WASHINGTON: 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 US airports on 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.
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 percent 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.
Virginia, where President Joe Biden traveled to tout his administration’s efforts to contain the virus, has eased all distancing and capacity restrictions.
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 percent at its three hotels in Boston.
Hotel room rates nationally jumped 9 percent in April after an 8 percent rise in March, and airfares soared 10 percent in April, according to the latest available figures from the Commerce Department.
That is not stopping people from getting on planes. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) 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.
Business travelers and international visitors are still mostly absent, however, and airlines are eager to see that lucrative business return.