Americans hit the road in near-record numbers at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, as their eagerness to break free from coronavirus confinement overcame higher prices for flights, gasoline and hotels.
More than 1.8 million people went through U.S. airports Thursday, and the daily number was widely expected to cross 2 million at least once over the long holiday weekend, which would be the highest mark since early March 2020.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned people to expect long lines at airports and appealed for travelers to be patient.
The rise in travel appears to be fueled by an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations as well as an improving economy. The U.S. Commerce Department said consumer spending increased in April, although not as much as in March, showing how consumers are driving a recovery from last year's pandemic recession.
At Miami International Airport, officials expected crowds equal to pre-pandemic levels. It was a similar story in Orlando, where airport traffic has reached 90% of 2019 levels as tourists flocked to theme parks that have recently loosened restrictions.
Along the Florida coasts and around Orlando, many hotels were booked solid through the weekend.
"We are going into off-season, and it has not slowed down," said Cathy Balestriere, general manager of Crane's Beach House, a boutique hotel in Delray Beach, Florida.
Vacation destinations like Las Vegas, Hawaii and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, were among the top destinations for holiday revelers, according to AAA. Paula Twidale, a spokeswoman for the auto club and insurer, said the pickup in travel began in April as more Americans got vaccinated and the weather improved.
"People are just excited to get out," she said.
Memorial Day coincides with some states eliminating their remaining pandemic restrictions as the number of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths decline.
Virginia, where President Joe Biden traveled to tout his administration's efforts to contain the virus, is easing all distancing and capacity restrictions Friday. A mask mandate in Massachusetts ends Saturday.
AAA expects a 60% jump in travel over the 2020 Memorial Day weekend, with 37 million Americans traveling at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home, most of them in cars. That's despite gasoline prices being at their highest levels in seven years: The national average is above $3 a gallon for regular.
Prices for rental cars are up sharply, too — if you can find one — after companies culled their fleets to survive last year's deep slump in travel.
"My mother-in-law called me on a vacation and said, 'Hey, can you get me a rental car?' I said, 'No,'" said Jordan Staab, president of SmarterTravel Media. "Demand is up 500% since January, and it's tough to get a rental car right now, so plan ahead as much as you possibly can."
Hotels and other lodging in beach and mountain areas are expecting bigger crowds than those in cities. Lou Carrier, the president of Distinctive Hospitality Group, said the company's two hotels in tourist towns in Connecticut have seen a jump in bookings since the state loosened its mask requirements two weeks ago, but occupancy is still only around 20% at its three hotels in Boston.
Hotel room rates nationally jumped 9% in April after an 8% rise in March, and airfares soared 10% in April, according to the latest available figures from the Commerce Department.
That's not stopping people from getting on planes. The Transportation Security Administration has screened nearly 1.6 million people a day this month, up from 224,000 a day in May 2020 but still down one-third from the same time in 2019. TSA officials said this week they have hired enough new screeners to handle the crowds.
Most of those travelers are taking vacations or visiting family and friends in the United States. Airline executives say domestic leisure travel is back to pre-pandemic levels. Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein said this week that bookings are now running ahead of the 2019 pace.
Business travelers and international visitors are still mostly absent, however, and airlines are eager to see that lucrative business return.