Spring break varies depending on where you’re located — in New York, it’s in mid-April, in San Francisco, it’s late March — but the season is widely considered to be the first major travel period of the year, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a national industry group.
As coronavirus restrictions are lifted across the country and globally, travelers are hitting the road and the skies again — some for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
More than half of Americans plan to travel this spring, according to the vacation management firm Vacasa — and 37 percent say they plan to travel during the spring break season.
But they will find a changed — and pricier — travel landscape out there.
Travelers still in the planning phase or looking for trips at the last minute should be prepared for full flights and pricier hotels, especially in the most popular destinations. Data from the travel booking website Hopper shows the average daily car rental rate has topped $80; the national average for gas is now $4.25 a gallon, according to figures from AAA, the automobile owners group. The average hotel was $166, for the week ending March 19 according to Hopper data — up more than $30 from the same period in 2021. And domestic airline tickets are averaging $448, a 50 percent increase from mid-January, according to figures from TripActions, a travel management company. So what’s a traveler who has her heart set on spring break to do?
Experts say the deals are still out there, but that they require creativity and flexibility on the part of the traveler. Some spring breakers may have to settle for the next-best hotel or an alternate travel destination — or put off traveling until the summer months.
Here are some strategies to help you get away affordably.
Experts recommend potential spring breakers looking for lower fares consider alternate destinations near their number one choice. Indeed, travelers seem to already be putting that advice into practice. Miami, for instance, is typically a trendy destination for spring break travelers. Still, Craig Ewer, a Google spokesman who studies travel trends, says high prices — hotels in the city are averaging $318 per night this month, according to Trivago — are prompting travelers to look elsewhere.
Google data found that Miami didn’t even rank among the top five Google searches for international and domestic air travel and hotels between December 2021 and March. That indicates travelers are looking for alternative — and cheaper — destinations. But the Sunshine State remains popular: The most popular destinations by search included three Florida destinations — Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and Key West — and Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, and Nassau, in the Bahamas. (Miami Beach on Monday declared a state of emergency and put the area of South Beach on a curfew after two shootings left five people wounded. The curfew, which lasts from 12:01 a.m. to 6 a.m. through March 28, applies to part of the popular South Beach area with bars and restaurants.)
If Miami or Orlando is off the list for now because of high prices, travelers may want to search farther afield. In Central America, consider affordable alternatives like San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, which has been growing in popularity in recent years, and which showed a 37 percent decrease in airfare from 2021 to 2022, or Panama City, Panama, which showed an 11 percent decrease, according to a Hopper report from January.
Or you could wait: “If your heart is truly set on somewhere sunny,” Mr. Ewer said, “It may be worth postponing your trip a couple of weeks.”
That sort of patience can be helpful for spring break travelers thinking about Hawaii, which as of March 26 is dropping its “Safe Travels Hawaii” coronavirus restrictions, which had been some of the strictest in the United States. The state is anticipating a surge of spring break travelers, many of whom will likely take advantage of lower fares and shorter flight times from West Coast states like California and Washington.
“We are absolutely seeing indications that folks on the West Coast are increasingly interested in traveling to Hawaii,” Mr. Ewer said. But, he said, prices are higher than typical for travel to the islands. Mr. Ewer said travelers with flexibility should avoid Hawaii for now and travel to the state in late April or May when prices are projected to be lower.
Rethink the car rental
When Kara Harms, 30, a San Francisco-based lifestyle blogger, started looking at spring break travel plans, she was stunned by the high prices and low availability of rental cars in her desired destinations.
“Car rental prices are insanely high this spring, and there are fewer car options to begin with,” Ms. Harms wrote in an email. The cheapest option she found was almost $200 a day. Car rental companies infamously sold portions of their fleets during the worst of the pandemic, which led to shortages when travel rebounded. Experts say this is why some travelers are still having trouble locating a rental ahead of their vacations.
Ms. Harms settled on an April trip to Vail, Colo., and Austin, Texas, but said she rearranged her itinerary to avoid renting a vehicle for her vacation. “After the sticker shock of car rentals, we opted to shorten our trip by a day and limit our activities to in-town to avoid having to rent a car,” she said. But even that hasn’t solved all of her problems.
“While in Austin, my group wants to do an overnight trip to the nearby Texas Hill Country for wine tastings,” Ms. Harms said. “I’m in charge of booking a hotel, but my top five choices have been fully booked.”
Scott Keyes, the founder of the travel deals website Scott’s Cheap Flights, recommends would-be spring break travelers looking for car rental deals lock in refundable reservations now and set a calendar reminder to check prices daily and cancel if prices go down in the future.
“The more time you give yourself, there’s more time for car rental rates to drop,” Mr. Keyes said.
Pay with points
Travel experts say the window for booking the cheapest air travel for spring break has already passed. Data from Hopper shows domestic flight prices — averaging $324 as of March 16 — are already higher than the same period in 2019.
That means travelers may want to consider alternate methods to book spring break travel, especially at the last minute. Travelers who have amassed points by using their credit cards during the pandemic may want to use points they have earned or airline miles they have been holding onto. However, keep in mind that many loyalty programs use dynamic award pricing, including Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, and rates are typically higher closer to departure. That means travelers may do better sticking with loyalty programs that still utilize fixed award charts, like Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan or Hyatt’s World of Hyatt. (While Hyatt still utilizes an award chart, the chain is also moving to peak and off-peak pricing where the price of an award stay can vary based on date and demand.)
Most travelers know that many of the cheapest airfares paid with cash have an advanced purchase requirement. That means travelers need to book the ticket a certain number of days before the flight’s departure. One of the most common is a 21-day advanced purchase requirement — which, if you’re planning to travel over spring break, means you’d need to have booked your ticket by mid-March to score the cheapest fare for mid-April travel.
“If you wait until day 20 before your trip to book your flights, that cheapest fare bucket is no longer available,” said Mr. Keyes.
Take the train or bus
Travelers finding flights expensive or rental cars sparse may want to consider train or bus travel: Amtrak offers up to 30 percent off on its popular Acela route for tickets booked at least 14 days in advance. Acela operates between Washington and Boston, and includes stops in cities like Baltimore, New York and Providence.
Finally, intercity buses are an economical option and some bus companies are rethinking the passenger bus experience.
The start-up bus company The Jet, which offers service between Washington and New York — a route already inundated with cheap bus fares from companies like Greyhound and Megabus — aims to recreate the feel of an airplane on a coach bus. The bus carries a maximum of 14 passengers and includes complimentary beer and wine and an on-bus attendant. Tickets start at $99 one-way, for great museums and attractions in both cities. For travelers looking for free, outdoor activities, Washington’s Cherry Blossom trees just hit their peak bloom.
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