Larger Crowds, Less Chaos: Why Summer Travel May Be Less Bumpy

January and February airport crowds exceeded their 2019 levels, according to TSA checkpoint data.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Updated
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

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2022 was the year of revenge travel. Travelers took trips they skipped in 2020 and 2021, catching up on a backlog of weddings and family reunions. Others finally checked off bucket list trips.

Travel came back strong, resulting in high prices and packed airports. But with the surge, chaos often ensued. Hotels cut back on housekeeping, largely driven by a hotel worker shortage. Car rental costs spiked due to high demand and low supply. The flight delay rate hit highs not seen since 2014. All that culminated into major, distressing events shared by many travelers, such as the Southwest Airlines holiday meltdown.

But if 2022 felt crowded, 2023 could be more so (and has already proved itself to be). The first two months of the year set the tone, as checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration for two out of the first three months of the year showed that average airport passenger counts exceeded their 2019 levels.

“In January, we experienced our first full month where travel volumes exceeded the same month in 2019,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske in a prepared statement. “We fully expect to see an upward trend in travel volumes throughout 2023.”

On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the TSA screened roughly 2.7 million people at U.S. airports, the highest checkpoint volume thus far in 2023.

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Why big crowds might not be as big a concern

While travel volumes are shaping up to be even bigger than their pre-pandemic numbers, things might not feel as brutal as they were last year.

Staff shortages are less dire

A huge contributor to travel chaos was staffing shortages, which is a problem that’s recently lessened, according to an American Hotel & Lodging Association survey of more than 500 hotel owners in January 2023. While 79% of respondents still report staffing shortages, that’s a steady decrease from the 87% who said they were short-staffed in AHLA’s September 2022 survey.

It's a similar story with airlines. U.S. airlines have hired more than 55,000 new workers since 2022, which has likely helped reduce the number of delays seen in 2023 versus 2022.

Costs are leveling off

Sure, inflation is impacting the travel industry, but some travel expenses are actually cheaper than last year.

Average prices for both hotel room rates and airfares hit record highs in May 2022. But February 2023 airfares are down 18% from May 2022 records, according to a NerdWallet analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index data. February hotel prices, while up 15% versus prices in February 2020 (the last month before U.S. lockdowns), have dropped more than 6% from their record highs in May 2022.

Supply is increasing

Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted travel habits (e.g., preference for the privacy of a vacation rental versus the shared hallways of a hotel), the industry struggled to keep up with demand. That’s set to change.

According to vacation rental data platform AirDNA, vacation rental supply increased 25% in the third quarter of 2022 versus the same quarter in 2021. The increased supply means that occupancy rates are actually set to decline. That’s good news for travelers as they’ll have more lodging options.

Air travel supply is also increasing. Domestic seat capacity in January has already beat 2019 levels. In January 2023, U.S. airlines had 6% more seats available for booking compared to January 2019, according to data from travel booking app Hopper.

How to plan for travel crowds

Book now

Beat everyone else to the best reservation availability by booking early. Some travelers hold out for a last-minute deal, but you might be able to get the best of both worlds: Many rental car and hotel companies allow you to make a reservation now, but you don't pay for it until you arrive at the check-in counter (and sometimes not until you return the car or check out of the hotel).

If you make a reservation and then spot a lower deal, you can rebook at a lower price and cancel the original reservation (sometimes you can call customer service and they’ll honor the lower rate without going through the hassle of rebooking). Always read the fine print for any terms around cancellation, but this typically works at hotels and rental car companies where you pay in person at the counter or hotel desk.

Travel in the offseason

Avoid traveling during busy seasons like summer, long holiday weekends and the winter holidays.

However, if you want to avoid the sluggishness of the offseason, you can book during another time of year instead: shoulder season.

Use credit card points and miles

Inflation is hitting especially hard this year, but points inflation is real — and occurs almost every year as hotels and airlines regularly raise the number of points and miles needed to book travel.

But in 2023, some rewards are more valuable. That’s because while many cash prices have increased, some points redemption rates haven’t caught up yet. Inflation is rough, but the good news is it makes those credit card points and frequent flyer miles that much more valuable.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
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