For Jude Boudreaux, the high cost of gas wasn’t enough to curtail his family’s summer road trip – a seven-week venture that will take them from New Orleans to Nova Scotia to Chicago and back. Instead, they’ll trim their budget other ways: by avoiding restaurants and driving down slower, more scenic highways, to name a few.
“We just do our best to be smart about where we save on food and lodging,” Boudreaux said. “Sixty versus 75 mph doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it makes an incredible difference regarding fuel efficiency.“
Boudreaux the type of budget-conscious consumer driving the travel sector’s 2022 rebound, which has seen a return to pre-pandemic numbers even in the face of inflation, higher gas prices and the ongoing threat of COVID-19 surges and hurricanes.
Although these factors made travel more expensive and more unpredictable, pent-up demand and the advent of remote work conspired in equal measure to make travel more desirable and practical, with the end result being that many New Orleans area residents are hitting the road.
Savvy travelers abound
“Memorial Day is a harbinger of what to expect for summer. We’re expecting robust summer travel, despite these high prices, ”said Don Redman, a spokesman for AAA Louisiana, which tracks the travel habits of the state’s 314,000 members.
According to a AAA report, 39.2 million people will travel 50 or more miles on Memorial Day weekend, an 8.3% increase from last year that almost matches pre-pandemic numbers. And there are other positive signs.
Air travel is up 25% from last year, the report states. First-quarter domestic bookings on Airbnb also exceeded those of the same period in 2019, communications manager Haven Thorn said.
“People are still making plans. They’re just making sure they can stretch their dollar more by finding a place that meets their budget, ”said Mark Romig, chief marketing officer for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. “They’re studying their destinations more carefully and weighing the cost of travel, but the desire to get out and reconnect is strong.”
A shore thing
Five of Airbnb’s top 10 summer domestic destinations were Florida beaches, but many locals are opting for shores a little closer to home. Judy Young, executive director at Coastal Mississippi, says their first quarter travel numbers are up 24% compared to 2021 and 68% compared to 2020. Most of those travelers come from areas within a six-hour radius, Young said, and the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas are heavily represented.
“Coastal Mississippi is a very close, affordable destination with beaches and gaming and great dining and outdoor activities that would be exponentially more dollars at locations two or three states away,” she said. “All those prices have gone up, so I think it has to do with a shrinkage of how far they’re willing to go on their road trip.”
Those higher prices mean this rebound could be short-lived, Redman said. “The question is how long can we sustain this with increasing prices? That’s an unknowable and a concern for the entire travel industry,” he said.
Freedom to travel due to remote work
Boudreaux’s family – wife Karen, daughter Lucy, 11, and son Charlie, 7 – started their road trip tradition during the early days of the pandemic, when socially distant forms of travel were safest and remote work allowed Boudreaux to do his job on the open road. A financial planner, Boudreaux says his clients of him are now comfortable with remote meetings, which allows him to “go farther and be out of New Orleans for a longer stretch.”
He’s not the only one taking longer vacations. Long-term stays booked via Airbnb hit an all-time high in the first quarter of 2022, doubling 2019’s numbers.
“With the advent of flexible remote work, people aren’t tied to an office space,” Thorn said. “Because they don’t have to physically be in a city, they’re discovering everything new in their local area within a 200-mile radius.”
Even the cruise industry, hobbled by ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in ships’ close quarters, has seen a rebound. Over the next two years, Carnival Cruise Line will offer more than 250 sailings from New Orleans. The 2,980 passenger Carnival Glory and the 2,980 passenger Carnival Valor will carry 400,000 passengers annually to tropical destinations.
For Boudreaux, the opportunity to travel for weeks on end is appealing not just because of what his family gets to do – see Niagara Falls, visit extended family, learn about their Acadian ancestry – but also what they’ll get to miss.
“It is not a minus to be away from the humidity, at least for a little while,” he said.