Spring break travel is back, and so are high prices: ‘Like bears coming out of hibernation’

Hugo Martin
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — As COVID-19 cases drop, mask protocols ease and more Americans venture out to beaches, theme parks and other tourist destinations, travel is bouncing back to levels not seen since the pandemic took hold, industry experts say.

The bad news: Airfares and gasoline prices are also reaching highs not seen in years.

Eric Oh, a freelance writer from Thousand Oaks, is already feeling the pinch. He’s paying about $600 for a round-trip flight to Orlando, Florida, to visit Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and other theme parks — about $200 more than he paid a few months ago for a similar flight.

“It both surprised me and made me a little upset,” Oh said of the increase.

People dining at Blue Plate Taco in Santa Monica, California, as people take advantage of the warm weather during the COVID-19 Spring break in Southern California on March 29, 2021.

Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Group in Garden Grove, called prices “shocking.”

“I’m seeing hotel rates at over $1,000 a night for rooms that were less than $300 in 2019, and people are paying it,” he said.

“Spring break is definitely back,” Johnson said, adding that he suspects travelers are willing to pay a premium because they are so desperate to vacation again.

Nearly 40% of Americans are planning to travel during spring break, up from the 29% who said they were traveling for spring break 2021, according to a survey commissioned by the vacation rental company Vacasa. The home rental business Vrbo has also reported a nearly 50% increase in demand for vacation homes this spring, compared with spring of 2021.

Spring break travel, typically starting in mid-March, kicks off just weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it will not longer recommend masking in counties where 72% of Americans live. In California, indoor masking will no longer be mandatory at schools and child-care facilities after March 11.

“People planning spring travel are like bears coming out of hibernation,” said Melanie Fish, a spokesperson for the travel site Expedia. “We are awake and planning to travel but not ready to go too far.”

The rekindled demand is partially to blame for the higher prices. An analysis by the travel website Hopper says domestic airfares for spring break have jumped 21% compared with a year earlier, with hotel rates climbing about 30% from last year to near what prices were before the pandemic. But if you wait until the last minute to book a flight, you probably will pay as much as 45% more, according to Hopper.

The average round-trip domestic airline ticket for the March 7 to March 21 period is selling for $290, compared with $240 for the same period last year, according to Hopper. Travelers who try to book at the last minute will face an average round-trip ticket price of $365.

The average hotel rate for this spring break is $165 per night, compared with $129 last year and $148 in 2020, according to Hopper.

Road trippers are not catching a break either. Already-high gasoline prices have been pushed to near-record levels due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has sent shockwaves through the oil market. Nationwide, the price of a gallon of gas rose to an average of $3.61, about 90 cents higher than a year earlier, with prices in California climbing to $4.82 per gallon, according to AAA.

The reason for the higher prices is simple supply and demand: pent-up demand among vacationers who feel safe to travel after staying close to home during most of the pandemic. But airlines have yet to add back all the routes and seats that were available before the pandemic took hold in March 2020, when many airlines began parking idled planes at remote desert airports.

The number of domestic flights in the U.S. is still 12% below what it was in 2019, with international flights down 21%, according to Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s airlines.

Hotels, too, have not yet staffed back up.

In Los Angeles County, hotel occupancy rates are expected to range from 68% in March to 78% in July, compared with rates that ranged from 50% in March of 2021 to 76% in July of last year, according to Discover Los Angeles, the county’s tourism board.

Travelers who need a rental car during spring break are expected to pay about $70 a day, about the same as 2021, according to Hopper.

The most booked domestic destinations are Miami; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; as well as Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, according to the travel website.

At Coastline Travel Group, the hottest ticket is to Hawaii, Johnson said. Hawaii has ended its coronavirus testing requirement for domestic travelers who are fully vaccinated, so U.S. travelers prefer the Aloha State over bookings to Europe, where testing is required, he said.

“We’ve done more business in Hawaii than before the pandemic,” Johnson added.

The U.S. has also started to see an increase in visitors from Europe despite the testing requirements for international visitors flying to the U.S., said Jeff Karnes, executive vice president at New World Travel in Los Angeles.

Even corporate travel — trips to business conferences and trade shows — has started to bounce back, which is good news for airlines and hotels because business travelers tend to book more expensive airline seats and hotel rooms than leisure travelers.

Oh, the freelance writer, is an ardent theme park enthusiast whose trip to Florida will include rides on several high-thrill roller coasters at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, plus Mardi Gras festivities at Universal Orlando.

The extra $200 he had to pay for his airline tickets stung, he said, but will be worth it when he gets on those adrenaline-pumping attractions.

“I’ve seen nothing but rave reviews from the new coasters,” Oh said.