Jawaskie Deal and his wife have become like pros at finding the best value on travel accommodations.
There was that trip they took to Toronto that involved flying into Ohio and driving across the border. They often find cheaper airfares by flying out of Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston instead of Lafayette. Next month they will vacation in Jamaica but fly into Fort Lauderdale first. On the way back they will leave a day early and fly into Tampa for a night before returning to Lafayette.
Travel points cover most if not all of their lodging costs. And there will be no car rental. It’ll all be Uber or Lyft.
“We actually saved anywhere from $300 to $400 a night to stay in Tampa,” said Deal, a licensed professional counselor in New Iberia. “We don’t do anything other people can’t do. Because of costs, we like to travel efficiently. We might pay so much a month (in advance), and that way the trip will be paid out maybe a month or two in advance. We won’t have to worry about anything other than spending money.”
Given the rising costs of traveling as Americans head into the summer travel months, it’s a good strategy. Those cheap airline tickets from earlier in the pandemic are no longer, and the turmoil in the car rental industry has sent prices through the roof.
The national travel outlook for 2021 is one that is returning to pre-coronavirus numbers as more Americans are vaccinated, but still on its ear as a result of pandemic shortages. Americans will spend 20% more on travel this year than a year ago but still nowhere near 2019’s total, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
You can attribute the anticipated increase in travel to the pent-up demand from any cancelled trips from last year and more cash in people’s pockets from stimulus checks. In Lafayette, that means more trips to Hawaii or to Mexico or the Caribbean, travel agents say.
“It will probably be 2023 before you get up to the leisure level that we’ve seen, but it could change one way or another,” said Robbie Bush, longtime owner of Associated Travel in Lafayette. “A lot of people are going on driving trips. We’re seeing people flying to the West Coast of the East Coast. Car rentals have been ridiculously expensive. A client was flying to Austin, and the car rental was going to cost more than $600 — twice as much as an individual airline ticket.”
The shortage of rental cars in the United States and especially in Southern cities, has either jacked up the daily price for a car or squeezed customers out of a vehicle for their trip. In Hawaii, people have resorted to renting UHaul vehicles since the cheapest rental car price swelled to $722 a day in Maui, according to a CNN report.
Problems began last year when agencies sold off vehicles to generate revenue in the first months of the pandemic. Then manufacturers had to slow production because of the worldwide shortage of microchips, leaving the rental car industry without means of replenishing its fleet.
That’s led to prices rising 30% in the U.S. and 50% in Hawaii and Florida compared to 2019, according to CheapCarRental.net. At Auto Rental Etc., which has four locations in Acadiana, cars that were renting for $28-$38 a day are now going for $58 a day, general manager Eric Stroderd said.
“As soon as the stimulus checks, the unemployment money and the tax (refunds) form the first quarter started, the demand was extremely high,” he said. “Especially in the Gulf South states. A lot of people are traveling south, which is creating even more of a demand. We’re at the mercy of what we have, so we have to keep those cars. Nobody has enough cars, and it’s creating a serious supply and demand issue.”
It's forced people to alter their vacations, he noted, like some who have to fly into Tampa for their Disneyworld vacation. Some travel experts are encouraging people to choose a destination by wherever they can rent a car.
Otherwise, as Travel Machine owner Maegan Sonnier pointed out, the trip could turn sour.
“Another thing with car rentals is a lot of people are getting there and they don’t have a car,” Sonnier said. “They had a reservation but it wasn’t confirmed. We’re picking up a lot of clients like that. They were booking online and one of their friends got stuck. It happens all the time.”
If you need to rent a car on your vacation, you should line that up first, Stroderd noted. Reservations are so backed up at his company’s New Orleans office that they stopped taking them “because I can’t buy any more cars,” he said.
Then throw in the staffing issues the agency is battling, and it means the crisis might linger for some time.
“The shortage is going to continue through the summer months,” Stroderd said. “Our bookings have tripled compared to the previous year due to demand issues. People are booking really fast now because they know there’s a shortage. If you wait too long, there won’t be inventory to be rented.”
More people will fly in and out of Lafayette Regional Airport this summer as passenger traffic is trending more toward pre-pandemic numbers. Traffic, even though it did plummet this time a year ago, has skewed higher than most airports around the country, director Steve Picou said.
Enplanements and deplanements each topped 16,000 in April, the most since before the pandemic. The daily flights to Charlotte that began April 2 have been popular, he said.
“Some days of the week we exceed pre-COVID numbers, and some days we’re a little lower,” Picou said. “We were always ahead of the national average. When they were at 25% at the worst of the worst, we were going 30-33% of normal traffic. We’ve always been ahead of the national average for some reason. I don’t know why, but I’m glad we are.”
Travel website Hopper reported Las Vegas, Orlando and Miami as the hottest vacation destinations this summer. Others, including Honolulu, that were impacted the most by the pandemic will gain the biggest share of travelers.
At Travel Machine in Lafayette, the Hawaii trips are a hot item.
“We sold more Hawaii (trips) this year than we ever have in a year already,” Sonnier said. “People are going to Hawaii. We’re doing a lot of national parks. We’re doing a lot to Mexico. We’re busy. We sold more in the last four months than we did in the last 18. Business is good.”
A lot of it is merely the pent-up demand from being unable to travel last year, she said. In Deal’s case, he and his wife had trips to Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival cancelled, as was their trip to South Africa later in the year. But since then they have visited Las Vegas and Cancun.
“Traveling is like a recharge for us,” Deal said. “Whenever we get low, we have to recharge our battery. What better way to do it than with travel, you know?”