More Michiganians to travel for Thanksgiving. Here's what they're facing

Romulus — Holiday travel this year will be just shy of pre-pandemic levels, experts predict, with Americans opting for warmer weather and destinations like Florida and Cancun to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The rebound comes as the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic draws to a close and frequent flyers are hopeful they can reach their destinations without the frustrations they've come to fear. Holiday travel during the pandemic has been marked by pilot shortages, canceled flights, scarce rental cars and long waits at check-in counters for many who attempt it.

Among the reasons: airlines made unprecedented budget cuts in 2020 after COVID-19 rendered non-essential travel impossible. Thousands of pilots took buyouts, leaving airlines unprepared when demand for travel began to rise again. The pilot shortage has disrupted travel since 2021 and is particularly difficult to correct because airlines require months of training before a pilot can fly passengers.

Despite the return of customers, airlines are still not offering the same volume of flights as they did prior to the pandemic. Delta Air Lines Inc., the largest carrier in and out of Detroit Metropolitan Airport, says it is operating roughly 85% of flights it flew in 2019, before the pandemic hit in early 2020.

About 1.7 million Michiganians will travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving, nearly 4% less than the number in 2019, AAA Michigan predicts. That would make this year the third-busiest travel season for the state since 2000.

Nationwide, air travel is expected to increase to 99% of pre-pandemic volume, according to AAA. While air travel has gotten more expensive since last year — with prices up by around 22% — car rental prices have decreased by roughly 7%, AAA reports. Most people will travel to their holiday destinations by car.

"Holiday travel demand has been really strong, whether it's people flying or traveling by car," Expedia travel analyst Christie Hudson said. "Last holiday season, omicron kind of emerged and disrupted some plans. And so we're seeing a lot of makeup trips, people who are like, 'hey, this year I can go see my family.'"

Beach destinations in the Caribbean like Cancun, Riviera Maya and Punta Cana have seen "double-digit increases" in traffic for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year in addition to more traditional domestic destinations like Orlando, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Los Vegas.

"People are not only going over to Grandma's house," she said, "they're also going to celebrate the holidays in warm weather destinations, it seems."

On Friday, John Beuerle was at Detroit Metro to catch a flight to Phoenix with his parents, ready to spend Thanksgiving with his brother and his family. The group planned to rent a car in Phoenix and drive to California early next week to visit Disneyland for a few days.

"We've been to Disney World a couple of times, but we've never been to Disneyland," the 24-year-old Manchester native said. "It's our family's family trip since last June."

The Beuerle family arrived at the airport four hours before their 5 p.m. flight in anticipation of long wait times but were pleasantly surprised to see the check-in and security lines didn't look too bad.

"We thought it would be crazier just because ... still people are nervous about COVID," Beuerle said.

Traveling by air

Summer air travel was upended for many
as a limited pilot pool and increased demands for flights following slackened COVID-19 travel restrictions led to delays and cancelations. This left many passengers nervous about holiday travel but Hudson is optimistic the season will pass more smoothly. While most airlines' overall capacity is still lower than in 2019, many have added flights on high-demand routes.

"The cancellations and delays have gotten better; over the course of the summer, they really wound down," Hudson said. "It does mean that there's potentially going to be fuller flights this holiday season."

The Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport expects 4 million people to pass through over the holiday season, up 15% from last year, according to a news release from the airport authority. Despite reports of staffing shortages in the Transportation Security Administration causing long security lines in other airports, the TSA does not anticipate any problems related to staffing at DTW next week or throughout the holiday season.

"In preparation for holiday travel, TSA allocates resources and staff in an effort to ensure that all available airport checkpoint lanes are open, staffed and operational," TSA spokeswoman Jessica Mayle wrote in an email.

DTW is a major regional hub for Delta, and flyers on that carrier can expect flights to be well over 90% full, according to Delta spokesperson Morgan Durrant. Delta has hired more than 20,000 new employees — including pilots — since the beginning of 2021, and is offering roughly 85% of the flights it flew in 2019.

With 265 departures from DTW every day until the end of November, Durrant said Delta is “fully confident” it can execute the flights on schedule. Tricia Fretter is counting on it.

She was leaving Detroit Friday afternoon with her 14-month-old daughter, Payton. The mother and daughter are going to Fretter's "snowbird" parents' house in Florida for Thanksgiving.

It will be Payton's "first time on a plane," said Fretter, who hadn't flown in at least a year. Fretter thinks Payton will enjoy Florida's beaches and pools and was excited she'd have the chance to meet her extended family for the first time.

"She loves the water. So it'll be nice to kind of be, you know, at the pool and the beach and stuff," Fretter said. "We were kind of shut down for a while."

Also headed to Florida were Devin Brooks, his wife and son, who planned to fly from Detroit Metro to Orlando Friday afternoon. They had plans to go skateboarding and see family before heading back to Michigan right before Thanksgiving and spending the holiday with more local relatives.

"(We're going to Florida) just to get out of the cold," Brooks said. "We have family up here too so we'll come back."

To avoid delays, Hudson encouraged people to fly in the morning because flights that leave after 3 p.m. have a 50% higher chance of being canceled.

Airline ticket prices remain higher than 2019 levels due to still limited supply. To make Thanksgiving and Christmas travel cheaper, people could fly on the holiday itself or the Monday before the holiday instead of the weekend.

For those looking to book a last-minute trip, flights from Detroit to Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Chicago for Thanksgiving still cost less than $250 on average, Hudson said. Looking ahead to Christmas, flights from Detroit to New York, Toronto and Boston are available for less than $300 on average. 

Travelers planning to fly to their destination and rent a car face high demand, especially in warm-weather destinations, Hudson added: "Some of the top places that I've seen some reports of demand for rental cars tend to be like Orlando and those types of places, Los Angeles, you know, another place you definitely need a car.”

Land and sea voyages

Roughly 1.5 million travelers in Michigan will drive to their Thanksgiving destinations despite high gas prices, AAA predicts. Last Monday, Michigan drivers paid an average of $4.03 per gallon of gas, 69 cents more than the $3.33 they paid a year ago.

The roads are likely to be busier. One example: AAA expects a 23% increase on traffic this week on U.S. 23, a major north-south route, between Eight Mile and Lee Road, with the longest delays northbound from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday.

Many Michiganians are also taking the train for the holidays, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. Bookings show that Amtrak is operating at 80% to 90% of its pre-pandemic levels.

"Popular destinations, of course, are here in Chicago, whether it's changing trains here in Chicago to go elsewhere, or if Chicago itself is the destination," Magliari said.

Michigan has three Amtrak routes that connect Grand Rapids, Detroit and Lansing to Chicago, with the busiest stops along the Detroit route typically Dearborn and Ann Arbor. Trains are sold out for Wednesday, according to Amtrak's website.

Inflation has put pressure on Amtrak fares in Michigan in addition to driving up the cost of diesel fuel used to power the trains, Magliari said. One-way tickets to Chicago on Tuesday, for instance, range from $41 at Grand Rapids, $53 at East Lansing and $55 to $96 from Detroit, depending on departure time.

But people traveling by car also have to take into account tolls, gas and parking, the Amtrak spokesman noted: "A lot of people have missed out on family in the past couple of years for the pandemic and some people are still catching up with friends. And for a lot of people, driving is often so miserable."

Some travelers, like Doug and Leslie Muzzio of Rochester Hills, will spend Thanksgiving at sea. The couple left Friday for Barcelona to join a cruise that will take them to Rome.

"We've been traveling quite a bit lately since last year domestically; this is the first international," Doug Muzzio said. "We were hoping we're getting out before the real Thanksgiving pressure begins."