Americans are looking to get out of town after a year of virus-related travel restrictions. Figuring out where they can go, and what will be open when they get there, remains tricky—for both would-be tourists and travel companies.
Signs that consumers are ready to travel again are growing, with rising searches for airfares and activity on booking sites. Travel companies are providing tools to help make sense of restrictions and spur bookings, but a hazy outlook for international trips suggests domestic destinations will see the strongest demand.
Diana Zucknick and her husband, Paul, visited 14 countries in the five years before Covid-19 caused them to hunker down at their Austin, Texas, home. Now that both are vaccinated, they are anxious to resume traveling.
As they sat down to plan travel, Ms. Zucknick said, they pondered questions they hadn’t considered before: Which countries will allow Americans in? Would they face a lengthy quarantine, or be putting others at risk? How safe are layovers?
Hong Kong had been high on their list, she said, but the logistics of that trip amid current travel restrictions, including a 21-day quarantine requirement, seemed daunting. “There are so many variables,” she said. “Everything is up in the air.” Ms. Zucknick, 38, has yet to make a booking. So far they have traveled only in Texas.
Market-research firm AirDNA, which tracks business on Airbnb Inc. and rival home-rental site Vrbo, said bookings made in the U.S. in February reached their highest monthly level since it began tracking the industry in 2015. Those figures included reservations for future stays.
People are spending more time combing through airline and hotel websites, executives say. Traffic on Spirit Airline Inc.’s website, for example, has roughly doubled since the holidays, Chief Executive Officer Ted Christie said.
Travel showed signs of a rebound in late 2020 before a virus surge reversed the trend. “This particular rebound definitely has more strength to it,” Mr. Christie said, echoing confidence voiced recently by other airline executives, after weekend airport volumes earlier in March hit their highest levels since the pandemic’s early days.
Travel companies are trying to help in decision-making. United Airlines Holdings Inc. launched a way for customers to search for flights with an interactive map that displays fares to dozens of destinations at once. Conceived before the pandemic and launched in September, it is proving to be popular now, the airline said.
United and other major carriers including American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. also are deploying color-coded maps for would-be passengers to figure out travel rules for different destinations.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, who pivoted the company’s strategy to focus on local stays during the pandemic, said visits to its website have soared in recent weeks. Searches on the site indicated people were unsure where or when they wanted to go, he said on an earnings call last month. Airbnb has adapted its website to help consumers resolve their dilemmas.
Typically Airbnb users have searched for places to book by picking a location and a time period for their stay. But now the platform can offer suggestions to those who say they are flexible on time of travel and location, steering people to places that have rentals available ranging from a few days to a month.
Henry McAdams was one of those seeking an Airbnb getaway. The 32-year-old engineer said a day after receiving his second vaccine dose, he spent hours browsing Airbnb’s suggested listings to plan a trip with close friends. “I didn’t care where, I just knew I wanted to travel with the boys—somewhere, anywhere,” he said.
Airbnb pointed him to hundreds of travel options over a number of days and in different locations, he said. He settled on a trip to Mammoth Mountain, Calif., later this month.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against nonessential travel. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said rising airport passenger numbers are concerning and pleaded with people to wait.
“Every time that there’s a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country,” she said at a press briefing earlier this month.
Travel planning has accelerated as public-health authorities relax some safety guidelines for vaccinated people.
Vrbo said many families had already booked rentals for the summer, earlier than ever. The company said it is designing a feature that would allow family members to save their favorite rentals and vote on each other’s preferences to plan group trips. Trips built around families have been on the rise, Airbnb has said.
Most home-rental bookings in the U.S. this year are along the coast, near lakes, mountains or in suburban areas—a sharp departure from the big cities that were the most frequented by travelers before the pandemic, AirDNA data show.
The outlook for international trips is less certain.
Some 61% out of 2,200 Americans surveyed by Vrbo’s parent Expedia Group Inc. said they were likely to make a long-distance trip in the next year, according to results released earlier this month. Many countries around the world have closed their borders to tourists or have onerous and costly quarantine requirements. More than half of international air routes have been closed or suspended, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Return to Travel?
Places open to Americans have seen some economic benefits. Mexico, which is open to U.S. tourists, saw the number of passengers flying from the U.S. fall 42% in January from a year earlier, according to government data analyzed by industry group Airlines for America. By comparison France, whose borders remain mostly closed, saw numbers drop 89% in the same period. Airlines have scheduled more flights from the U.S. to Cancún this month than to all of Europe, according to data from aviation data provider Ascend by Cirium.
Airlines are starting to put more planes back to work: On Friday, for the first time this year, there were more commercial flights in the skies than there were at the same time in 2020, according to Flightradar24, a flight-tracking site.
On both sides of the Atlantic, airlines have spent months trying to persuade governments to lift bans on U.S.-European travel, but talks have been complicated by the rise of new virus variants, slow vaccine rollout and rising infection rates in some countries.
The European Union on Wednesday said it would introduce a vaccination “passport” that its citizens can use to travel within the bloc. Tourism-dependent Mediterranean countries pushed to have the program in place by summer.
Alexandre de Juniac, director general of IATA, said he is optimistic that Europe and the U.S. will come to an accord on travel by summer. However, health officials have warned of rising Covid-19 infections in Europe, and vaccine distribution there has been beset by shortfalls.
That means U.S. travelers, for now, have limited options to head abroad, adding to demand for domestic destinations. The strength of intra-U.S. travel has been evident during this year’s spring break, when airports logged some of their busiest days since the start of the pandemic, with 1.47 million people passing through security on Friday, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
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Spring-break traffic has been overwhelming in some cases. Miami Beach on Saturday declared a state of emergency in response to fears of big crowds of spring-break partiers who have created dangerous situations at times, city officials said. The city will temporarily impose an 8 p.m. curfew in the South Beach district, blocking main drags and shutting down late night traffic heading into the area.
“I think it is in great part because the pandemic has limited the amount of destinations, and there are a lot of cheap flights,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said at a news conference.
While the pandemic’s effects might be easing, they haven’t passed. Walt Disney Co. on Wednesday said it would reopen Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks on April 30. The parks will operate with below-normal capacity limits, Disney said, and initially be open only to California residents.
Hotel occupancy rates in the week ended March 13 were at 52%, their highest level in a year, though still down from about 65% in March 2020, before the pandemic hit, according to hotel data tracker STR. And airport volumes are 40% to 50% less than pre-pandemic levels.
Consumers have largely focused their spending around the home over the past 12 months, but now travel-industry officials cheerily say they are next in line. “People already bought a new car, did a home repair,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during a conference last week. “It’s going to mean a lot more available to spend in ’22, ’23, ’24 for leisure demand.”
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