Holiday travel cost is at a 5-year high in the US

Handling the crowds will be a task.

Handling the crowds will be a task.
Photo: Scott Olsen (Getty Images)

Thanksgiving travel is almost back to normal.

More than 54.6 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home this week, up 1.5{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} from last year, according to automotive and travel club AAA. The number of travelers is at 98{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} of pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

This, despite holiday travel set to be the most expensive in five years.

After a summer of chaos full of flight delays and cancellations, misplaced baggage, and booked out accommodations, travelers are worried about similar issues as volumes spike. Airlines claim they are better prepared this time around. However, many of the factors that created hiccups in summer travel—smaller number of planes, limited staff, and a training backlog—still persist.

Holiday travel, by the digits

Owing to sky-high inflation, travelers will see budgets balloon…

12{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Increase in hotel room rates since 2019

46{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Jump in rental car rates since 2019

32{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Spike in inflation-adjusted air fare in 2022 compared to a year ago

$76 billion: How much Americans have spent on domestic flights this year through Oct. 18, $11 billion more than the previous year

31{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Americans who intend to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January, according to Deloitte Holiday Travel Study, down significantly from 42{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} last year

…so they cut corners where they can.

59{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Travelers who’ll likely stay with friends and loved ones

10{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: How much travelers can save on domestic flights on average by booking at least a month in advance, and on international flights by booking around six months in advance, according to a travel hacks report by Expedia.

3 pm: Depart before then to minimize chances of cancellations.

Airlines still face high costs and staff shortages, but not for lack of trying.

59: Small and regional airports that have slashed service in half largely owing to pilot shortages and high fuel costs.

85{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Delta’s network capacity compared to 2019.

90{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Flights United is operating per day compared to 2019, but it’s expecting 100{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} of the travelers.

$42 billion: Airlines’ spend on jet fuel in 2022, up 125{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} from a year ago.

777,000: Passenger and cargo airline employees working this holiday season, surpassing pre-pandemic employment

13{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Fewer flights this holiday season compared to 2019, but since airlines will use larger planes, seat capacity will only fall 2{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}

Charted: US Airlines that lost and added seats

One big number: A strong dollar fuels international travel

20{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a}: Jump in Americans’ demand to travel to London this holiday season. “While inflation has caused the prices of almost everything to soar, travelers have seen the value of the dollar also surge, gain parity with the Euro and the pound, and boost their holiday budgets,” Allianz director of external communications Daniel Durazo said.

What are the government, carriers, and companies doing to make holiday travel smooth?

👩‍✈️ Lobby group Airlines for America, which represents 10 carriers including the major ones like Southwest, Delta, and American, says its members have launched “aggressive hiring campaigns”—establishing new pilot training academies, supporting programs to address financial hurdles, and ramping up recruiting initiatives;

👐 Airbnb introduced more price transparency, prioritizing total price including all fees versus the basic nightly rate, so people can make more informed decisions quicker.

💰 The Federal Government is making airlines dole out over $625 million in refunds and pay more than $7.25 million in penalties.

👁️ The Biden administration has floated a proposal requiring hidden fees—for bags, for travelers to sit with family members, and more—to be disclosed up front and refunds to be made for services that are not provided as promised (i.e. wifi not working).

📺 There’s an Airline Customer Service Dashboard to help passengers understand their rights. It covers ten large US airlines and their regional operating partners, which operate flights for them but do not sell tickets, accounting for approximately 96{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} of the domestic scheduled passenger air traffic.

Warning: Airlines strikes could make things even worse

Already, American Airlines’ staff has picketed at more than 11 major airports after going years without a new deal. United pilots plan to agitate, too. On Oct. 31, over 15,000 Delta pilots overwhelmingly voted to strike to reevaluate and refresh pay rates, contractual provisions, and benefits negotiated in 2016.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian dismissed the possibility of a strike “at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time,” calling it just a “tactic” for negotiations.

But the union hit back. “Let me be perfectly clear. These implications are false,” Capt. Jason Ambrosi, chair of the Delta Master Executive Council, said in a YouTube video on Nov. 8, where he doubled down on the union’s intention to strike. “We expect to see serious proposals from Delta management. If we do not, we intend to fully exercise our right under the law. We are tired and frustrated by the current pace of negotiations and the company’s refusal to bring meaningful proposals to the table.”

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