‘Vaxications,’ catch-up trips and pent-up demand fuel travel surge

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A growing wave of relaxed restrictions, along with an increasing number of vaccinated Americans, is leading to a surge in “vaxications” and other trips, after a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Mothballed restaurants, hotels and attractions, canceled cruise seasons and record low airline passenger traffic are making way for a brisk uptick in travel plans, with around half of Americans set to take a trip in the next three months, according to an analysis from the U.S. Travel Association.

“People have an 18-month supply of events, visits and vacations to catch up on,” said Michael McCall, professor of hospitality business at Michigan State University. “There is a substantial pent-up desire to travel. Families have not hugged or spent time together.”

After more than a year of closure, Disneyland looks set to open in April, along with many other California theme parks. Dollywood theme park, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, opened for the season last weekend, just in time for spring break, as is its tradition. Some season passes are already sold out, according to its website.

Live indoor music has already returned to New Orleans, although dancing inside clubs remains prohibited.

Business is brisk right now at Biloxi Shrimping Trip in Biloxi, Mississippi, which got hit hard during the pandemic. In March 2020, “we lost all our group travel clients and walk-up business for the year in just a few days,” owner and operator Mike Moore told NBC News. “But the start of 2021 has been surprisingly busy, even compared to last year. Our vessel has been operating steadily with walk-ups and the phone is starting to ring for groups visiting in the fall and also for spring of 2022.”

Urban areas are seeing visitors return, too.

“Since the beginning of February 2021, we have begun to see more travelers from outside our region,” said Rudd Schupp, chef concierge at tourist information center Visit Seattle.

While great airfare deals have lured some to Seattle from California, Utah, Montana and Texas, many visitors from the neighboring states of Oregon and Idaho “just wanted to get in the car and drive somewhere,” Rudd said.

Road trips were popular last summer, but even more people could be hitting the road this summer. Travelers in TripIt’s survey said they will be ready to head out on a road trip as early as June in a personal car (83 percent) or in a rented car or RV (60 percent), with more than 60 percent planning to drive for Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day trips.

Many of those trips will include hotels stays, but many road trippers will stay in their RVs and in campgrounds.

Jon Gray, CEO of RVShare, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, said bookings for spring break are already up by 114 percent compared to last year.

Private and public campgrounds are also seeing an uptick in reservations, with some opening earlier than usual this year. Advance reservations were already up by 150 percent as early as January at many campsites affiliated with the Jellystone Park franchise network, which has nearly 80 family campgrounds across the U.S. and Canada. Campspot, a campground reservation software system, said guests are booking longer and more frequent trips, with a nearly 300 percent increase in guests booking multiple trips.

Even the hard-hit cruise industry is hoping to salvage some of its 2021 season. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its no-sail order in October, the restrictions in the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order that replaced it have led most major cruise lines to voluntarily extend their sailing suspensions.

Some cruise lines have announced that when cruises return, all crew and passengers will be required to have proof of negative Covid-19 tests and vaccinations. In the meantime, “we continue to see significant interest among cruisers in returning to sea,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

“Based on a recent survey of our readers, 42 percent shared that they are currently looking to book a future cruise — and a majority of those are looking to sail within the next 12 months. So, though they are not yet able to sail, they’re eager to do so when the time is right,” McDaniel said.

Air travel has already picked up significantly, with the Transportation Security Administration screening the largest number of passengers last week since the pandemic hit. While the numbers are still way down compared to pre-pandemic times, traffic is rising enough to give airlines confidence to bring back many paused routes and introduce new services: Hawaiian Airlines just launched new nonstop service from Orlando, Florida, to Honolulu; JetBlue Airways will soon begin flying between Hartford, Connecticut, and Miami; and American Airlines announced 10 new, returning and seasonal routes out of Austin, Texas.

“Airlines are seeing more people shopping for flights on their websites and they are getting more queries through travel agencies. They are seeing booking volumes build,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. “Because international travel restrictions still exist between the U.S. and many countries, most of the demand is domestic or to the few countries where Americans are allowed visit, such as Mexico and Costa Rica. But there is hope on the horizon.”

Passengers whose flights or travel plans were canceled during the pandemic are also sitting on billions of dollars of travel vouchers, many of which expire soon. “Airlines want you to use that credit, so this may be a great summer for people to get out on the road and into the skies,” Harteveldt said.

Travel experts say anyone wishing to take a trip should be exercising caution, especially in light of the CDC’s recommendation that travel be avoided where possible, even for passengers who are vaccinated.

“If you’re considering travel sometime this year, it’s more important than ever to do your due diligence ahead of any trip to ensure it is safe and enjoyable,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel.

That due diligence includes researching and keeping up to date on the Covid-19 protocols for your destination; monitoring hot spots and travel documentation requirements; wearing masks and maintaining a proper social distance; and making sure hotels, restaurants and attractions are taking precautions to protect guests.

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