Geoff Hendren, owner of Bon Voyage Boutique Travel in Neenah, said 2022 was a record year for bookings, with old and new clients ready to start traveling again in 2023.
"We can't keep up with demand," Hendren said. "The prices are higher, but that doesn't seem to be stopping people. They've lost two to three years of travel and they're trying to make up for it."
A recent survey by AAA found that 83 percent of Wisconsin respondents plan to travel this year. That’s up from 62 percent of respondents during the same survey last year.
The surge in travel comes despite a year of inflation and higher prices impacting almost every industry.
Nick Jarmusz, public affairs director for AAA, said the pent-up demand for travel after people were forced to stay home during the pandemic means people are vacationing even with higher prices.
"We saw that even last year, with summertime gas prices reaching all-time highs, that didn't impact people's decisions to take road trips and travel throughout Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July and even into Labor Day," Jarmusz said. "Even though costs are up across the board ... it still is a sign that people have been wanting to travel. They want to find that space in their budget to make it happen."
John Nunley, professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said people saved at much higher rates during 2020 and 2021, with personal savings rates ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent compared to the more typical 5 percent savings rate prior to the pandemic. Nunley said much of it came from government stimulus checks and people opting out of their normal activities.
"The savings accumulated during COVID is getting spent (now)," he said. "When that's out, I think people are going to have to make tougher decisions."
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Nunley said wages have increased for many workers as well, which could also be contributing to the increase in spending on travel. But he said higher wages generally leads to higher consumer prices, and people will likely have to start making trade-offs if inflation continues for much of this year.
For now, Hendren said he has seen even more interest in booking trips this year than he did in 2022. He said bookings are up about 20 percent from last year and at least half are from people who have never used a travel agent before.
"There are so many flight issues and delays and cancelations and what not," Hendren said. "They want someone to take care of the details and be there when things go wrong."
He said part of the recent increase has been from people who stopped traveling during the pandemic because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"In general, there's no COVID test required, there are no vaccinations required. So that freed up a lot of people who wouldn't travel for the previous two years because of those restrictions," he said.
After his business barely survived the first year of the pandemic, Hendren said he recently hired several new staff members to keep up with the surge in demand.
The AAA survey from February found that 31 percent of Wisconsin respondents said they planned to travel over spring break or sometime before April. Jarmusz said beach destinations were by far the most popular, with about a third of travelers heading toward sun and sand in the U.S. or internationally.