As COVID-19 wanes, Americans are ready for fun. Booking it is the problem.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Travelers walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah. The Transportation Security Administration said its agents screened more than 1.7 million people on May 9 – the highest number since March 2020, when travel was collapsing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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After spending the past year essentially housebound, many Americans are eager to travel. But that newfound yearning is presenting its own challenges: Tourist destinations that not long ago were ghost towns are suddenly facing an onslaught of visitors. Indeed, now that it seems safe to go on vacation, many Americans are wondering if they’ll actually be able to – given that everyone else is trying to, as well.

AirDNA, a site that analyzes data from home rental sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, says reservations made during March 2021 reached an all-time high. Rental car prices are up 30%, with some destinations seeing a 50% increase. The shortage of rental cars in Hawaii has been so acute that vacationers have resorted to renting U-Hauls

Why We Wrote This

As capacity restrictions are lifted, the pandemic’s end stage is resetting supply and demand. Americans looking to go on vacation are finding hotels are booked solid and rental cars can’t be found.

Julia Righetti booked a house for a week in Cape Charles, Virginia, for her family. But then the homeowners sold the house, taking advantage of a booming housing market. 

“We started looking for a place again – and there was nothing anywhere,” says Ms. Righetti, a school photographer. “We just wanted a house with a pool, and we couldn’t find anything.” 

Julia Righetti needs a vacation from planning her vacation.

Last summer, she had planned to visit Brazil, where she was born, with her husband and two young sons. But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, upending all aspects of American life, their trip – along with the vacation plans of millions of Americans – was canceled. Their flights were rebooked for this summer, but as the date got nearer, Brazil’s ongoing challenges with the pandemic led them to postpone once more. 

Instead, they booked a house for a week in Cape Charles, Virginia, a two-hour drive from where they live in Richmond. But then the homeowners canceled the reservation because they had sold the house, taking advantage of a booming housing market. 

Why We Wrote This

As capacity restrictions are lifted, the pandemic’s end stage is resetting supply and demand. Americans looking to go on vacation are finding hotels are booked solid and rental cars can’t be found.

“We started looking for a place again – and there was nothing anywhere,” says Ms. Righetti, a school photographer. “We just wanted a house with a pool, and we couldn’t find anything.” 

As COVID-19 case counts recede dramatically in the United States, Americans’ fear of the disease has dropped to an all-time low. And after spending the past year essentially housebound, many are eager for a break. But the newfound yearning to travel is presenting its own challenges: Hotels and home rentals are booked solid, the cost of flights has skyrocketed, and rental cars can’t be found.

With states and localities ending mask mandates and capacity restrictions, the pandemic’s end stage is reordering supply and demand once again, with tourist destinations that not long ago were ghost towns suddenly facing an onslaught of visitors. Indeed, now that it finally seems safe to go on vacation, many Americans are wondering if they’ll actually be able to – given that everyone else is trying to, as well.

AirDNA, a site that analyzes data from home rental sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, says reservations made during March 2021 reached an all-time high. Bookings on Vrbo have exceeded pre-pandemic levels, with the site seeing the best-ever start to a year in the U.S. Travelers are 75% more likely to book at least a seven-night stay, says Vrbo, as opposed to the typical three-night getaway. 

Rental car prices are up 30%, with some beach destinations like Hawaii and Florida seeing a 50% increase. The shortage of rental cars in Hawaii has been so acute that some vacationers have resorted to renting U-Hauls

Some of the high flight and car prices are due to pandemic-induced contractions: Airlines decreased the number of routes and car rental companies sold fleets to compensate for the dramatic dip in travelers. 

“And now, demand went from 0 to 60,” says Mike Dominguez, president of Associated Luxury Hotels International and a member of the U.S. Travel Association’s board of directors.

Another factor, Mr. Dominguez says, is that Americans are mostly not traveling abroad – with the pandemic still raging in many other countries that would otherwise be luring vacationers. “One of the reasons that everything is so compressed right now is that international destinations that would relieve some of this pressure are closed off to us.” 

Mary Altaffer/AP
Visitors take photos after boarding the Statue of Liberty ferry, April 27, 2021, in New York. In recent weeks, tourism indicators for New York City like hotel occupancy and museum attendance that had fallen off a pandemic cliff have ticked up.

Vaccinated Americans may be permitted in several European countries by midsummer. But many are still hesitant to travel far from home, choosing to drive instead of fly and prioritizing outdoor adventures where it is easier to practice social distancing. With national parks expecting to top last summer’s record-setting visitation numbers, some – such as Yosemite – are requiring reservations

Prior to 2020, luxury travel adviser Hutton Beckcom was used to booking high-end summer vacations for her clients on the Mediterranean Sea. This year, her clients have been mostly opting for simple beach getaways.

“We’ve all had to become Florida Keys experts,” she says of herself and other luxury travel advisers. “It’s not a destination that I was ever booking prior to the pandemic.”

Luray Caverns, a popular destination that’s a short drive from Washington, D.C., closed for three months in 2020 – the first time the cave had shut its doors since it was discovered in 1878. But now, visitors are up 9% from this point in 2019.

“There is difficulty booking flights and accommodations, and from the research we’ve seen people would rather travel by car and stay close to home,” says John Shaffer, the caverns’ director of public relations. “We are checking a lot of boxes of what people are looking for.”

After Ms. Righetti’s rental in Cape Charles was canceled, she eventually booked a trip for her family in Costa Rica. But she held off on securing flights, hoping that prices might come down. So far, unfortunately not. 

“We thought they were going to get better – but they just keep getting worse,” she says. 

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