March 7 2012 by Chris McGinnis
With the economy, the temperature and the price of gasoline on the rise, business and leisure travelers should prepare for larger crowds and higher prices during the peak spring break travel season. This year, the peak spring break travel season begins on March 5 and lasts until about April 10.
To avoid the highest prices and the possibility of sold out flights, hotels or rental cars, those planning trips in March or early April should make reservations as soon as possible--especially if you are headed to popular spring break destinations such as Florida and other destinations along the Gulf Coast.
Best Western expects a very busy spring travel season this year. Looking ahead, its advance bookings in the US for March and April are up a remarkable 20% compared to this time last year. In addition, advance bookings at its downtown hotels are up 30%, showing great strength among business travelers. And at its hotels in resort areas, bookings are up 22%, which means spring breakers should book now before hotels sell out.
Key spring travel dates:
To avoid the biggest crowds at airports, try to avoid traveling on weekends during the peak collegiate spring break period--from roughly March 3 through March 25. If you are flying on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays during March, you'll find airports in or near college campuses and warm weather destinations packed with vacationing students, creating longer lines at airport security.
Also, beware of crowding and possible delays on the days leading up to and shortly after Easter, which falls on Sunday, April 8 this year. While peak collegiate spring break occurs in March, elementary and high school students take off all or part of the week leading up to Easter, which means more families on the highways and skyways. Be prepared for especially heavy road traffic on Friday, April 6 and late Easter Sunday, April 8.
In addition, be aware that St Patrick's Day falls on Saturday, March 17 this year. Travelers should expect extreme vigilance on the part of police and highway patrol when it comes to drinking and driving.
Peak spring break travel season should end on about Tuesday, April 10. From April 10 through May 24 will be "shoulder season"--of the best times of year to save money and avoid crowds--and one of the smartest times time to schedule business trips. During shoulder season, demand for travel (and prices) drop significantly from the highs you'll see during the spring and summer peaks.
TIP: If you are a business traveler staying over in a resort community, ask for a quiet room away from the pool or other public areas, which may attract a rowdy spring break crowd.
Top spring travel destinations:
>Nearly everywhere in Florida, especially Orlando and coastal cities.
>Cities along the US Gulf Coast in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas
>Colorado and Utah ski areas
>Low-cost, nearby Caribbean destinations such as the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic
>Mexico, especially coastal resort areas such as Cancun and the "Riviera Maya". (Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, Baja.)
Currently, the average price per gallon in the US is about $3.55, up from about $3.20 this time last year. However, gas prices approaching $4 per gallon won't put much of a crimp in spring break travel volume--that's because most travel plans were set and reservations made prior to the recent run-up in fuel costs. However, those who have yet to make firm plans may choose destinations closer to home.
Also, higher gas prices (and airfares) will force travelers to economize in other areas--they may shorten trips, eat out at less expensive restaurants or bring along food from home. They'll also choose to stay in more economically priced hotels--and seek out those that include extras in their rates such as in-room Wi-Fi and breakfast or parking.
TIP: Are you trying to decide whether it's smarter to fly or drive? Then check out the new "Fly or Drive" calculator from BeFrugal.com. This site helps answer the age-old question among frequent travelers.... Whether it makes more financial sense to drive or fly to your destination. What's clever about this calculator is that it allows you to enter specific data about your trip, which helps it come up with a specific answer. Also, consider online or smart phone tools like Gas Buddy, which shows the cheapest current gas prices by zip code.
Airfares are about 10% higher than they were this time last year, and continue to rise as quickly as the price of a barrel of oil. For example, since January 1, airlines have already succeeded in two across-the-board fare hikes.
Last fall, a barrel of oil was running at about $80, which kept a lid on big fare hikes. But now the price is approaching $110 just as the peak spring travel season commences. This means that airlines will continue to raise fares and enforce application of new fees in order to stay profitable.
TIP: To get the lowest fares, you must have the flexibility to travel during non-peak times, such as late April or May known as the "shoulder season." Travelers who can travel mid-week--on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays are also more likely to find lower fares.
While demand for hotels is increasing, average rates have only crept up marginally-- for example, hotel rates in January were just 3.9% higher than January 2011 according to STR Global. This should be a relief for travelers who are finding that they are spending more than they'd like to at the gas pump or when buying airline tickets.
Hotel rates in large coastal cities in the US such as Boston, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Seattle are rising fastest. Rates in smaller, interior US cities remain about the same as this time last year.
TIP: To save on spring or summer travel, check out deals such as Best Western's spring promotion offering one free night after three stays between February 6 and April 8.
Last Minute Deals:
Waiting around for last minute deals or flash sales rarely results in significant discounts during peak travel periods such as spring break. Those who have their heart set on a specific destination should make reservations early in order to get the best deals. Waiting around for last minute deals is only advisable if you really don't care where you go...you just want to get away. On the other hand, waiting around for a last minute deal makes much more sense if you plan to travel during periods of lighter demand, such as late April or May.