||Holiday Travel is Surging This Year
Holiday travelers have been booking early and often this year.
The number of airline tickets sold for Christmas and New Year's is already up more than 50% from a year ago, and prices for airfare and hotel rooms at peak holiday periods, including Thanksgiving, are up sharply. Travel agencies say demand has been strong even as airlines have avoided adding capacity.
"This is not a great year for procrastination," said Simon Bramley, vice president at online travel agency Travelocity. Tickets purchased on Travelocity for domestic Thanksgiving travel were up 9% this year. "If you haven't booked yet, book now. It's not going to get any better," he said.
Christmas and New Year's Day both fall on Tuesdays this winter, stretching the holiday period to at least 11 days, making it easier for families to travel farther and stay longer. Last year, with the holidays on Sunday, there were nine prime holiday travel days.
"There's a natural increase in people taking air travel because they have more time," said Chuck Thackston, managing director of data and analytics at Airlines Reporting Corp., the Arlington, Va., company that settles transactions between airlines and travel agencies.
New York is the top destination for U.S. travelers for Thanksgiving. People pour into the city to shop, see family and watch the Macy's parade.
So far, travel sellers say they haven't seen a large number of cancellations after superstorm Sandy. Broadway shows are back on stage, hotels are operating, the Thanksgiving parade is still on and travelers are coming.
The fancy Mandarin Oriental hotel is sold out Nov. 22 to 25 and the only thing left for Christmas week is a room with a king bed for $1,871 a night. If you want to trade down to the Hampton Inn by Madison Square Garden, forget it. It is also sold out for Wednesday to Sunday around Thanksgiving. Christmas week at the Hampton Inn: $418 per night.
A spokesman for Hilton Worldwide, which owns Hampton Inn and other hotel brands, said the company was seeing "very strong bookings" for the coming holiday season, with demand "up significantly compared to previous years."
Airlines have kept the number of seats they fly about flat compared with a year ago. Yet demand has increased with a slowly improving economy and pent-up hunger among many consumers after several years of deferring trips.
"We continue to see travel come back after a few years of people pulling back," said Joe Megibow, vice president and general manager at Expedia.com.
On the whole, the average price on tickets bought at U.S. travel agencies, including online booking agencies, for Thanksgiving travel was up about 5% to $634, according to ARC. That includes international trips over Thanksgiving bought Jan. 1 through Oct. 21.
For Christmas, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving is historically the busiest day for booking, according to Expedia. Black Friday and Cyber Monday see heavy ticket buying as well. Families solidify plans and attention turns to Christmas and New Year's. Orlando, Fla., is the No. 2 Christmas destination after New York. The Disney Grand Floridian resort costs $730 a night for Christmas week, and is sold out the weekend before New Year's.
But this year, a sleigh full of travel reservations have already been made. Christmas ticket sales through Oct. 21 were up 51% compared with the same period last year, ARC said. Some cities have shot way up. Tickets sold early for Christmas trips to Los Angeles, for example, have already surged by 55%.
As planes fill up, prices rise. The average ticket price sold so far for Christmas travel was up about 4% to $797, ARC said.
This year, Cancun, Mexico, has been a particularly hot destination for Christmas and New Year's travelers. Average hotel rates are up 12% to $408, Orbitz says. (Cancun prices usually include food and drink). Through Oct. 21, Cancun was the fourth most-booked destination at U.S. travel agencies, including online travel sellers, according to ARC. Last year in the same period it was No. 5. Total passengers booked for Christmas travel there was up nearly 40%.
"Cancun's hotels have seen an increase in early reservations this year, and especially for the month of December. We've also noticed an increase in hotel room rates," said Jesús Almaguer, chief executive of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau.
One reason: The Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21 or 12/21/12. Cancun, home to Mayan ruins, has many parties planned to celebrate what some had predicted as the end of the world -- or the start of a new era.
For procrastinators still thinking about booking a Thanksgiving trip, experts say you're more likely to find last-minute bargains to fill empty seats on short trips rather than long flights. Mr. Megibow at Expedia said there may be deals to be had on short flights into big airline hubs such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas. "There's still some opportunity to beat the market," he said.
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, 11/09/12)
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