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By Air, By Car And By The Sea: A Look At Thanksgiving Travel Plans

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Nov 25, 2020
Air travel for the Thanksgiving holiday is trending down this year, but the area is still seeing some strong domestic travel as area beach towns experience an uptick in off-season vacation rentals.

The number of people moving in and out of the area through the Wilmington International Airport (ILM) is expected to be down by 50% from the Thanksgiving travel period last year.

Typically, Thanksgiving is the busiest holiday of the year for ILM, said Julie Wilsey, ILM's airport director.

"Even with the extra safety and cleaning measures, our airline partners expect 50% of the 2019 Thanksgiving passengers," Wilsey said. "Wednesday and Sunday will have the highest level of passengers through the aviation system. We are watching the weather and any possible impacts across the country that could delay flights."

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on overall travel nationwide because of Centers for Disease Control recommendations aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. That, in turn, is having a significant impact on the airline industry.

"Last week, the CDC recommended against going to see extended family and friends for Thanksgiving," Gov. Roy Cooper said during a COVID-19 update Monday. "Please listen to that guidance and adjust your plans as needed. Remember, when it comes to the holidays, smaller and smarter is safer."

According to AAA, this Thanksgiving’s national gas price average of $2.10 could be the lowest since 2015. The holiday weekend average that year was $2.05, a AAA release stated.

“Typically, cheaper gas prices are an incentive for people to travel during a holiday weekend, but that is just not the case this year,” said Jeanette Casselano, AAA spokesperson, in the Monday release. “AAA forecasted a decrease in Thanksgiving travel year-over-year due to increasing COVID-19 positive case numbers, renewed quarantine guidelines and the latest CDC guidance. All of this has prompted Americans, who had plans to travel, to reconsider spending the holiday at home.”

Also Monday, Cooper announced an executive order requiring that businesses have all employees wear masks indoors.

​ILM staff are already utilizing masks.

"Masks, sanitizing, and social distancing is top of mind for everyone," Wilsey said. 

There are currently five nonstop destinations to Charlotte, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington-Dulles through ILM's three commercial carriers American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines. 

"We are up to 19 flights each way at the busiest day," Wilsey said. "Also the airlines tell us that they have seats available for those who may decide at the last minute."

In the most recent figures, October increased from the previous month with more than 45,100 passengers total, up 12% from the 40,200 total passengers in September. The month, however, is still down nearly 48% from the more than 86,300 passengers last October.

Domestic travel, however, is proving better than last year. Two local leaders in the vacation rental market have seen increases in this year's off-season rentals from last year.

The Thanksgiving holiday uptick is "on par" with normal years, but the amount of inventory that is available right now is much tighter due to the significant increase in monthly off-season stays, said Kevin Futral, managing director of vacation rentals at Intracoastal Realty.

Much of it is driven by folks who can work remotely at the beach. 

"That's a lot of what our increase is in our monthly off-season is people that just are available to work from home, homeschool the kids. They can do that from the beach versus their normal home. So that's a lot of what we see," Futral said.

Intracoastal manages more than 200 rental properties in Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Bald Head Island.

​And bookings for next year are coming in stronger than last year, he said. 

Mike Harrington, president and owner of Carolina Retreats, said he has seen similar trends at his firm.

"We certainly saw a really big increase for the off-season in general. Normally we say that's after Labor Day and through the end of the year. And for 2020, we're up about 20 percentage points in adjusted paid occupancy year over year, which is fantastic. Especially in the environment we're in today," Harrington said.

The firm manages more than 300 vacation homes on Topsail Island and Pleasure Island.

"We're seeing a lot more flexibility with families' schedules," Harrington said. "And then we are also seeing some people that were delayed that would normally come in the springtime, or folks that we had to move dates from spring during the rental restriction period to later in the year."

And that domestic travel, he said, is expected to last.

"Our working theory is: this is going to be a two-to-three-year, pretty significant uptick for domestic travel. And domestic travel we term as anywhere from a three- to six-hour drive," Harrington said. "You're just seeing a lot more people who are still skittish to get on an airplane and maybe fly around the country." 
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