Even though the bachelorette party isn’t until mid June, Chelsey, 32, started looking for Airbnbs in December. Her friend’s getting married in July, and she chose 10 women and a destination of Denver, Colorado for a pre-wedding bachelorette trip. “We began looking in December because we were afraid of not being able to find a place,” Chelsey said. “Things were filling up quickly, even then.”
News that the vaccine rollout should be in full-swing by the summer, (very gradually) declining case numbers, and general optimism about the maybe-end of the COVID-19 pandemic all add up to increased demand for travel this summer. As Chelsey found first-hand, people are eager to get out of their homes for the first time in a year, and this summer finally feels like the safest time to do so. All that demand is predicted to lead to higher airline prices, booked-up Airbnbs (especially in outdoors-y places like Denver), and scarcity for last-minute planners.
Mark Blutstein, a senior research analyst with Phocuswright, a travel market research firm, said previous surveys have shown that most people, in normal times, tend to book trips about a month or two in advance. Over the course of the pandemic, that dropped to about a week or two, uncertainty around constantly fluctuating case numbers, plenty of availability, and generally low prices all being contributing factors. But now, it seems, the pendulum has swung the other way: Travelers hoping to take advantage of pandemic prices, while they’re still around, are booking their summer trips months ahead of time, scooping up well-priced Airbnbs and low airfare.
On the r/Shoestring subreddit, a forum for inexpensive travel planning, a post from earlier this week laments the comparatively astronomical prices for a round-trip flight between Detroit and Ft. Lauderdale. “From June to August they are crazy expensive,” the post reads. “The Spirit flights for the above mentioned dates [of June 25–June 27] from Detroit is $445!” The top comment on the post suggests that Spirit is hedging their bets, hoping for a surge in summer travel that’s very likely to happen.
According to a 2020 survey by Phocuswright, a vast majority of people who were hesitant to take trips last year said they’d likely travel by this summer. “About 87 percent of the sample in the study we did last summer said they would travel within the next 12 months,” Mark Blutstein, a senior research analyst with Phocuswright, told VICE. “That would mean by July 2021.”
Blutstein added that most people surveyed said all they needed to see to travel again were lower infection rates in their planned destination, and things mostly being open. Basically, “as cases trend down, travel will pick up,” Blutstein said, attributing the White House’s promise to get vaccines out by the summer as the driving force.
The return to travel hinges almost entirely on the vaccine rollout. According to a recent New York Times report, people over 65 who’ve already received their vaccines are traveling in such high volume that AARP and senior-rate bookings at hotels and resorts are up 50–60 percent. As more, younger folks get vaccinated—or plan on being vaccinated by a certain time—Blutstein said travel will only continue to increase.
The extremely low airfares that have persisted throughout the pandemic are already steadily rising. According to Market Watch, a “good deal” price on a flight last year was around $220. This year, roundtrip flights from New York City to popular destinations—like Denver, for example—start around $250. Hopper, the airfare search engine, predicts prices will rise an average of six percent per month between now and the summer. Part of the strain on demand is that, over the course of the pandemic, airlines reduced their capacity and the number of routes they service. They’re unlikely to add more itineraries this year; even though travel will be up significantly compared to 2020, Blutstein said it’s not yet expected to return 2019 levels. Fewer flights and more travelers mean airfare this summer could be back up to pre-pandemic levels, even amid a continuing pandemic.
Several states (Mississippi and Texas, so far) are seemingly clearing the way for a spike in summer travel by ditching all COVID-19 restrictions later this month, just in time for spring break. While this decision will almost certainly cause drastic spikes in case numbers, Blutstein said potential travelers are looking to go to places with lifted restrictions, because they want to know that they’ll be able to do more than sit around in their Airbnbs or hotels.
Some of the pandemic-related travel trends will hold, Blutstein predicts. People are still likely to avoid major cities, plan more trips to outdoor areas like National Parks, and book Airbnbs instead of hotels. It’s also likely that travelers will stay within their region, driving and avoiding airplanes. But as airlines maintain pandemic protocol, like mandatory mask rules and flexible cancellation policies, Blutstein said demand for flying will go up—not to pre-pandemic levels, but significantly compared to last year.
The places that are most likely to be booked up, Blutstein said, are warm, outdoors-y destinations, where people can go on hikes, eat safely outside, and change up their scenery for a moment. As Chelsey found, that seems to be holding true: She and her husband tried to book a campsite inside Rocky Mountain National Park back in December, only to see that every spot inside the actual park was already filled for the summer. They’re staying, instead, at a nearby campsite just outside the park. They booked it months in advance.
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