NEW YORK – The forecast for summer travel, 2013: partly sunny.
Airlines, hotels and campgrounds are commanding higher rates and seeing more customers than a few summers ago, and luxury hotels are selling out. Local businessmen and state officials are optimistic.
But for a travel industry still stinging from the Great Recession, the best it can likely hope for is another summer of steady, but slow, recovery. The blockbuster crowds seen in 2007 have become a distant memory.
Americans’ plans for summer travel mirror the current state of the economy. Rising home prices and a soaring stock market are encouraging those at the top of the income ladder to take more lavish trips. But large segments of the population are staying close to home because wages are stagnant, rents are high, and the end of the payroll tax holiday has shrunk their take-home pay.
That’s why AAA isn’t expecting a resounding start to summer this Memorial Day weekend. Citing the “up and down economy,” AAA expects 31.2 million Americans to hit the road this weekend, virtually the same number as last year. Throw in planes, trains and buses, and the number of travelers will drop about 1 percent, AAA says.
As vacationers set out this summer, here’s what they can expect:
• Gas prices about the same as last year. The national average price of gasoline was $3.66 a gallon Thursday, 2 cents higher than during last year’s Memorial Day weekend. Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com, expects prices to drift lower after the holiday and fall close to last summer’s low of $3.33 per gallon before hurricane season starts to drag them up again.
In the Buffalo Niagara region, a gallon of regular averaged $3.75 Friday, down 19 cents from a year ago, according to AAA.
• More expensive hotel rooms. The average hotel will cost $112.21, before taxes and any other add-on such as resort fees. That’s up 4.4 percent from last year’s $107.52, according to hotel research firm STR. Hotels are also expected to be slightly fuller, with occupancy rates climbing from 69.3 percent last summer to 70 percent this year.
• Packed planes, steady airfare. Airlines for America, the industry’s lobby group, expects 208.7 million people to fly, up 1 percent from last year. About 87 percent of airplane seats will be filled with paying passengers. Domestic fliers will pay $421 on average for a round-trip ticket, down $6 from last summer. International fliers will pay $1,087, up $8, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.
• Amtrak expects to meet or exceed the 8.3 million passengers it carried last summer. But the taxpayer-backed railroad wouldn’t disclose how fares compare with last summer’s average one-way ticket of $66.39.
During the worst days of the recession, travelers mostly stayed home. Hotels desperate to fill rooms started marketing “staycations” to families who couldn’t afford to drive or fly somewhere. Summer air travel fell by nearly 8 percent in two years, from 217.6 million passengers in 2007 to 200.3 million in 2009. Luxury hotels saw their occupancy levels plummet during that period from 72.5 percent to 59.3 percent. More than half the rooms at economy and midscale hotels sat vacant.
There has been a slow and steady climb back, but not all parts of the recovery have been equal.
Luxury hotels such as Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and Mandarin Oriental are filling 73 percent of their rooms on average, surpassing their pre-recession peak, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from hotel research firm STR.
But budget hotels like Days Inn, Econo Lodge and Motel 6 are still below their 10-year occupancy average and more than 3 percentage points below their peak.
The same pattern holds for fliers.
Domestic traffic is projected to grow 0.7 percent this summer, while the number of people buying more-expensive international tickets will climb 2.6 percent, according to Airlines for America.
“Expect luxury travel to continue to rebound – consistent with luxury across all industries – while the rest of summer travel will be flat” as the economy still weighs heavily on middle-income families, says Adam Weissenberg, who heads the travel and hospitality consulting group at Deloitte.
But some less-expensive destinations are seeing a recovery.
Campgrounds fared well during the downturn because they are relatively affordable. Some are now doing better business than ever because the operators have retooled their facilities to entice visitors beyond the typical outdoor types.
Steve Stafford, general manager of North Texas Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Burleson, Texas, has attracted a broader swath of people with “homesteads.”
These are recreational vehicles that look like cottages. Now the camp can accommodate campers with tents who only have to pay $32 a night for an empty patch of ground and those who want to stay in the comfort of the largest homesteads for $209 a night.
The 37 existing homesteads were booked solid last year. So Stafford is adding a dozen new ones. Those are already booked, even though they are still being installed.
The hunt for inexpensive vacations is helping companies that rent recreational vehicles, too. Traveling by RV means families don’t need to pay for hotels and can cook most of their meals.
Families may not be ready to buy one – sales are only up slightly – but more are choosing to rent one this summer for as little as $100 a day, or $300 during peak weeks.
At El Monte RV, one of the country’s largest RV rental companies, summer bookings from domestic customers are up 20 to 25 percent compared with last year.