Our Guide to Last-Minute Summer 2021 Travel

As Americans get vaccinated and start traveling again, some destinations, types of trips, and rentals are booking up this summer. Here are some tips on how to outsmart the crowds and travel options that are still in play.

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After more than a year of being cooped up, Americans are ready to get back out into the world and travel again. So ready, in fact, that travel bookings are skyrocketing for some places and experiences to the degree it’s actually getting hard to book them at all. (If you haven’t heard of the great rental car shortage of 2021, you’re living under a rock, and trying for a weekend vacation rental in some popular coastal towns is downright laughable at this point.)

This has several implications for travelers who have yet to book some or all of their summer getaways as we head into Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the summer travel season—availability could be hard to come by and prices may be higher than you expected. But fear not, dear procrastinators, we’re here to fill you in on which destinations could give you some booking trouble, alternative options you may want to look into instead, and ways to still get good deals on summer 2021 travel.

Of course, we’re still in a pandemic and many international destinations remain off-limits to travelers this summer, either because of government travel restrictions, because they are experiencing COVID-19 case surges and/or vaccine rollout issues, or because travelers just aren’t ready to take trips further afield yet and are still opting to stay closer to home. 

That is probably why many of the destinations we’re seeing that are reaching capacity are domestic vacation getaways, places like Hawai‘i, Montana, and Florida that don’t present the same pandemic challenges as international locales.  

The other problem is that capacity was also drastically reduced when demand bottomed out last year—airline routes were cut, hotels and vacation rentals were taken offline, and rental cars were sold off as travel companies strived to say afloat. Bringing all that inventory back online isn’t going to happen overnight.

So travelers are going to have to maybe get a little creative this summer. It’s been a long 14 months—we all need and deserve to get away. For those who are ready to travel safely, don’t be deterred by the booking surge.

Potential trouble spots for summer 2021 travel—and how to outsmart the crowds

These are the destinations and travel services that are starting to reach max cap. But just because destinations are listed here, travelers shouldn’t give up on these places or products if they have their heart set on them. Being flexible with when you travel (midweek is always better than weekends), and looking into dates further out, including into late summer and early fall, means you don’t necessarily have to give up on your 2021 travel dreams. And if you do run into dead ends, we’ll offer some alternative options as well.

Hawai‘i

If Oʻahu, Maui or the Big Island are causing booking problems, maybe look to the quieter island of Kaua‘i.

“One big place causing problems is Hawai‘i,” said John Galante, an Aspen, Colorado–based luxury travel advisor for travel concierge service Travel Edge, and a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council (TAC). “It is so popular now that not only rental cars are sold out, but the concierges at the hotels can’t even get back to me with confirmations on dinners, activities, and airport transfers.”

The areas Galante said he is running into issues with bookings are Honolulu on the popular island of Oʻahu, and Kona and Kapalua on Maui. Galante said he’s working overtime to help find alternative options and solutions for clients.

Scott Keyes, founder of flight deals newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights, said searches for flights to the island of Hawai‘i (aka the Big Island) are soaring, too, indicating that island’s popularity this summer as well.

“This past week, 50 percent more people searched for flights to the Big Island than the same time in 2019. They’re going to be quite full over the summer,” said Keyes.

But travelers should remember that Hawai‘i is vast and varied. Maybe try for some of the state’s quieter gems like Kaua‘i, Lāna‘i, and Molokaʻi if the islands of Hawai‘i, Maui or Oʻahu are giving you grief.

As for some Hawaii alternatives, “Hawaii is certainly unique, but travelers could enjoy West Coast natural beauty and ocean beaches in Baja California or San Diego,” suggested James Ferrara, co-founder and president of InteleTravel.

Florida

Of the five most booked domestic flight destinations for summer 2021, two are in Florida—Miami and Orlando, according to data compiled for AFAR by travel booking site Hopper. (The other three are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Denver.)

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“I have never seen [Miami] booked up so tight,” said Lysa Middleton Phillips, a Houston, Texas-based travel advisor with InteleTravel. “A good alternative to Miami is Destin or Panama City Beach in Florida.”

Hotel availability in Fort Lauderdale is also an issue for this summer, according to Hopper. But not all of Florida is out of the question.

Hopper found that there is still ample hotel availability in Jacksonville, Tampa, Naples, Palm Coast, and Daytona Beach, Florida. St. Petersburg–Clearwater may also have more options and offers beautiful beaches and a hopping art scene.

Montana, Wyoming, and Utah

Dude ranches are having a moment. National parks are having a moment. Wide open spaces are having a moment. Put them all together and suddenly everyone is heading to Montana, Wyoming, and Utah this summer.

According to Galante, “All the high-end places around me in the West, like all the ranches in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming . . . are all booked. And if something is available, it’s priced high.”

If you were hoping to hit Glacier National Park in Montana or Zion in Utah, make sure you’re up to date on the reservation systems in place in both parks (there is still time to make reservations—but don’t delay too much).

If it’s a classic dude ranch experience you were seeking and you are coming up empty handed in Montana or Wyoming, maybe look to dude ranches in California like the historic Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in Central California’s Santa Ynez Valley, Greenhorn Ranch in Northern California’s Quincy, and the 158-year-old Rankin Ranch in Caliente, not far from Bakersfield. (Though we’ve heard many of these are falling short on space, too, there is greater availability toward the back half of summer and into fall.)

Alaska

Cruises to Alaska may be back in play this summer, which could open up options for travelers.

For summer 2021, Alaska “is getting booked up fast,” said Kate Doty, AFAR TAC member and managing director for San Francisco–based adventure travel experts Geographic Expeditions. “One of our favorite lodges, Ultima Thule, is already 100 percent sold out for the season.”

