Memorial Day weekend kicks off what is expected to be a busy summer travel season, but high gas prices, inflation and airfare could throw up roadblocks.
Nearly 70% of Americans are planning to travel this summer, but gas prices and inflation are a consideration for most people — and for even more people than COVID-19 rates, according to a mid-May survey of more than 2,200 adults commissioned by the American Hotel and Lodging Association. More than half said they were likely to take fewer trips or shorter trips because of high gas prices.
The average price for regular gas in the Chicago metro area on a recent weekday was $5.19, up from $3.34 the year before, according to AAA. Still, AAA predicted 1.9 million Illinois residents would travel over Memorial Day weekend — about 10% less than 2019 — and 92% of them would travel by car.
Travel in the Midwest could be harder hit than other parts of the country by rising gas prices, said Chip Rogers, CEO of the hotel association. Cities are generally more spaced out compared to places like the East Coast, meaning road trips are likely to be longer, and the effects of high gas prices felt more acutely.
That could be a problem for Chicago, where the tourism and hospitality industry’s recovery from the pandemic has lagged cities with year-round outdoor activities and more consistent COVID-19 policies, he said.
Still, Rogers thinks the summer will be a big vacation season despite gas prices, as pent-up demand drives people to travel. Nationwide, hotel bookings for vacations — as opposed to business travel — are on a record pace, he said.
“We’re still optimistic that it could, in fact, be a record year, but no question gas prices and inflation in general are concerns,” he said.
Also affecting travel could be airfare, and whether travelers are willing to pay more to fly. Summer is typically a more expensive time to fly, but travelers will now find airlines contending with fluctuating oil prices and skyrocketing demand, just as they are ramping back up flight schedules and staffing.
In April, airfares rose 18.6% over the month before, according to the most recently available consumer price index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the biggest one-month jump on record, according to the agency.
“I think you’re going to see busy airports, full flights and higher fares,” said Andrew Levy, CEO of the new low-cost carrier Avelo and a former executive at United and Allegiant airlines. “And I think you’ll see that through the summer.”
Sisters Valerie Hall and Linda Iwersen have already encountered skyrocketing prices. They flew into Chicago from Tampa, Florida, on their way to take a train trip to Seattle. They held off on buying flights home from Seattle for a time, and by the time they purchased the tickets they were about five times more expensive than when they had first looked, Iwersen said.
“It sure gave us a headache,” she said.
High prices weren’t enough to deter Robert and Marcus Meinhardt from taking a vacation to the U.S. from Frankfurt, Germany. They arrived in Chicago after a week in New York, and noticed prices were far higher than when they visited before the pandemic.
“Because of the travel ban, we couldn’t travel from Europe to here,” Robert Meinhardt said. “So we are so happy to be here now.”
Partly contributing to high fares is demand, and how much carriers are flying. Airlines have contended with tough hiring markets, and smaller, regional airlines face a looming pilot shortage.
United Airlines has kept its schedule in check as it tries to ensure reliability with the current staffing levels, including staffing at the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and vendors like the people who push wheelchairs and provide catering on planes, said Omar Idris, vice president of O’Hare International Airport for United. The carrier, which has offered a $10,000 signing bonus for some positions, is fully staffed at O’Hare, and this year hired 250 customer service agents and 500 baggage handlers, belt and cargo loaders and other positions, he said.
The airline hasn’t seen inflation cut into demand for flights, he said. Wednesday was United’s busiest travel day at O’Hare since the start of the pandemic.
United planned to fly almost 470,000 passengers through O’Hare over Memorial Day weekend, Idris said. That was about 12% fewer people than pre-pandemic, but about 31% more than 2021.
“We’d be flying a lot more this weekend, if we could,” he said. “So it’s just a measure of offering a flight plan without having to make any cancellations, people can rebook on us with confidence and we can operate a reliable schedule that way.”
Avelo, which began flying out of Midway International Airport this week, cut back on an additional weekly round-trip flight it planned to add out of Chicago in June because of rising fuel prices, Levy said. The airline offers five round-trip flights a week between Chicago and Tweed New Haven Airport in Connecticut, and initially planned to add a sixth.
The carrier has raised prices, but would have had to raise fares more quickly to cover costs, Levy said. It thought flying less was a better option.
“We have to win on price,” he said. “We absolutely win on convenience, but if we don’t win on price, then it’ll be hard to get people to give us a try.”
Still, he is optimistic about the route, and said so far bookings have been strong.
The outlook for travel prices isn’t all bad news, said Scott Keyes, founder of airfare deals tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights. Flights at the beginning and end of summer tend to be somewhat cheaper. Travelers with some flexibility will likely have better luck at finding a deal. And the farther out travelers can book airfare, the cheaper it’s likely to be.
Europe can also be a good deal, he said. International travel hasn’t rebounded as much as domestic travel, meaning trans-Atlantic flights can be a good value. Many European cities are also walkable or have good public transit systems, so travelers can avoid tacking on the cost of a rental car and high fuel prices.
And, he said, the outlook for flight deals after Labor Day is much better.