Spring break gets pricey as travelers return to old booking habits

Spring break travel demand is picking up, driving up airfare and hotel rates.

Travel app Hopper said in a report last week that domestic airfare is averaging $264 a round trip for March and April, up 20% from a year ago and 5% above pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines, grappling with pilot shortages and aircraft delivery delays, have already limited capacity growth, which is keeping airfare up from last year.

Now travelers are going back to booking patterns common before the pandemic, flying on peak days to traditional destinations, airline executives say. That makes it even more important for travelers to stay flexible if they’re trying to save money to avoid spikes in fares.

It’s good news for airlines that are trying to make up for higher costs.

Spring break demand is “probably the best we’ve ever seen,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said in an interview. “Constrained capacity is real. When you couple that in with higher costs, most notably fuel, people are willing to pay [the higher fares], and the airlines need to charge it.”

Matt Klein, Spirit Airlines‘ chief commercial officer, told CNBC that there was a travel lull following the new year, when schools reopened after a longer-than-usual holiday break, but demand has perked up for trips through the spring, even beyond peak holiday weeks.

“The busiest days of the week are returning to your Fridays and Sundays,” Klein said in an interview. “The best deals and the best offers should be on Tuesdays and Wednesdays would be my expectation.”

But midweek during popular vacation periods, like when schools are off, could keep demand high all week, he added. “People will move around for the best opportunity,” he said.

Klein said that demand to Florida is particularly strong and that Spirit has boosted capacity to certain cities such as Orlando, where it’s ramped up service to hit a near-record 96 daily departures on peak days.

“There are deals available, but what consumers might not want to hear is that they’ll have to be flexible,” said Hayley Berg, Hopper’s lead economist. She recommended looking at alternative destinations to some of the most popular places and book outside of the more traditional depart on a Thursday or Friday and return on a Sunday plan.

For example, a Spirit flight from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is selling for $411.78 before fees, such as seat selection or cabin baggage, from April 7-16, while a shorter April 8-15 trip was $233.78.

A flight from New York to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic is going for $1,691.25 for standard economy on JetBlue from April 10-14. For the same trip leaving and returning a day earlier that falls to $1,392.25.

This is the first U.S. spring break season since the Biden administration scrapped a requirement that travelers show proof of a negative Covid test before flying to the U.S., making it easier for some people to travel abroad, while capacity remains limited.

Hopper said roundtrip flights to Mexico and Central America from the U.S. are up 60% from last year and 30% from 2019 at $536 in March and April. Fares from the U.S. to Caribbean islands are averaging $433, up 38% from last year and 9% from 2019, while roundtrips to Europe are averaging $706, up 45% from 2022 and 16% higher than four years ago.

“It’s not like a wedding. You’ve got some flexibility on where to go,” Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a flight deal site that the company recently renamed Going. “If cheap flights are a priority, see where there are cheap flights and then decide on your destination.”

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