MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Normally, this is the time of year that many of us pack our suitcases for a spring break trip. But things this year are still far from normal. Now, there are crowds on beaches in Fort Lauderdale and a few other places, but overall, travel numbers are still down. As NPR's David Schaper reports, many are getting the summer travel bug.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For many college students, spring break used to mean earning a couple of extra B's, as in beaches and beer. But this year, many colleges and universities are canceling the annual week off. And one that isn't, the University of California, Davis, is paying students $75 to stay home or on campus. Many family trips to resorts and theme parks are also being put on hold as a new survey on behalf of the reeling travel industry shows.
ROGER DOW: Disappointingly, only 12% of respondents said they're planning travel for spring break.
SCHAPER: Roger Dow heads the U.S. Travel Association, which commissioned the poll.
DOW: What is a little more concerning to me is just last week, that was 16%. So it's down from last week, when we were thinking everything was starting to go in the right direction.
SCHAPER: Dow says recent bad news about new coronavirus variants appears to be cooling a mini industry warmup as more people have been traveling. The TSA says the number of people passing through airport security checkpoints tops 1 million more often than not these days, but that's still less than half of pre-pandemic levels. Hotel occupancy rates are also creeping back up, but the travel industry continues to take a beating. Dow says nearly 40% of all U.S. jobs lost due to the pandemic are in leisure and hospitality.
DOW: The U.S. economy just can't recover unless the travel industry is healthy and recovering.
SCHAPER: And travel won't fully recover until the pandemic is under control. But many Americans appear to feel that day is coming, and their online travel searches show they're itching to hit the road.
HAYLEY BERG: What we're beginning to see in the beginning of 2021 is a recovery from the deepest part of that depression in demand.
SCHAPER: Hayley Berg is an economist with the airfare and hotel price-tracking app, Hopper. And she says searches for flights are up substantially across the board.
BERG: Demand for domestic travel since January is up 58%. International travel is up about 20%. And those numbers are growing faster and faster each week.
SCHAPER: Berg says travel search activity surges in sync with news cycles. For example, when President Biden last week promised enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May, travel searches skyrocketed.
BERG: We're fully anticipating a big surge in demand late spring and through summer.
AUDREY HENDLEY: There is clear pent-up demand for travel.
SCHAPER: Audrey Hendley heads American Express Travel, which released a report this week on global consumer travel sentiment. And she says many people are not just searching.
HENDLEY: They're ready to book even if they know they have to cancel their trip in the future. And we're calling that shift the book now, figure it out later mentality.
SCHAPER: That's the result of airlines and hotels offering more flexible change and cancellation policies, as it's still unclear when some countries may reopen their borders and lift travel restrictions. And even though more people are getting vaccinated every day, the CDC still urges Americans not to take any nonessential trips. But even with so much uncertainty about the future of travel, Hendley says many people find being bitten by the travel bug and planning a vacation is good for the pandemic-weary soul.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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