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Get ready for travel prices to surge, experts say

Beachgoers take to the water in the Pacific Ocean in Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica, on Dec. 26, 2007.

PETER J. BRENNAN /BLOOMBERG

By HANNAH SAMPSON AND NATALIE B. COMPTON | The Washington Post | Published: April 3, 2021

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Long-grounded travelers are revving their engines.

With Friday's guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people can travel again at low risk to themselves, millions of Americans got the green light to start planning their next trips.

And while CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a news briefing Friday that the agency is still not recommending travel due to the rising number of coronavirus cases, travel numbers are already up steeply in recent weeks - an upward trend expected to accelerate before the announcement even came.

The Transportation Security Administration has screened more than 1 million passengers every day for the past few weeks and is hiring thousands of new agents to get ready for the impending boom. Travel booking app Hopper has seen a 58% increase in searches for domestic summer travel. Airlines are adding scores of new routes to leisure destinations to meet shifting travel demand.

So what impact will the CDC's updated guidance have on the industry? According to travel experts, we're likely to see a bump in prices as customers start booking trips again.

As demand spikes, supply will struggle to keep up, causing travel to become more expensive. Many hotels, bars, tours and attractions are still operating at reduced capacity; rental car agencies downsized their fleet to cut costs; and more people are clamoring for all of the above.

We spoke to six travel insiders on what happens next and why.

Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, says the pent-up demand for travel is unlike anything the industry has ever seen. The news from the CDC could impact flight prices as more people start pursuing travel plans.

"I think there's going to be a short-term bump in airfare for the summer," Keyes says. "Everybody is looking to travel, looking to make up for lost time, and especially looking to do so this summer while the weather's nice and going finally safe and [everyone's] comfortable to do so."

Keyes doesn't expect the bump in fare price to last more than the summer.

"There's a lot of reasons why I think airfare's going to continue to stay very, very affordable," he says. "The golden age of cheap travel, like that we've been living in since 2015, is going to continue coming out of the pandemic."

Lin Chen, director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said enough is unknown about the coronavirus - especially as new variants emerge - that travelers still need to be cautious.

"I think people shouldn't let down all of their guard," she said.

She added: "I think for the general public, even if they're fully vaccinated and traveling, they should continue to take all the other precautions like wearing masks and avoiding crowds and washing hands well and physical distancing from unknown people."

Chen, who is president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, said vaccinated travelers should still look for destinations that have good health-care structures in place and are vaccinating their own populations at a steady pace.

The CDC said that fully vaccinated people don't need a coronavirus test before or after traveling domestically and don't need to self-quarantine after trips within the United States. Before international travel, the agency said, tests are only needed if a destination requires them. However, even fully vaccinated people must test negative no more than three days before coming back to the United States and should get tested within three to five days after arriving home.

"I think domestic travel is probably the safest still, or the easiest and least cumbersome," Chen said.

Misty Belles, managing director for global public relations for travel agency Virtuoso, says travel demand has been rising exponentially since Americans were promised they'd be getting vaccinations soon. The CDC announcement has added fuel to that fire and will give people confidence to book travel. She predicts prices will change according to the new demand.

"You still have some limited availability issues because hotels are operating - in some areas - on reduced capacity. So they're going to fill up that much faster," she says.

In places where she's seen an uptick in travel already, such as Florida, Belles says rates are already higher than they would normally be.

"That's going to continue to climb," she says. "And it's going to be the same for airfares as well."

Mark Crossey, a U.S. travel expert at booking site Skyscanner, says many vacationers have been waiting for this announcement to finally book a meaningful trip, although doing so will come with some extra effort.

"The potential easing of restrictions by the summer and a successful start to the vaccine rollout, combined with this new announcement has boosted positivity," Crossey said in an email. "But these are just some pieces of the puzzle with clear guidance relating to travel restrictions, quarantine measures, digital health passes and testing needed to enable travelers to know what is safe to book and within the guidelines."

Crossey says travel for Americans in 2020 was dominated by mostly domestic trips, plus visits to Mexico and the Caribbean. Now that the vaccine progress could help open borders, he expects there to be a higher percentage of international trips.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group says that while more people will be traveling - and paying high prices for hotels, airfare and rental cars - the summer travel season still won't be normal.

There may be available flights and hotel rooms, and vaccinated people might have reassurance that they're safe, but some rules such as capacity limits at theme parks, sporting events, museums or other attractions are likely to stay in place.

"Before you book your flights and hotels, make sure that you can do the things you want - and if it includes going to a baseball game or theme park, do your research first about availability and ticket prices and everything else before you start purchasing," he said. "You don't want to be stuck spending a lot of money only to find that something isn't available or is going to be far more expensive than you thought."

He said that because some popular travel options such as cruises and visiting Europe are still restricted, more travelers are likely to flood the places that are open to Americans - which means people could find themselves among crowds once again.

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said travel sentiment still suggests people want to spend time outdoors at beaches, national parks and mountain sites. But with the new guidance from the CDC, she said she expects other types of destinations to gain popularity.

"I think those that have been more cautious about traveling by plane or staying in a hotel or going to a city will start to feel more comfortable once they've been vaccinated," she said.

She said some big questions still remain for the CDC to tackle, including reopening international travel and allowing larger gatherings so business meetings and events can resume.

"From an industry perspective, those are two very important segments of our business," she said.