As COVID-19 case counts recede dramatically in the United States, Americans’ fear of the disease has dropped to an all-time low. And after spending the past year essentially housebound, many are eager for a break. But the newfound yearning to travel is presenting its own challenges: Hotels and home rentals are booked solid, the cost of flights has skyrocketed, and rental cars can’t be found.
With states and localities ending mask mandates and capacity restrictions, the pandemic’s end stage is reordering supply and demand once again, with tourist destinations that not long ago were ghost towns suddenly facing an onslaught of visitors. Indeed, now that it finally seems safe to go on vacation, many Americans are wondering if they’ll actually be able to – given that everyone else is trying to, as well.
AirDNA, a site that analyzes data from home rental sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, says reservations made during March 2021 reached an all-time high. Bookings on Vrbo have exceeded pre-pandemic levels, with the site seeing the best-ever start to a year in the U.S. Travelers are 75% more likely to book at least a seven-night stay, says Vrbo, as opposed to the typical three-night getaway.
Rental car prices are up 30%, with some beach destinations like Hawaii and Florida seeing a 50% increase. The shortage of rental cars in Hawaii has been so acute that some vacationers have resorted to renting U-Hauls.
Some of the high flight and car prices are due to pandemic-induced contractions: Airlines decreased the number of routes and car rental companies sold fleets to compensate for the dramatic dip in travelers.
“And now, demand went from 0 to 60,” says Mike Dominguez, president of Associated Luxury Hotels International and a member of the U.S. Travel Association’s board of directors.
Another factor, Mr. Dominguez says, is that Americans are mostly not traveling abroad – with the pandemic still raging in many other countries that would otherwise be luring vacationers. “One of the reasons that everything is so compressed right now is that international destinations that would relieve some of this pressure are closed off to us.”
Prior to 2020, luxury travel adviser Hutton Beckcom was used to booking high-end summer vacations for her clients on the Mediterranean Sea. This year, her clients have been mostly opting for simple beach getaways.
“We’ve all had to become Florida Keys experts,” she says of herself and other luxury travel advisers. “It’s not a destination that I was ever booking prior to the pandemic.”
Luray Caverns, a popular destination that’s a short drive from Washington, D.C., closed for three months in 2020 – the first time the cave had shut its doors since it was discovered in 1878. But now, visitors are up 9% from this point in 2019.
“There is difficulty booking flights and accommodations, and from the research we’ve seen people would rather travel by car and stay close to home,” says John Shaffer, the caverns’ director of public relations. “We are checking a lot of boxes of what people are looking for.”
After Ms. Righetti’s rental in Cape Charles was canceled, she eventually booked a trip for her family in Costa Rica. But she held off on securing flights, hoping that prices might come down. So far, unfortunately not.
“We thought they were going to get better – but they just keep getting worse,” she says.