Fourth of July could see travel bump despite restrictions, uncertainty

Passengers with face masks and shields wait in the Security Checkpoint Line at the South Terminal of the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Passengers with face masks and shields wait in the Security Checkpoint Line at the South Terminal of the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After months of staying home, many Americans are itching to get away during the Fourth of July holiday, likely bringing a bump up in travel, particularly short trips by car.

But many vacationers also appear to be making last-minute decisions as they navigate travel restrictions, canceled fireworks and uncertainty amid rising coronavirus cases across much of the country.

Hartsfield-Jackson International is forecasting 26,000 to 30,000 travelers passing through Atlanta airport security checkpoints on July 2, up from 15,000 to 16,000 in recent weeks. That would still be less than half the volume before the pandemic.

Still, hotel occupancy and room rates have been relatively high on recent weekends in beach spots like Myrtle Beach, Daytona Beach and the Florida Panhandle, as well as the Smoky Mountains, according to Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights at hospitality benchmarking firm STR.

“A lot of people had wanted to already take summer vacations in May and June, and because they probably didn’t, [Fourth of July] is a good opportunity for them to sort of add a couple of days to go where they were planning to,” Freitag said. While unemployment rates are high, people are still taking road trips and “low gas prices certainly don’t hurt.”

According to Expedia.com, some of the most-searched destinations near Atlanta are Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge, Pensacola, Hilton Head and Savannah.

Cabins were among the top five searched listing types on Airbnb for the Fourth of July weekend this year, along with houses, cottages, bungalows and villas.

Not everyone is venturing out to cure cabin fever. Only 18% of Americans have taken an overnight trip since March, according to a survey commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. A majority said they have no plans to travel for the rest of 2020.

Overall, AAA is predicting that summer travel will be down for the first time since 2009, when cash-strapped Americans were trying to climb out of the Great Recession.

Those who do head out on road trips should be aware of the potential for some hotels, restaurants and restrooms to be closed due to the pandemic. AAA is advising travelers to pack masks, gloves, sanitizer, health insurance cards and a thermometer.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are requiring travelers from states with outbreaks to self-quarantine for 14 days. Other states have varying policies and recommendations.

Chatter on Twitter in recent weeks indicated interest from some out-of-towners in celebrating Independence Day in Atlanta, but event cancellations, closed attractions and swings in COVID-19 cases could affect enthusiasm for such trips.

Centennial Olympic Park and Stone Mountain both announced Thursday they are canceling Fourth of July fireworks shows. While the Georgia Aquarium has reopened and the College Football Hall of Fame plans to reopen July 1, the World of Coca-Cola remains closed until July 15.

Debra Santos, a local Airbnb host, said business is picking up nonetheless. People booking stays in Atlanta apparently “still want to go, even if there’s nothing to do.”

She said people for a long time have been “skittish to book too far in advance, like you don’t know what life’s going to bring anymore.” Now, “the phone has lit up again,” and Santos said all of her properties are booked for the Fourth of July.

Some bookings are by locals who “just want to get out of their own house,” she added.

The new hot amenities? Toilet paper, hand sanitizer and advanced cleaning protocols, according to Santos.

The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, is launching a campaign with Expedia on July 1 with the message, “Welcome back to Atlanta,” promoting hotel stays and weekend getaways.

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AAA said its U.S. booking trends show people are making travel plans, “though cautiously and more spur of the moment.” Atlanta is the 7th most popular hotel destination since mid-March based on AAA Travel bookings. Las Vegas is in the No. 1 spot, followed by Orlando.

The auto club estimates air travel will be down by about 74% this summer, while rail, cruise ship and bus travel will be down by 86%. The vast majority of trips — 97% — are by car, with car trips forecast to be down just 3% from last summer.

Some airlines are promoting last-minute flights for the holiday. Frontier Airlines sent out an email Thursday saying, “It’s not too late for a July 4th getaway!”

But the coronavirus continues to cast a long shadow.

Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and other major carriers are requiring passengers to wear masks and the airlines’ lobbying group is pushing for the Transportation Security Administration to begin checking temperatures at airports. The industry group, Airlines for America, said its members will refund tickets for any passengers with an elevated temperature.

The American Society of Travel Agents sent out a template for a COVID-19 travel waiver for customers to sign in an effort to protect travel agents from liability if their customers’ travel is disrupted and they lose money as a result.

In a nod to the struggling travel industry, U.S. Senator Martha McSally, R-Ariz., introduced legislation proposing tax credits for those who spend money on travel within the United States.

Another reason more Americans may spend the summer closer to home: The European Union, concerned about rising U.S. infection rates, appeared poised Friday to recommend keeping out travelers from the United States as it reopens its borders.

John Selden, general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson, said an EU ban may have only a limited impact because international travel is still down significantly and expected to take longer to recover than domestic travel anyway. While Delta and Southwest are adding flights back, a number of foreign carriers have not yet resumed flights to Atlanta, including Air Canada, British Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.

Traffic overall at Atlanta’s airport has been down about 80% because of the coronavirus. Still, Selden said those traveling over the holiday weekend should get to the terminal at least two hours before their flight, since social distancing practices are causing security checks to be “a little bit slower than normal.”

AAA travel advice

Check the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracking, city and state health departments and local news for updates on coronavirus cases before and during your trip

Check for state and local travel restrictions

Keep in mind that some national parks and attractions have capacity limits

Book hotels and plan out gas and food stops

Call ahead to ensure your hotel is still open and ask about any restrictions

Pack masks, gloves, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, health insurance cards and a thermometer

Source: AAA