Data Shows a Summer Travel Surge Is Coming. Will Airfares Surge, Too?

Demand for summer travel is heating up quickly. For those who are ready to get back into the skies, you may want to book those flights sooner rather than later, experts say.

Data Shows a Summer Travel Surge Is Coming. Will Airfares Surge, Too?

Mexico is among the destinations Americans are eyeing for summer 2021 travel.

Photo by Shutterstock

If you are feeling determined to (finally, really) travel this year, you’re definitely not alone. After a year of canceled trips and with encouraging vaccine developments in the United States, the majority of Americans—94 percent—are planning to travel in 2021, according to a survey of 3,200 travelers released March 16 by travel planning tool TripIt.

The survey comes as President Joe Biden announced on March 11, 2021, the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, that all adult Americans will be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine by May 1. If everyone gets in line to get their shot, Biden said, Americans should be able to gather with their friends and families on July 4 to celebrate “our independence as a nation, [and] our independence from this virus.”

Following President Biden’s announcement, travel booking app Hopper saw a 63 percent surge in searches for domestic flights for the Fourth of July weekend alone.

The optimism inherent in the president’s remarks is palpable and has been directly reflected in travel intentions and bookings. In the TripIt survey, 53 percent of travelers said news about the progress of the vaccine has made them more likely to book travel. More than half (53 percent) said they’ll be ready to take a domestic flight by June, and 25 percent said they will be ready to take an international flight by then.

“Demand for summer travel is starting to heat up,” flight booking site Kayak said in a statement sent to AFAR earlier this month. According to Kayak data, searches for summer travel have already increased 78 percent in March 2021 compared to February 2021 (though to put that into perspective, searches are still down 60 percent year over year).

When should you book flights for summer 2021 trips?

Time is of the essence, according to insiders.

“If you’re hoping to travel this summer, if you wait to book your flights until let’s say, May, chances are there’s not going to be many or any cheap summer flights left,” says Scott Keyes, founder of flight deals newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Right now, we’re seeing them pop up all the time, but if you wait to book, your options are going to be fewer and farther between.”

It’s a classic case of supply versus demand, reports Kayak. “As we approach summer and demand continues to increase, we expect prices to do the same,” Kayak tells AFAR. The online booking site is seeing an average price increase of 7 percent month over month to its top 100 most-searched domestic destinations.

Currently, “there are still great deals to be had with the average price for summer flights originating in the U.S. down 12 percent year-over-year . . . so we recommend people start booking to secure those lower rates,” Kayak states.

Hopper estimates that domestic airfares will remain low through early May. The average round-trip airfare for a domestic flight is currently $230, and Hopper forecasts that as we enter summer, the average will increase about 12 percent to $287 round trip. Hopper recommends booking summer airfare by May 7 to get the best deals.

So, where are travelers looking to go right now? Hopper notes that its searches are focused around beaches and outdoor domestic destinations, including Florida, Hawaii, South Carolina, and Kalispell, Montana (a gateway to Glacier National Park). Domestic travel currently makes up 66 percent of all flight searches for summer 2021, Kayak reports.

For international travel, Caribbean islands (including St. Thomas and Puerto Rico) and Mexico top the search lists.

“International prices will stay low this spring, slightly increasing by June,” Hopper states. International airfare prices currently average $690 round trip across global destinations, which is historically low for the summer season, according to Hopper. But that’s not too surprising given that international travel still remains highly restricted.

“There remains a lot of uncertainty around how both airline capacity and demand will return through the summer season,” says John Grant, senior analyst with global travel data provider OAG. “Major markets around the globe remain essentially closed to all but the most desperate traveler wishing to spend two weeks in quarantine somewhere at either end of their journey.”

Nevertheless, Grant notes that rapid progress with vaccines is injecting airlines with hope, and carriers have consequently factored in some “considerable capacity growth” over the peak summer months.

What that means for travelers hoping to fly this summer is “potentially great bargains. But every bargain has a price and in this case you may need to stay flexible as airlines adjust their schedules,” advises Grant.

He notes that as airlines work with relatively unstable demand and travel conditions for the coming months, travelers “could see a time change or even a date change for your flight. And the farther away from home you plan, particularly in the international market, the chance for cancellation increases.”

For savvy travelers, the bargains could still be worth the risks, says Grant, since “airfares may not be as low as we expect in summer 2021 for a very long time after.”

The joy of booking

Anyone following along with the ins and outs of the coronavirus pandemic is well aware that while there are many hopeful signs (including global vaccine rollouts and the recent drop in case numbers in the United States), numerous challenges and questions remain about the path of the pandemic. We’re still learning how long immunity will last after receiving the vaccines and how effective the vaccines will be against additional coronavirus variants that emerge. If 2020 taught us anything, it was to expect the unexpected.

But so many of us also desperately need something to look forward to: In a recent poll of 9,000 traveling adults from Japan, Australia, India, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, American Express found that 78 percent of respondents want to travel in 2021 simply to relieve the stress from 2020. Additionally, 63 percent of respondents said that planning future travel makes them feel excited and 53 percent said it makes them feel hopeful.

The vast majority—87 percent—agreed that having a trip planned in the future gives them something to look forward to.

“I think for a lot of folks, not having that trip to look forward to during the pandemic has been one more kind of drain on our happiness or one less thing to be excited about,” says Keyes. “Travel is good medicine. It really does have a ton of powerful effects on mental health and our well-being.”

Keyes notes that it’s not just about whether now is the right time to book regarding airfares but also about the morale boost that booking flights and a trip right now can provide.

For those who are ready to book ASAP, not only will airfares be in your favor, but airlines are also still offering flexibility in the form of no change fees. Currently, all the major airlines have a no-change-fee policy in place through the end of March 2021 for all flights and all fares. After this month, those policies will start to have some exclusions and exceptions—not many, but some. Notably the no-change-fee policies will no longer apply to Basic Economy fares and to some international flights.

>> Next: How to Make the Most of Your Expiring COVID Flight Credits

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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