Summer travel crowds swell, but tripping isn’t like it used to be

High prices, low staffing await tourists eager to hit roads, skies
Passengers make their way through Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Steve Schaefer /

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Passengers make their way through Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Steve Schaefer /

Summertime is when travelers flock to Georgia’s beaches and demand soars at Halyards restaurant on St. Simons Island.

But owner Dave Snyder can’t find enough staff for the vacation crush after losing workers to construction and warehouse jobs. Despite hiking pay by 25% in the last year, he still has a dozen positions to fill across Halyards and sister restaurants Tramici and La Plancha.

He’s shuttering the restaurants one or two days a week while shifting 100% of his advertising budget to “help wanted” ads spanning billboards, radio and the internet. And he’s offering a $1,000 gift card to customers who refer a sous chef that lasts 100 days at a restaurant.

“It just seems we can’t find anybody,” Snyder said.

Georgians have the travel bug bad. A record number — nearly 1.4 million — are expected to take road trips during the Fourth of July weekend, up nearly 8% from 2019. Another 100,000 Peach State residents are expected to fly, still down from three years ago, but up from 2021, according to AAA.

Vacationers also are quickly discovering that traveling isn’t like before the coronavirus. Gas prices have surged and car rentals are expensive. Airfares have skyrocketed and flight disruptions are common. And everywhere there are labor shortages, including at hotels and restaurants.

“When (travelers) think about the experience that they’re having relative to their recollections of that experience pre-COVID, it is not universally meeting those expectations,” said Jon Last, president of Sports and Leisure Research Group, who researches the travel industry.

Many road vacationers are taking shorter trips, including to Georgia’s Golden Isles and the North Georgia mountains, to take some of the sting out of record-high gas prices that top $5 a gallon in parts of the country.

But wherever travelers go, they face higher costs and more headaches.

Brookhaven resident Jeff Joslin visited Fairbanks, Alaska earlier this month. He said the shuttle van to the hotel was late, there was no coffee available in the morning as promised, and front desk staff were not very helpful.

”I think possibly they’re hiring people who aren’t used to being in the travel industry” and service culture, he said.

Hotel rates averaged $155 a day nationally in mid-June, according to hospitality data firm STR, up 15% from June 2019 levels. Hotel occupancy averaged nearly 72%, slightly below 2019, but hotels have less staffing.

More than half of U.S. restaurant operators expect it will be a year or more before food, labor and other costs return to normal, and half expect their top challenge will be recruiting and retaining employees, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The shortcomings could puncture the travel rebound. Fears of a recession also could make prospective vacationers think twice in the coming months.

Already in May, nearly a third of Americans said they canceled trip plans because of high prices, according to a survey by Destination Analysts, a travel research company.

But for many people cooped up during the pandemic for long stretches since early 2020, the lure of travel is winning out. Nearly two thirds of respondents in the same survey said spending on leisure travel was a high priority.

Many also are less fearful of COVID-19 as restrictions ease. Cases in Georgia began to rise again in late April, continuing into June, but remain lower than peaks in January and last August. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends wearing masks on planes and in airports, on trains and buses, and in crowded indoor areas while traveling.

More customers, fewer workers

High gas prices are increasing the cost of fuel for road trips by 52% from a year ago, according to AAA.

On Georgia’s coast, though, visitors to Savannah and Tybee Island are tracking record levels, said Joseph Marinelli, president of the visitors bureau for those two popular destinations.

With St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island also popular among metro Atlantans, the area’s beach hotels “are reaching capacity but not quite full” for the Fourth of July weekend, according to Scott McQuade, president of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But some area resorts are capping occupancy at 85% because of worker shortages, he said. Some restaurants are closing on Sundays and Mondays to give staff a break, despite the big summer crowds, he added.

Karen Bremer, head of the Georgia Restaurant Association, recently experienced it firsthand.

“I made reservations to have dinner with a couple of association executives over in St. Simons, and the restaurant called me at like 2 o’clock in the afternoon and said, ‘We’re terribly sorry, but we don’t have enough staff to open this evening,’” she said.

