same is happening within Europe, as airlines maintain line capacity at a time of high travel demand.
“There is no expectation to see cheaper fares in Europe in the next seven or eight months,” says John Grant, an analyst for 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 struggle to cope 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 the strong travel demand that began in early 2022.
Bank of America analysts say data from their 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. They say that hotel spending, which bounced back relatively early from the pandemic, dipped this spring, while the late-recovering cruise industry is still moving forward — spending on cruise cards 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 for the bank.
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