February 6 2013 by Chris McGinnis
Combine a long, cold winter, spiking gasoline prices, and an improving economy. Then fold in an early Easter and you have the recipe for what could be a very crowded and expensive spring travel season. Already, advance bookings for March at Best Western's 2000+ hotels in the US are up 8.9% compared to this time last year.
To avoid the highest prices and the possibility of sold out flights, hotels or rental cars, those planning March trips should make reservations as soon as possible-- especially if headed to popular spring break destinations such as Florida, the Gulf Coast, Rocky Mountain ski resorts and Mexico.
This year, the peak spring travel season will be compact--only about three weeks-- beginning on Friday, March 8 and lasting until Monday April 1.
Due to an unusually early Easter (Sunday, March 31), March is going to be a month when college students, families and business travelers converge on the nation's airports, highways and hotels. Collegiate spring break will peak in mid-to-late-March during mid-semester break. Family spring break will peak during the last week of March when most elementary and high schools close prior to Easter weekend.
To avoid the biggest crowds at airports, try to avoid traveling on weekends during the peak collegiate spring break period--from roughly March 8 through April 1. 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 highways and skyways on the days leading up to and shortly after Easter Sunday, March 31.
In addition, St Patrick's Day falls smack in the middle of spring break on Sunday, 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 2. From April 3 through May 23 there will be an earlier-than-normal "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) drops significantly from the highs you'll see during the spring and summer peaks. (The summer travel season kicks off on Memorial Day--May 27-- weekend.)
TIP: If you are a business traveler staying over in a resort or beachside area, 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
- Las Vegas
- Rocky Mountain and New England ski areas
- Washington, DC
- 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" along the east coast and Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, and Baja on the west.
Over the last two weeks, gasoline prices have jumped dramatically--about 25 cents per gallon, from an average of about $3.30 per gallon in January to $3.55 during the first week in February according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report.
Although there is pain at the pump, rising gas prices 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 if gas prices continue to spike.
Some good news: Despite the painful hikes we are experiencing now (which should last through April or May), the US Energy Information Agency expects average per gallon prices in the US to remain relatively flat through the rest of this year, at about $3.44 per gallon.
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.
Chart: Average US per-gallon gasoline price forecast for 2013
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.
Since January 1, airlines attempted two across-the-board fare hikes--both failed. But don't think that this means prices will not rise. Over the last several years, airlines have reduced the number of seats flying. At the same time, improvements in the economic outlook and consumer confidence are translating into more demand for air travel--- and when you have high demand and limited supply, prices rise. Therefore, spring travelers should budget for higher airfares (up 5-10% compared to last year), and more fees.
TIP: To get the lowest fares, try to plan trips during non-peak times, such as April or May known as the "shoulder season." Also, 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 about 5% compared to this time last year. 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.
Over the last two years, hotel rates have jumped the most in large coastal cities in the US such as Boston, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Seattle. Rates in smaller, interior US cities remain about the same as this time last year.
Nonetheless, with the compact nature of this spring's peak month of March, expect higher rates than normal, especially in popular warm-weather regions.
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 11 and April 14.
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 in March 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 for a last minute deal makes much more sense if you plan to travel during periods of lighter demand, such as April or May, when travel providers are more likely to unload their excess inventory at big discount.
Chris McGinnis is Best Western's travel trends expert and business travel blogger on youmustbetrippin.com