McQuade said the Golden Isles are “not back nearly where we were” when it comes to hospitality workers, after many lost or left their jobs in 2020 as tourism evaporated and businesses shut down.

Since then, housing costs have soared. Low-wage restaurant and hotel workers are being displaced by retirees or professionals who can now work remotely, he said.

In North Georgia’s mountains, remote work and schooling drove a surge in cabin bookings the last couple of years as people looked to escape their homes while avoiding crowded spaces.

Blue Ridge Lodging Association President Paul Gribble said travelers are now waiting longer to book trips, likely because kids are back in summer sports programs as coronavirus concerns ease.

Bookings nonetheless are still pacing well ahead of 2019, said Gribble, who also manages 55 properties as owner of Georgia Mountain Cabin Rentals.

He hopes decades-high inflation could attract more tourists to his neck of the woods.

“There’s a lot of things to do in Blue Ridge that don’t cost anything,” including hiking, waterfalls and fishing, he said. Not to mention air that’s “crisper and cooler” than Atlanta amid a recent heatwave.

Nationally, rates for short-term rentals are nearly a third higher than 2019, according to AirDNA industry data.

The south lot hourly parking deck at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport was full Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Steve Schaefer /

Credit: Steve Schaefer

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Not-so-friendly skies

Air travel still hasn’t fully bounced back, with Fourth of July air travel by Georgians expected to be nearly 8% below pre-pandemic levels.

Some are deterred by air fares, which are up 47% from January, according to Adobe Analytics. Others may be trying to avoid crowds in airports and on planes as COVID-19 continues to spread.

But those who buy tickets sometimes face much bigger headaches than waiting longer for a restaurant meal or not getting their hotel room cleaned.

Airlines have slashed flight schedules because they don’t have enough pilots and other staff to work them. That has left travelers frustrated when their flights are canceled, often leaving them stranded for hours at airports and in some cases scuttling entire vacations.

Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, has for years been known as an airline that ran like clockwork. It has boasted some of the best on-time performance ratings in the industry and a reputation for reliability and excellent service.

Now Delta is also at times known for having the most cancellations of any U.S. airline on some of the worst days for flight disruptions. Just before the Memorial Day weekend, Delta warned travelers that it would cancel flights due to weather and staffing issues, and cut 100 flights a day from its schedule for July and early August.

Delta pilots this month picketed outside the company’s annual meeting in New York and at Grand Central Station, raising concerns about poor flight schedule reliability and staffing.

Other airlines also have had major flight disruptions, including Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, and American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, whose pilots also picketed recently over scheduling issues and mass flight cancellations.

The problems have become so severe that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called for a meeting with airline chief executives in mid-June. The morning after the meeting, Buttigieg’s flight was one of the more than 1,300 canceled that day.

A massive parking deck construction project at Hartsfield-Jackson, meanwhile, has significantly reduced the number of spaces available next to the domestic terminal. Decks and lots within walking distance of the terminal often reach capacity.

Inside the airport terminal, some understaffed concessionaires are struggling to reopen and operating on limited hours — leaving few options for people on late-night flights and resulting in long lines at the restaurants that are open. Baggage delays also have frustrated some passengers.

And while rental car prices peaked in July 2021, when they rose above $160 a day amid a shortage of vehicles, they still remain much higher than before the pandemic. The average lowest rate now nationally is $110 a day, according to AAA. Some travelers have found relatively low prices for SUVs — but with gas prices so high, they are trying to book compact cars instead.

Trips abroad became easier for Americans earlier this month after the federal government said it would no longer require travelers to get a COVID-19 test before boarding a plane back to the U.S.

But visitors to popular overseas destinations like Europe also are experiencing the downside of staff shortages at hotels and restaurants. Long lines and angry customers have filled airports in the Netherlands, U.K. and elsewhere as flights get canceled.

“You’ve got to be patient about the whole thing. Just take a deep breath,” said Claire Schoeder, a frequent traveler and Atlanta-based travel advisor.

And budget extra money. Fuel in some European countries is roughly double what it costs in Georgia.