Everyone loves a long weekend. But this Memorial Day weekend was different from the last few years. The Friday leading up to it marked a new travel record in the post-pandemic era, as more people ventured out despite stubborn inflation and high airfares.
The Transportation Security Administration, which clocks passenger numbers at U.S. airports, screened a total of 2.74 million people on Friday alone—the highest since the 2019 Thanksgiving weekend. And from Friday through Monday, the TSA screened 9.79 million people—up by 300,000 from the same holiday period in 2019. The data points to the strong return of travel activity following years of depressed or slowly recovering demand due to COVID-19-related restrictions.
Industry groups anticipated this year’s Memorial Day holiday to shatter records as people booked trips in advance. The demand was also not restricted to domestic locations, with foreign destinations like Rome, Paris and London among the top cities.
The American Automobile Association projected earlier this year that 42.3 million Americans would travel at least 50 miles from home during this year’s Memorial Day Weekend, which would make it the third busiest since the organization started tracking data in 2000. “We are seeing a demand for iconic cities, international vacation packages, and cruises with included amenities that provide more value for the price,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel.
It’s not just domestic travel: Bookings for international trips were up 250% during the Memorial Day weekend, compared to 2022, AAA noted. The deluge in bookings comes despite high prices, particularly soaring airfare for international flights. Ticket prices for international travel are the highest they’ve been in over five years, says mobile travel application Hopper. For instance, the average ticket price for last minute flights to Europe during the Memorial Day weekend was $1,300, up 50% from 2022 and 40% from 2019. Ticket fares to Asia were up 70% compared to pre-pandemic times, Hopper noted.
“This summer travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports,” Twidale said in AAA’s report.
A “notable shift” with travelers this year is that many of them are making impromptu plans closer to the actual travel date, for domestic and international trips, according to Hopper’s lead economist, Hayley Berg.
“Today, travelers are starting the travel planning process nearly 1.5 weeks closer to their departure dates for domestic trips, about a 30% reduction in travel planning time compared to pre-pandemic,” Berg wrote in April, adding that Gen Z and millennial travelers were an important segment contributing to this trend. As summer holidays approach, this could translate into an uptick in booking closer to the travel date, affecting the availability of flight seats.
Are airlines ready for the summer?
Airlines have been on edge following cancellations, challenging weather conditions and a staffing shortage that took center-stage in 2022. Travel last summer was characterized by high prices—in some cases, higher than this year—and mass delays or cancellations, leaving travelers frustrated.
But in 2023, airlines are determined to have a hiccup-free travel season. Major carriers expect a bumper summer season and are preparing for the surge in travelers by adding more flights and new destinations.
Delta Air Lines reported a record number of advance bookings for the summer, CEO Ed Bastian said during the company’s earnings call last month. To meet the demand for travel, Bastian said Delta would increase flight capacity by 17% compared to last year, during the peak summer months.
“I think we feel really confident in the summer and what we have on the books and what we’re seeing real time in terms of demand,” Delta president Glen Hauenstein said during the company’s first quarter earnings call.
Other major players, including United Airlines, shared the same optimism for the demand in the months to come.
“Demand is really good, bookings are strong, it’s going to be a busy summer,” United CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC last week.
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