Two threats that once loomed large over the summer travel season — massive flight delays because of air traffic controller furloughs and skyrocketing gas prices — have vaporized, leaving predictions of relatively smooth sailing, flying and driving ahead.
As the economy continues to recover and consumers are more comfortable spending rather than saving, experts believe that spells good news for the travel season that kicks off with Memorial Day weekend.
The holiday weekend itself is not expected to set any records: The AAA is forecasting numbers similar to last year, with 34.8 million Americans expected to travel between Thursday and Monday.
But for the summer season, surveys show more people are expected to take a vacation on the road and in the air this year than last, and gas prices are projected to be about 16 cents a gallon less than a year ago. Even airfare to many top summer destinations has dropped compared to 2012, though airlines continue to tack on extra fees and hotels are charging more for rooms.
“All in all, taking into consideration airfare is down and hotels are up, it’s a bit of a wash for travelers,” said Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor of Orbitz.com.
She warned that some travelers might be taken aback by extra fees that airlines are charging for everything from carry-on bags to seats with more legroom.
“That’s one of the big things that ends up costing people more,” she said.
Still, surveys show travelers are willing to part with more cash this year. A survey from travel site TripAdvisor said 25 percent of summer travelers expect to spend more on vacation this year, while 53 percent will spend the same.
“For so many years, we’ve been saying ‘the economy, the economy,’ ” said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. “I don’t know if that matters as much anymore. People are making it work.”
The TripAdvisor survey says 30 percent of those polled said they intend to travel over Memorial Day weekend, a 6 percent increase over last year, and 86 percent plan to take a leisure trip over the summer, a jump of 7 percent.
Airlines for America, an industry trade organization, said U.S. airlines are expected to carry nearly 209 million passengers between June and August. That’s up 1 percent; the group believes higher household net worth, increased corporate profits and a break in the price of fuel are factors in the increase. Of the 209 million, the forecast calls for a record 27 million people to travel internationally.
One of those is Elizabeth Perez-Gurri, 24, of Pinecrest.
After deciding with two best friends to visit Europe this summer, the group settled on Greece because its economic woes translated to good deals.
“We were sort of on a budget, so we wanted to pick somewhere that was enjoyable but at the same time enjoyable for our bank accounts,” said the Miami public relations account executive.
In July, Perez-Gurri will fly to Athens and then Santorini, travel within the country on inexpensive ferries and stay in apartments instead of hotels to save money.
“We’ve kind of just been saving for it,” she said. “It’s definitely not something I do annually. This is something like a special occasion: Let’s make the investment and go travel.”
While recession-era fire sales are no longer the norm, travelers such as Perez-Gurri and her friends are still conditioned to seek bargains.
“Consumers are still looking for deals — and they’re definitely out there,” said Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for AAA Travel, The Auto Club Group.
That’s where South Florida comes in. Local tourism offices promote the region’s value during the summer months, when hotels lower prices and offer incentives.
Broward tourism chief Nicki Grossman said the deals are perfect for travelers who are still frugal, but eager for an overdue getaway.
“They’re tired of holding back and this gives them an opportunity to have a vacation, to enjoy themselves at a lower rate at the beach here than if they were doing it at the wintertime,” she said.
Many lodgings offer special rates just for Florida residents, including the Marriott Hollywood Beach, Delano South Beach and Casa Moderna in downtown Miami.
“Some of our largest hotels put their best value forward, especially to locals,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That speaks to the importance of the local market providing a nice base of business during the summer, which keeps the hotel busy, keeps the occupancy up and keeps employment stable.”
In-state travel is also important to South Florida — and destination promoters are making the effort to lure people within driving distance.
Just last week, a team from Miami-Dade’s tourism bureau took a bus bearing images of the destination to cities including Naples, Tampa and Orlando to promote Miami as a summer option for Floridians. In June, the office will start a campaign encouraging visitors to “live like a local,” using local bloggers and highlighting the broader community, including Little Havana and the Design District. That will tie in to promotions the bureau organizes during the summer featuring restaurant and spa deals.
The Florida Keys is running several in-state marketing efforts. A radio campaign will target potential visitors from Miami-Dade, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers; TV ads will run throughout the state. And Broward’s tourism office is promoting packages that have proven successful in recent years, including a staycation offer called “Pack Your Bags, We’re Staying Home” and two-for-one deals for attractions and activities.
So far, the local outlook is good. Aedo said 82 percent of hotels surveyed in Miami-Dade have said they expect overall business for the third quarter to be good or excellent. While occupancy is expected to be fairly stable compared to last year, hotels expect to command higher prices.
“The universal response that I’ve heard from my hotel community is that pricing power has returned,” Aedo said. “It was lost during the recession.”
Grossman said about 40 Broward hotels, mostly on the beach, have reported that they’re sold out for Memorial Day weekend.
In the Florida Keys, hoteliers anticipate that the solid business they’ve been seeing for the last couple of years will continue, said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
“We’ve had a really good shoulder season — much, much better than expected — and anticipate that that continues throughout the summer,” he said. “Hopefully, we get lucky and the storms stay away.”