From the car rental apocalypse to new activity fees at hotels, be prepared to spend more for summer travel with your kids this year.

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After a year of social distancing, virtual schooling, and being stuck quarantining with kids in tow, who among us isn't itching to hit the open road? With vaccines now rolling out at a rapid pace under the Biden administration and tourism attractions across the country gradually reopening, many of us have found our wanderlust taking center stage once again. Travelzoo's Steve Bertogli tells Parents that currently, 85 percent of Travelzoo's members are planning at least one domestic trip in 2021 and two of the most searched destinations on the Travelzoo website are Florida and Las Vegas.

But as you begin to plot the family's escape from the doldrums, perhaps opting for a summer road trip as the most comfortable post-COVID travel experience for all ages, it's important to remember that the world you'll venture out into is not entirely the same as it once was—and the newfound changes will impact the cost of your family's summer getaway.

From the car rental shortage (which has been not-so-affectionately dubbed Car Rental Apocalypse) to fluctuating hotel room prices depending on where you plan to go, plus the need to pack extra kid snacks to see you through places where businesses have not fully reopened, there are many new financial variables to consider before your home becomes a blurry speck in your rearview mirror. Here's a closer look at some of the factors that may impact the cost of your summer 2021 road trip.

An image of a family on a road trip.
Credit: Getty Images.

Car rental apocalypse 

For those who may have missed the memo (raises hand sheepishly) it seems we're now amidst a car rental apocalypse. What exactly does that mean, you ask?

It means there's a dramatic shortage of rental cars in the United States caused in part by increased demand, but mainly by the massive fleet selloffs that car rental companies engaged in during the pandemic. Some companies sold as much as 30 to 40 percent of their inventory. Making matters worse, major rental companies such as Hertz and Advantage Rent A Car declared bankruptcy.

Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of car rental site Autoslash, calls the situation alarming and predicts it will only get worse in the coming weeks and months as COVID restrictions ease and Americans start booking summer travel. 

"Travelers who are planning a summer road trip with a rental car are going to want to plan far ahead as a result of COVID-19 and the resulting fallout in the car rental industry," Weinberg tells Parents, suggesting that it's likely best to reserve a rental car at least one month in advance. 

Prices for rental cars, meanwhile, have gone up anywhere from double to 10 times the norm, Weinberg continues. But it's not the same in all areas. In places like Florida, Hawaii, and cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, the situation is extremely tight; in these locations, it's not uncommon to see rental car rates of over $100 per day—sometimes even rates of $500-plus per day, says Weinberg. 

"It's also common to see complete sell-out situations where you simply cannot rent a car at any price because there are no vehicles available," he adds. Consider yourself warned.

Hotel costs

The newly growing demand for accommodations—combined with the burden of increased cleaning costs and COVID-related improvements such as touchless elevators, plexiglass dividers at check-in, and the technology for e-keys being delivered via your mobile phone, for example—has led to unprecedented hotel pricing in some places, Wanderology owner and travel advisor Rebecca Alesia tells Parents.

"Our hotel partners out west are almost completely sold out for the summer; hotels like Sage Lodge, Four Seasons Jackson Hole and the Lodge at Whitefish are fully committed for pretty much the whole of July and August," says Alesia. "The result of this trend is three-star hotels being able to price at $450 and up per night—probably a 150 percent increase over prior years."

This same harsh reality recently materialized over spring break, when many of Alesia's New York-based clients motored down to Florida for vacation and were shocked to find that not only were hotel rooms hard to come by; they were also very expensive. 

"Rates at the five-star properties in Boca and Ft. Lauderdale were over $1800 per night and still people were booking," continues Alesia. "On the west coast of Florida, I couldn't even find space in St. Petersburg and had clients willing to spend over $500 per night for three-star hotels just to get near the beach."

Moral of the story, says Alesia: It's a tumultuous and unpredictable time in the travel industry. The best way to avoid financial pitfalls is to plan early. If you need assistance, reach out to a travel professional who can help navigate the new normal this summer.

You may also want to consider staying in urban areas where there's more hotel competition, says David Kosofsky, founder of Go RV Rentals.

"Major metropolitan or convention locales like Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Washington DC, Chicago, and Miami have built up a huge inventory of hotel rooms for business travelers and convention-goers, a sector of travel that's not expected to rebound fully until 2023," says Kosofsky. "Hotel room supply in these places is abundant, resulting in lower than normal or pre-pandemic prices, and deals to be found."

Vacation rentals 

The pandemic has done wonders for the vacation home rental industry. (Not that it was exactly struggling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic). But as Molly Fergus, travel expert and general manager of TripSavvy points out, the demand for rental homes instead of hotel rooms is high.

"VRBO has seen one of its best quarters yet, and home rentals in popular vacation destinations are even outperforming hotel occupancies," Fergus tells Parents. "With the demand for private space in vacation destinations at a premium, you can expect prices to go up. 

Gas

Gas prices plummeted last year at the onset of the pandemic when demand all but disappeared. This year, the opposite is true. As travel demand begins ramping back up, gas prices are following suit, as they typically do in advance of the start of summer, says Todd Christensen, accredited financial counselor and author of Everyday Money for Everyday People.

"With so much pent-up travel demand, we should expect much higher gas prices than we've been used to over the past year or two. For this reason, you need to overbudget for gasoline," says Christensen. "Then, just before hitting the road, check out sites (and apps) that list current gasoline prices where you're headed, like GasBuddy or even Google Maps."

Activity fees

Remember when you and the family could just mosey on down to the hotel pool, find a cluster of chaise lounges, and let the relaxation game begin? Well, even this simple pleasure may have an added cost associated with it amid the COVID travel era, says Amy Martin, family travel blogger and creator of the site Two Little Pandas

"Many hotels have had to set up a reservation system for activities that normally did not need one," Martin tells Parents. "For example, swimming pools.  Some hotels are charging a fee to hold the reservation, and reservations fill up fast."

Martin experienced this brutal new reality during her family's recent visit to Suncadia resort, where she found that all activity reservations were full within a mere hour of the reservation window opening. 

"Travelers are willing to pay an extra fee to hold these reservations, knowing that if they don't, they'll miss out completely," adds Martin. "But all the extra fees add up! And the scarcity issue is making it tough to skip booking something you might have happily skipped in the past."  

Even activities that are not part of your hotel accommodations may cost more this summer, in addition to the experience being altered because of COVID-19, adds Fergus of TripSavvy.  

"In many states, activities such as theme parks and sporting events are still operating at reduced capacities. That will make tickets harder to get and could cause prices to increase," Fergus explains. "Even if prices are the same as they were in 2019, you might not get the experience you expect. Most major theme parks, for example, have cut out entertainment like fireworks and live shows."

Lack of advance planning will cost more than ever

Beachfront and mountain getaways are shaping up to be the most popular U.S. destinations this summer, according to Bertogli. In particular, the beaches of Florida, California, Hawaii, and South Carolina are among the hottest vacation choices, along with the national parks and mountain towns of North Carolina, Tennessee, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. 

"For road trippers eyeing these destinations, planning their routes and stays sooner than later will be key," Bertogli tells Parents. "Because as more Americans book their vacations, there will be less available inventory at hotels and vacation rentals and the prices will likely increase."

And remember: That advance booking will likely need to cover well more than the basics this year, going beyond rental cars and hotel rooms to include dining, entertainment, and perhaps even your poolside cabana.