Leisure travel picking up as TSA sees new highs since beginning of pandemic

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- TSA screened more than 1.5 million passengers on Sunday, its highest total in more than a year.

"About three weeks ago, we got hit with a wave. And the phones have been ringing off the hook, emails have been coming in left and right. And it honestly feels like old times," said Crystal Burriss, the owner of DWB Vacations, a travel agency in Raleigh.

While Burriss said they're not yet at pre-pandemic levels, momentum is certainly building.

"Obviously domestic (travel) is huge; Grand Canyon, the national parks, that area. Hawaii has been a little bit not as popular because they have such stringent requirements to come in, understandably. Of course the theme parks in Florida - off the charts. It seems like that's what everyone wants to do with their kids this Spring Break. And then just recently we've had a big upturn in the Caribbean and Mexico resorts. I've got a lot of people calling for graduation trips this June, people are starting to look for honeymoons and anniversaries for the summer and fall," said Burriss.

While domestic travel is increasing, Burriss says trips to Europe aren't picking up yet.

"The restrictions are still really high, they're very guarded. All of our clients we're recommending that they just wait," said Burriss.

Sunday was the 11th straight day TSA screened more than a million passengers nationally, as vaccination rates increase and new cases have dropped since holiday peaks. While several states have loosened restrictions, Burriss warned passengers that their trips may look different.

"There are limitations everywhere. If someone is looking for that once in a lifetime experience at the Grand Canyon or Disney or whatever, we're cautioning them that this might not be the year for that," said Burriss.

She believes the pandemic highlighted the importance of working with travel agents, adding her team spent the bulk of the beginning of the pandemic working through cancellations and rescheduling.

"I think our value really came through in all this, because clients didn't have to sit on the phone for five hours trying to get their money back," said Burriss.

With travel requirements and limitations quickly shifting, Zach Honig, Editor-At-Large at The Points Guy, suggested people read the fine print before moving forward with trips.

"If you have points and miles, so frequent flier miles, hotel points, they provide ultimate flexibility. So if you need to cancel a flight, you need to cancel a hotel stay, you can usually do so for a hotel within 48 hours of arrival. You get those points right back into your account, right away. The same goes for airlines, which are being very flexible with their reward redemptions right now," said Honig.

Stephanie Hawco, a spokesperson for RDU, told ABC11 that they project 470,000 passengers in March, more than a 50% increase over the nearly 300,000 passengers who traveled in February. The week ending March 14th was the second highest week of travel since the beginning of the pandemic, trailing only the week between Christmas and New Year's.

"The summer travel months are traditionally the busiest time of year at RDU and we expect the uptick to continue due to pent-up demand for travel and the rollout of the COVID vaccine. Hope this helps," explained Hawco.

While it's common to book trips far out in advance, the nature of the pandemic may change planning practices.

"A lot of people want to plan months and months in advance, and it's really challenging to do right now. So instead, what makes a little more sense is planning a few weeks out. I don't expect these that are opening up to vaccinated travelers to change that policy, so once a country does open up to vaccinated travelers, assuming all goes well, that should be the case going forward. I think over the next few months, we'll see people more confident booking travel in advance," said Honig.

While leisure travel has picked up, business travel has not.

"All the people that I know that used to travel frequently for work, they're still grounded. They're not even back in the office yet. And they're certainly not traveling to trade shows and meetings," said Honig.
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