Nebraskans are packing their bags and stocking coolers in preparation for Memorial Day weekend — the first sign of a long season of summer travel.
This summer is projected to be one of the busiest for road trips, flights and cruises since pre-pandemic years, as families around the U.S. are itching to emerge from the restrictions of COVID-19.
Omaha’s Eppley Airfield is expecting around 80,000 travelers to pass through from Thursday through Tuesday, said Steve McCoy, chief information and development officer for the Omaha Airport Authority.
While the travel season might be booming across the U.S., McCoy said Eppley is still recovering from the pandemic. The Omaha airport is experiencing a 15% decrease this year in customer numbers compared with this time in 2019.
“Most of the travelers here are (for) leisure, but business travel is lagging behind,” McCoy said. “It’s a busy time around here at Eppley Airfield and it will feel close to normal, but we will be down a little ways.”
People are also reading…
Expectations for Memorial Day travel volumes nationally are almost in line with 2017, according to AAA. The association predicts 39.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this holiday weekend.
“Memorial Day is always a good predictor of what’s to come for summer travel,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, in a press release. “Based on our projections, summer travel isn’t just heating up, it will be on fire. People are overdue for a vacation, and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months.”
Enchanted Honeymoons, an Omaha-based travel agency, is experiencing its busiest season yet in the 29 years it has been in business, said co-owner Kem Matthews.
Matthews said business started ramping up last August when people began booking vacations earlier than normal. Since the beginning of 2022, the agency has also been struggling to find properties to accommodate its guests as some of its popular venues already were booked by the time Omahans started planning their trips.
“We came to a standstill when COVID hit, and it’s not like I thought people would never travel again, but I didn’t realize the magnitude of the recovery,” Matthews said. “People took off the shackles of the pandemic and are headed out.”
Matthews said the most popular destinations booked so far are locations that don’t require COVID testing to enter the country — places like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and St. Lucia. (A negative COVID-19 test is still required to reenter the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
As more people are crafting their “out of office” messages, prices are also rising. Matthews said the average cost of a trip in past years was around $4,000 but now is between $6,500 and $7,000.
Omaha’s Dream Vacations — an agency that is experiencing its busiest year in the last decade — had to stop offering domestic trips because of the pricing, said co-owner Jeff Leach.
Leach said one of the most popular destinations was Florida, but because it has been in such high demand, the pricing skyrocketed. So the company chose to focus on international trips only.
“We don’t set any of the pricing, but people were thinking we were too expensive,” he said. “Demand is still high, so pricing is going to be high — not to mention fuel costs. Pricing will literally go up every day.”
Inflation has been on the rise in the U.S. for months. The Consumer Price Index rose 8.3% for the 12 months ending in April, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that largest contributors were increases in shelter, food, airline fares and new vehicles. Energy prices, which had slowed in April, have since started to rise. AAA reported the national average price of gas Thursday stood at $4.60 — up over the national average price of nearly $3.04 a year earlier. Nebraska was below the national average Thursday at $4.18, according to AAA.
The Nebraska Tourism Commission has been tracking rising gas prices, along with research on traveler sentiment throughout the pandemic, Executive Director John Ricks said.
A recent survey had 32% of American travelers indicating gas prices would greatly impact their decision to travel and only 6% indicating they’re canceling trips due to increases, according to research from Longwoods International.
A record low of about 18% said COVID will greatly impact their decision to travel in the next half-year, according to Longwoods, an international market research consulting firm. And there remains pent-up demand for travel: 89% of the 1,000 adults surveyed said they have plans to travel in the next six months.
Staying close to home, cutting back on trips and reallocating how they spend their money while traveling are the top ways people are changing plans due to inflation, according to the findings.
“Road trips and less travel and affordable and — all of a sudden, we just end up back talking about Nebraska again, because that’s what we offer,” Ricks said.
Along with the standbys like the College World Series, NEBRASKAland Days, Chimney Rock and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, he pointed to some new and unique attractions this year.
Ricks thinks people across the state, and particularly in the Omaha area, are excited about the ongoing riverfront revitalization, which Ricks said contains “unbelievable” potential in a beautiful setting and will be a great gathering place. The redesigned Gene Leahy Mall is slated to reopen July 1 with a four-day celebration of events, including free performances by Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth and country artist Brett Eldredge.
There’s also the second annual Omaha Freedom Festival to celebrate Juneteenth on June 18.
For history buffs, there will be events surrounding the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail.
“We’re excited,” Ricks said. “I think we’re gonna have a great summer and people should get out. People should, hopefully, over time, sooner rather than later, put the COVID thing in their rearview mirror and live again.”