Americans hit the road in near record numbers at the start of Memorial Day weekend, as their desire to break free from coronavirus containment overcame rising prices for flights, gasoline and hotels.
More than 1.8 million people passed through U.S. airports on Thursday, and the daily count is expected to well exceed 2 million at least once during the long holiday weekend, which would be the highest level since early March 2020.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned people to expect long lines at airports and called on travelers to be patient.
The increase in travel appears to be fueled by an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations as well as an improving economy.
The US Department of Commerce said consumer spending rose in April, but not as much as in March, showing how consumers are driving a recovery from last year’s pandemic recession.
At Miami International Airport, officials expected crowds equal to pre-pandemic levels. It was a similar story in Orlando, where airport traffic hit 90% of 2019 levels as tourists flocked to theme parks which recently eased restrictions. Along the Florida coast and around Orlando, many hotels were booked throughout the weekend.
“We’re entering the offseason, and it hasn’t slowed down,” said Cathy Balestriere, general manager of Crane’s Beach House, a boutique hotel in Delray Beach, Florida.
Vacation destinations like Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, were among the top destinations for party animals, according to AAA.
Auto club spokesperson and insurer Paula Twidale said travel pickup began in April as more Americans were getting vaccinated and the weather improved.
“People are just excited to come out,” she said.
Memorial Day coincides with some states removing their last pandemic restrictions as the number of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths declines.
Virginia, where President Joe Biden has visited to praise his administration’s efforts to contain the virus, eased all distance and capacity restrictions on Friday. A mask term in Massachusetts ends Saturday.
AAA expects a 60% increase in travel over Memorial Day weekend 2020, with 37 million Americans traveling at least 50 miles from home, most by car. This is despite the fact that gasoline prices are at their highest level in seven years: the national average is over $ 3 a gallon for a regular car.
Rental car prices have also risen sharply – if you can find one – after companies slashed their fleets to survive last year’s deep drop in travel.
“My mother-in-law called me on vacation and said, ‘Hey, can you rent a car for me?’ I said ‘no,’ said Jordan Staab, president of SmarterTravel Media. “Demand has increased 500% since January, and it’s difficult to find a rental car right now, so plan as much as you can.”
Hotels and other accommodations in beach and mountain areas expect larger crowds than those in cities. Lou Carrier, president of the Distinctive Hospitality Group, said the company’s two hotels in tourist towns in Connecticut have seen an increase in bookings since the state eased mask requirements two weeks ago, but that the occupancy rate is still only around 20% at its three hotels in Boston.
Nationwide hotel room rates jumped 9% in April after rising 8% in March, and air fares climbed 10% in April, according to the latest figures available from the Commerce Department.
It does not prevent people from getting on planes. The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 1.6 million people per day this month, up from 224,000 per day in May 2020, but still down by a third from the same period in 2019. TSA said this week that they had hired enough new screening officers to handle the crowds.
Most of these travelers take vacations or visit family and friends in the United States. Airline executives say domestic leisure travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Delta Air Lines chairman Glen Hauenstein said this week that bookings are now ahead of the 2019 pace.
However, business travelers and international visitors are still mostly absent, and airlines are eager to see this lucrative return.