Demand for travel is sky high but many top hotels, resorts and rental homes are already booked for the season. Here’s where to look and what to book instead.
In a normal year, planning a summer vacation weeks before Memorial Day weekend would leave a traveler spoiled for choice. But as the country awakens from its Covid-19 hibernation, this season is shaping up to be anything but normal.
“The pent-up demand is real,” says Betsy O’Rourke, CMO for Xanterra, the country’s largest national park concessions management company. “We’ve all been sequestered for a year, and many of our guests have saved money, so the desire to travel along with the funds to pay for it are combining for a swift recovery for our cruise, tour and train brands.”
Across the country, recently vaccinated Americans are now turning their attention to summer vacation plans, only to discover that many of the most popular destinations are already sold out for the entire season.
The accelerated vaccine rollout is fueling a vacation-booking surge, as 46% of U.S. adults are now fully vaccinated and 59% have received at least one dose. “The trend we are seeing is that once people receive their vaccine, they book,” says O’Rourke.
April, for instance, is typically the peak time to book summer vacation homes on Vrbo. But this year, demand began to spike in February. “This was Vrbo’s best-ever start to a year in the U.S.,” says Melanie Fish, Vrbo’s travel expert, “and the momentum has continued into the late spring and summer months.” Vrbo data also indicates that families are significantly more likely to book longer stays by a few extra days, which is eating up availability at some top getaway spots this summer.
Reservations are also pacing far ahead of pre-pandemic trends on Vacasa, another vacation rental platform. “Many of our top vacation destinations currently have double the reservations for June, July and August 2021 compared to what was booked at this time in 2019,” says Natalia Sutin, the company’s VP of revenue management.
And as if travelers needed another wrench in their vacation plans, a massive rental car shortage is pushing daily rates into nosebleed territory or, worse, leaving some markets with no vehicles at all.
Jonathan Weinberg, the CEO of the rental car booking site AutoSlash, says travelers can no longer afford to treat a rental car as an afterthought this year. “We’re telling customers to book six to eight weeks in advance,” he advises, “even before they nail down their flight and hotel.”
So where is everyone going? “Travel trends that emerged during the pandemic, such as closer-to-home travel, still remain popular,” says Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Global Travel and Lifestyle Services, noting that 87% of bookings made through its site are for domestic destinations. “An exciting glimmer of hope pointing to the pent-up demand is that travel bookings made in April 2021 are up 11% compared to April 2019.”
National park vacations always book up well ahead of summer, but this year it’s even more competitive. “All of our national park lodges are sold out throughout the summer as people seek domestic driving trips to wide open spaces,” says Xanterra’s O’Rourke. “Campgrounds and cabins are our most popular inventory, and [lodge] rooms as well.”
For travelers who are open to flying this summer, the most popular domestic destinations are Las Vegas, Miami and Orlando, according to Hopper, a travel forecasting app. Americans are also planning escapes to Mexico and the Caribbean, with flights to Cancun, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica among the most popular international destinations.
Hopper’s data lines up with what travel agents in the global InteleTravel network are seeing. Darryl Jenkins, a Maryland-based agent, says Jamaica is his most-requested destination. “But it has low to no availability,” he adds, “likely due to the government restrictions on occupancy coupled with travel demand.” A Houston-based agent, Lysa Middleton Phillips, confirms the lack of options in Miami and Jamaica. “I have never seen it booked up so tight in either destination,” she says.
As always, families are planning summer escapes to Disney World in Orlando, says Trish Smith, an InteleTravel travel advisor based in Kansas City. “This is normally my go-to for family vacations and with the limited space and certain parks not being available it’s getting tougher to get in.”
Hotels aren’t the only game in town, of course. Vrbo is seeing vacation homes getting locked up for July and August in beach destinations like Cape May and Ocean City on the Jersey Shore; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
And on Airbnb, the top 10 summer destination searches include a mix of beach towns, lakes, national park gateways and other remote spots.
In keeping with 2020’s travel trend, the most popular Airbnb rentals are in remote locations that make the most of the outdoors. Cabins are the most “wishlisted” lodging type on the platform again this year. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an 80% increase in treehouse views on the platform, while the top trending amenities are patios and balconies (35x growth); barbecue areas (19x growth); and gardens or backyards (8x growth).
Despite this vacation frenzy, there are still many fabulous destinations with openings—you just have to know where to look, say the experts. Here are the tips you need to plan (or salvage) a summer vacation:
Zig when everyone else zags
“Don’t give up on booking a vacation home for a summer trip,” says Fish at Vrbo. Instead, seek out regional alternatives where there is more availability. If you’re locked out of the Outer Banks, she says, you might have better luck finding openings in Sanibel Island in Florida or Tybee Island in Georgia.
Vacasa crunched its data and came up with a set of destinations that still have at least 40 percent occupancy and a minimum of 1,000 room nights available during the summer months. “If you’re dreaming of a beach vacation but find that lodging is limited,” says Sutin, “we suggest exploring destinations like Panama City Beach in Florida, Oregon’s Lincoln City, or Lahaina on Maui that still fall in that sweet spot.”
