Whether you’ve gotten your second vaccine shot or you’re just feeling more cooped up than ever, Scott Keyes has advice for those who want to travel in 2021: Buy your tickets now.
“You still haven’t seen the full amount of pent-up travel demand get released yet,” said the founder of deal-tracking site Scott’s Cheap Flights. “There’s still a ton of room to grow, and it’s just starting to get released. There are still a lot of cheap summer flights available right now, but if you wait to book your flight until May, and you’re hoping to travel over the summer, your chances of getting a cheap summer flight at that point are not very good.”
After a disastrous 12 months for the airline industry due to the coronavirus pandemic, people are flying again. Especially in and out of Florida.
Searches for flights in and out of Tampa have steadily increased throughout 2021, according to Kayak.com, with searches the week of March 7 lagging just 14 percent below the same week two years ago — a faster pace of recovery than in most cities. About 84 percent of all Americans plan to travel in the next six months, according to travel and tourism tracker Longwoods International. That’s more than at any other point of the pandemic.
“The travel surge that we all had thought was probably coming is now really showing up in the data,” Keyes said. “This is actually coming to fruition.”
Both Tampa International Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport are gearing up. Both airports have recently announced new and returning seasonal nonstop flights, including some to first-time destinations, and both recently held hiring fairs for hundreds of concessions, security and airline jobs.
Tampa International recently forecast it might see up to 65,000 visitors a day during peak spring break days — lower than a normal year, but well above what it’s been most days in recent months. St. Pete-Clearwater spokeswoman Michele Routh said that while passenger counts are still down a bit, the airport actually has more March flights scheduled than in 2019 or 2020.
Just because people are more willing to travel, though ... should they?
In its most recent travel guidelines, posted Feb. 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still encouraging people to stay home, “even if you are vaccinated.” If you are vaccine-eligible, the agency recommends waiting two weeks after your second dose before traveling, as it takes the body time to build protection after a vaccination. Those who do travel are still expected to practice masking and social distancing guidelines.
“What we have seen is that we have surges after people start traveling,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said in a recent press briefing. “We saw it after July 4, we saw it after Labor Day, we saw it after the Christmas holidays. Currently, 90 percent of people are still unprotected and not yet vaccinated. So we are really looking forward to updating this guidance as we have more protection across the communities and across the population.”
So far, the lack of new guidance isn’t stopping people from hopping on discounted tickets. And airlines are incentivizing them to do so. Most have dropped change and cancel fees for flights booked through the end of March, Keyes said.
“There’s a real narrow window for a win-win,” he said. “You can not only lock in the cheap fares, especially if you’re hoping to travel this summer, but you also have flexibility to change your dates later without having to pay the normal $200, $300, $400 penalty.”
With more seasonal flights returning in the spring and summer months, here are a few discount destinations available out of Tampa and St. Pete-Clearwater. All prices do not include fees and are subject to change.
Dallas: Texas was among the first states to open for business, eliminating capacity restrictions and statewide mask mandates. Several airlines offer discounted flights to cities like Austin and San Antonio, but Spirit Airlines beats them all with spring nonstop flights between Tampa and Dallas starting around $30 each way, with membership discounts bringing them down even further. Prices start to rise significantly in June.
Newark, N.J.: Spirit is offering ridiculously low one-way fares from Tampa to a number of cities, including Cleveland ($22), Chicago ($23) and San Juan, P.R. ($45). Nothing, though, beats the flight to Newark Liberty International Airport, where we recently saw one-way flights listed for under $18. New York is still relatively restrictive, business-wise, but at the price of a decent strip steak, it’s a hard deal to pass up.
Portsmouth, N.H.: Allegiant Air recently announced a new nonstop route from St. Pete-Clearwater to Portsmouth, a historic port city that sits less than 60 miles from both Boston and Portland, Maine. Wednesday and Saturday flights start June 2. As of last week, there were still a few dates with one-way flights at the introductory rate of $59. Most were higher, but all were below $115.
Denver/Vail/Breckinridge: Colorado has slowly been loosening gathering restrictions, which are largely set by individual counties, but it’s also a viable destination for those looking for outdoor activities. Frontier Airlines has daily flights between Tampa and Denver, including some for under $80 round-trip. Keyes has recently seen indirect American Airlines flights between Tampa and Vail, Colo. for as low as $175 round-trip.
Bozeman, Mont.: If you’re looking for an open-air space, you could do worse than Yellowstone National Park, about an hour and a half from Bozeman Yellowstone National Airport in Montana. Within the past week, Delta has offered select round-trip flights to Montana for under $170.
North Carolina: Amid its long list of deals, Allegiant is offering bottom-drawer prices on one-way flights from St. Pete-Clearwater to Raleigh/Durham ($54), Greensboro ($42), Asheville ($37) and Charlotte ($34). Nearby Knoxville, Tenn. ($45) and Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C. ($45) aren’t far off. Prices and dates vary by city, so check Allegiant’s flight deals page often.
Las Vegas: Nevada’s hospitality industry was hammered by a lack of tourism during the pandemic. Eager to bring back out-of-towners, the state has loosened capacity restrictions from 35 percent to 50 percent, with casinos expanding their operating hours and even hosting some smaller shows. In the past week, Frontier has offered round-trip flights between Tampa and Vegas for around $100. Spirit has offered some nonstop flights from Tampa to Vegas starting at $65, and well below that for one-stop options.
Costa Rica: International travel is still a risk, Keyes said, with summer flights to Europe looking especially dicey. But a low-cost destination out of Tampa that caught his eye was an indirect flight to Costa Rica via American Airlines for $300. Inbound international flights require proof of a negative COVID-19 test no more than three days before boarding for your return, so plan accordingly.