Doty recommends that travelers with their heart set on Alaska have a wide range of date options to work with, “and when you find out what is available, book it fast, like within a day or two, or risk losing it.” She also advises considering visiting in September when the fall colors are popping, bears are still out, and things are calmer after the busy summer season—plus, “there will be more availability.”

Another big opportunity for last-minute travelers eyeing Alaska is that Alaska cruising appears to be back on the table for 2021, thanks to the recent passage of the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act by Congress. If the bill is signed by President Biden, large cruise ships will likely be able to resume sailings in Alaska this summer, which would open up some amazing water-based viewing and visiting opportunities for travelers.

Rental cars

OK, we’re not going to sugarcoat the issue. Rental cars are a problem this year. Why? According to Keyes, when travel plummeted last year, many car rental agencies sold off hundreds of thousands of cars to make some money and weather the storm.

Now, with travel rebounding, there are far fewer cars available to rent, said Keyes. It’s gotten so bad that people are renting U-haul trucks and vans in Hawaii and elsewhere just to get around.

But there are some workarounds. Keyes offered up these suggestions, some of which we have also seen floating around in popular travel forums like family travel platform Club Bébé Voyage.

“From my experience, there is a place that’s almost always cheapest for car rentals: Costco Travel. You automatically have access if you’re a Costco member, and it also includes extra perks like a free second driver,” said Keyes.

He also suggested looking into car share services like Turo, Zipcar, Getaround, or Hui Car Share in Honolulu, as well as trying to rent through a car dealership.

There’s also always the option to use rideshare services like Uber or Lyft if the destination doesn’t require too much driving.

Cari Gray, founder of luxury travel concierge service Gray & Co., and another AFAR TAC member, said that the high cost of flights this summer combined with the shortage of rental cars “will mean the self-drive market will still continue strong” for summer 2021.

Road trip, anyone?

Travel alternatives for 2021

When you see everyone running in one direction, head the other way, right? OK, not usually. But when it comes to summer 2021 travel, this approach could work in your favor. Here are some suggestions for where to go for better availability and, added bonus, better prices.

Urban escapes

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Last year, we all fled the big cities, seeking space and the outdoors where we could remain safe and socially distant from crowds amid the ongoing pandemic. And yes, the pandemic is still here, but with places like New York and California announcing they will fully reopen this summer, and with the CDC reporting that 38 percent of the American population is now fully vaccinated (73 percent of those age 65 and older, and 48 percent of those age 18 and older), a rebirth of the cities we abandoned in 2020 is inevitable.

“There’s an odd dynamic right now,” said Keyes. “If you want to get the good deal, head to the cities. The same number of crowds that had been there before are not there right now. I was in New York and [Washington,] D.C., this past week, and the hotel rooms that are usually $200 or $250 night, I got for about $100 or $125 a night. Travel to a lot of these urban destinations is much more reasonable than what you would expect.”

Summer 2021 may be the right time to rediscover New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all the other great cities across the country that we love and that were pummeled by the pandemic. Places where the fine dining scene, while likely somewhat battered, will be ready to surprise and delight anew and where museums, cultural institutions, and live entertainment venues will all be buzzing with the excitement and optimism of finally being open for business again.

Central America and East Africa

If you have your heart set on beautiful, nature-filled escapes, Geographic Expeditions’ Doty suggests some international alternatives.

She recommends considering destinations such as Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama in Central America where Americans are permitted to travel during the pandemic and where there is still availability for travelers.

She notes that Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda are all open to travelers as well, and Geographic Expeditions is actively assembling well-curated itineraries to these wildlife-rich locales for clients.

Before traveling internationally, be sure to check the U.S. State Department’s detailed COVID-19 travel information and country-specific advisories, and be aware that all international passengers age two and older flying into the U.S. (including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents) must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test procured within three days before boarding their flight to the U.S.  

The CDC also has detailed recommendations for travel during the pandemic, both for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers.

Europe

Europe? As an alternative destination? What reality are we living in? A pandemic one, that’s what. Here’s the thing about Europe. Yes, it’s about to reopen to vaccinated Americans. But for many, all the exact details for how Americans will be able to travel to Europe are coming too late for summer 2021 travel plans, or they’re just not ready for international travel yet.

Once Europe reopens to U.S. travelers (likely in June) for the first time in more than a year, it will surely spark a booking spree for those who have been champing at the bit, but there will probably be some amount of time during early summer, maybe lasting into midsummer or even into the back half of the year, when Europe still won’t be welcoming the insane crowds it typically did prepandemic.

For those who are willing to be the front-runners, this presents a unique opportunity to visit some of your favorite European destinations—Paris, Venice, Amsterdam—before they become overrun again.

With demand likely to remain softer than usual this summer, prices for Europe travel should be in your favor, too.

A final tip—for getting cheap(er) flights

As summer flight prices continue to head up due to the growing demand for travel, some travelers may get sticker shock if they’re just now starting to look for summer flights.

Keyes filled us in on some tricks for finding better rates.  

“The more flexibility you can give yourself, the better,” said Keyes. “Generally speaking, you have three areas of flexibility: where you go, when you go, when you book.”

With regards to when you book, earlier is definitely better, advised Keyes. As for where and when you go, if you’re really looking for a good deal, you should “take the normal flight search process and flip it on its head,” he said. Rather than searching for a specific destination and time frame, why not look for cheap flights and good deals available from your home airport?

He notes that airfares are “extremely volatile” and you never know when you might see a sudden price drop. Setting price alerts on booking engines like Google Flights and Kayak, and using services like Scott’s Cheap Flights, where you can cater airfare deals to your preferred airports, is the way to go.

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