It’s also not too late to write off that national park getaway—if you are flexible. Two of the destinations on Vacasa’s “best bets” list—Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Moab, Utah—are gateways to national parks. And you can still have that Yosemite vacation this summer. “If clients really wanted that,” said Gary Johnson, owner of the luxury travel agency Woodside Travel in Seattle, “I would find out if they’d be open to staying in a beautiful private home and then they would just drive into the park. If you go to Yosemite, it’s very hard to get into The Ahwahnee, the park lodge, but if you stay maybe 15 minutes out, there are some beautiful private homes. A lot of people traveling with their family or extended family like that option.”
For those looking for a beach vacation, Mexico has plenty of options. “Even with occupancy restrictions,” says Jenkins, “they still have availability in Cancun, Tulum, Los Cabos, and Puerto Vallarta.”
Last-minute planners might also consider an urban escape. “You’re going to find more availability in cities than in the resorts, lodges and ranches in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado—all those will be very, very full,” says Johnson. “But if you’re looking at some of the cities, you’re going to have much more availability.”
Johnson highly recommends that luxury travelers consider accommodation options beyond hotels. He is a big fan of the Four Seasons Residences—sumptuous private apartments and villas that can be rented out in 29 sought-after destinations across North America, ranging from Jackson Hole, Vail and Napa Valley to New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale, and in dozens of locations around the world. “Some people just think of the Four Seasons hotels, but you need to think of the residences, too,” he says. “And yes, they may have a seven-night minimum. But a lot of people want to spend seven nights because they want to do the all the outdoor activities.”
Work with a travel agent
In this post-pandemic crunch, more travelers are also discovering the upside of working with a travel advisor. In a recent poll by the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), 80% of agents report hearing from travelers who have never worked with one before, and InteleTravel is seeing nearly 50% of all bookings coming from first-time customers.
One perennial deterrent of working with travel agents is the myth that clients pay more for the privilege. Most agents, however, are paid commissions by the hotel or outfitter, not the traveler. Good travel advisors will not only save customers time and money, but they can also secure upgrades, resort credits and other amenities that travelers would not be able to access on their own. “When you’re working with an advisor, he has these tricks in a bag to bring out to give to clients,” says Johnson, whose agency is part of the Virtuoso luxury travel network and is also Four Seasons-preferred. Both statuses allow him to pass on numerous complimentary perks to his clients.
Most important, travel advisors know the lay of the land—which destinations are booked solid, and where there are openings. And if first or second choices are already sold out, a travel agent can quickly provide comparable options. “A good alternative to Miami is Destin or Panama City Beach. It’s a little less hustle-and-bustle and there haven’t been curfew mandates,” says Phillips. “An alternative to Jamaica is Los Cabos. Cabo is a little more Covid-cautious and sometimes more cost-effective than Jamaica—while just as beautiful.”
Also, millions of travelers already have a travel advisor in their wallet. Many premium credit cards—including the Platinum Card from American and the Chase Sapphire cards—provide concierge services at no extra charge, everything from booking flights and hotels to designing a complete itinerary.
Be flexible with dates
In a tight market, moving your travel window by just a few days can often reveal hidden availability, says Johnson. “I’ve had no problem getting people into Hawaii, for example. If a client is flexible and can come, say, four days later, there is a good chance I can get them in.”
This is another instance where travel agents can use their relationships to work miracles. “I’ve been very fortunate over 30 years to get to know general managers at wonderful hotels around the world,” Johnson adds, “and they really like to help me out if they can.”
Most hotels and resorts have a very good cancellation policy these days, says Johnson. Before Covid, the deadline might have been 30 days before arrival. “But now sometimes it’s just 24 or 48 hours,” he says. “So I always suggest a backup plan. I’ll say, ‘We can book you here but if it doesn’t work out, we also have you here.’ I do backups for my clients all the time.”
If a cancellation policy is generous, there’s also no harm in booking on spec—even if a destination isn’t even open yet. “Hopefully by midsummer, the Canadian border will open and you will have the best availability in Vancouver, which is one of the most beautiful cities in North America,” says Johnson, noting that Canada’s cruise ban will guarantee plenty of hotel rooms this year. “That would be a perfect place for people to go. It’s a spectacular city.”
For travelers who haven’t nailed down their summer vacation dates yet, Weinberg recommends double booking rental cars using the “pay later” rate, for which there is no cancellation penalty. “Otherwise, they could be left empty-handed,” he says.
As a last resort, look beyond summer
American Express sees the summer travel boom as the beginning of a larger trend. “As more people become vaccinated and travel restrictions are lifted, we expect to see a steady increase in travel bookings, especially for the latter half of the year,” says Hendley.
“Currently, the most sought-after locales are seeing more availability in September,” Vrbo’s Fish confirms. InteleTravel agents also see opportunities open up then “and even more so towards October,” says Phillips.
So if your heart is set on a sold-out destination this summer, waiting until the other side of Labor Day may be the best way to get there.