Why your dream European vacation is already booked solid
Blane Bachelor, CNN
When it comes to planning a European vacation, travel industry experts have traditionally advised tourists hoping to save money and avoid crowds to visit popular destinations like Italy, France, and Spain in off-season windows, like late winter or early spring.
But as the bounceback of international travel in the post-pandemic landscape shows little signs of slowing, alternative strategies may soon be necessary to score lower prices and escape overcrowding amid increasingly round-the-calendar tourism in European hotspots.
Indeed, online booking platforms, tour operators and hotel companies confirm what those selfies-from-abroad splashed across your social media streams are bragging about: US travelers are already packing their bags for trips across the Atlantic, long before the summer season even kicks off.
According to the Consumer Index Report for Q1 2023 recently released by flight tracking platform Hopper, international trips now account for 56% of searches by US travelers, marking a whopping 46% jump from last year. Of those searches, 34% are for European cities.
Those figures are in line with data from the The State of Travel in 2023 report by Going, formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights, which monitors airfares. In the report, 60% of respondents said they plan to take more international trips in 2023 compared to 2022; nearly a third of respondents had already booked an international trip for 2023.
Tour companies that operate in Europe are seeing a notable spike, too. Huw Owen, co-founder of TravelLocal, said the UK-based operator’s recent bookings and 2023 forecast reflect an “astronomical” surge in demand for international trips, with a nearly 500% jump in bookings between August 2022 and January 2023 compared to the corresponding period in 2021 and 2022.
Off-season bookings are also booming for the company, with US travelers making up more than half of the customer base, Owen told CNN Travel.
“It’s just a force of nature, and you can almost feel it underneath your feet like a wave,” he said. “I guess the pub philosophy version of this is if you keep people cooped up for two years, then you’re going to see this surge in demand.”
More demand, higher prices?
While the international travel resurgence may delight tourism-based businesses owners in the wake of the pandemic downturn, a less rosy picture may be in store for travelers themselves in the form of shrinking off-seasons and their traditionally lower airline ticket prices and hotel rates.
Airline ticket prices, in particular, are especially susceptible to shifts in supply and demand, as the aviation industry is acutely impacted by capacity constrictions. “In an already high demand market, where demand is set to continue building year to year, constrained supply will continue to put intense pressure on consumer travel prices,” Hopper said in its Q1 Consumer Travel Index.
Travelers still in planning mode may have already noticed an uptick in airline prices. According to a Hopper spokesperson, international flights are currently averaging $876 round-trip, up 35% from the same time last year. Europe-bound flights are at $801, up 27% from the same time as last year.
“If you’ve got a supply-demand issue and a peak season, which Europe still does, it’s going to push people either geographically to the periphery or by season to the periphery,” Owen said. “Again, I think it’s a good thing. Europe in some ways needs that to happen.”
In fact, it’s already happening in some places. London, for example, is shaping up for another monster year of tourism, with “strong visitor numbers across all seasons,” Laura Citron, CEO of Visit London, told CNN Travel via email. “The latest forecasts showing flight bookings for March and April are looking very strong, and even set to exceed 2019 levels.”
Portugal, whose popularity has surged over the last few years, particularly among digital nomads and the retirement set, also has seen a notable uptick in tourism during typically off-season months.
Chitra Stern, CEO of Martinhal Resorts, a collection of four upscale family properties across Portugal, with a fifth hotel/residence hybrid scheduled to open this year, told CNN Travel that January 2023 bookings for Martinhal’s Lisbon property in the city’s popular Chiado neighborhood were 115% higher than January 2022 bookings. That could put the property on track to surpass numbers for 2022, its best year since opening in 2017.
Stern also noted that hotels and online travel agencies, or OTAs, have always used a strategy known as yield management that enables them to sell a single room at different prices to different customers in order to maximize revenue. As a result, booking as early as possible can be even more critical in scoring the best rate — especially in light of the current surge in tourism.
“We have winter rates and you yield within those winter rates, spring rates to yield within, and also in summer, but if you’re coming in summer and you’re booking really last minute, it’s going to be more expensive,” Stern said. “But there are people who can only look at the last minute and are willing to pay the price. If you book ahead of time, it’s actually a lower price to book for the summer.”
‘A few glory years now’
Even with the surge in tourism, Going founder Scott Keyes says travelers keen to visit the continent this year shouldn’t let the specter of higher prices or more crowds deter their dreams of a European getaway.
In fact, Keyes notes, “transatlantic flight volume is now 10% higher than it was pre-pandemic and poised to grow further in 2023,” which could offer some relief in terms of ticket pricing.
“While there are certainly expensive flights available — especially if you wait until May to book a summer flight to Europe — there are also tons of cheap Europe fares popping up once again,” he told CNN Travel via email.
Travelers are also increasingly looking to off-the-tourist-track destinations that offer a similar experience but at lower prices than their more famous — but expensive and overcrowded — counterparts.
Eastern European countries including Slovenia and Albania, for example, are becoming better known for their wine and gastronomy; the Azores, a necklace of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal, is another on-the-rise destination, Owen said.
“What we’re seeing now is like a vanguard of American exploration of fringe parts of Europe that will become much better known and more mainstream in, say, 10 years,” he said. “You’ve probably got a few glory years now where you can go out and see this stuff, and you’re not there with 20,000 other people.”
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